More than 1.6 billion tons of food go to waste annually, representing $1.2 trillion in value and a third of all global food production. And the problem is getting worse: according to a 2018 Boston Consulting Group report, annual food waste will reach 2.1 billion tons by 2030.
Households are the largest source of food waste in U.S. landfills, according to Meghan Stasz, vice president of packaging and sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Manufacturing, meanwhile, represents only 2% to 15% of all food waste, said Brian Roe, faculty lead at the Ohio State University Food Waste Collaborative.
However, manufacturers have scale and financial incentives to respond. "When loss does occur, there is often a lot of material in one place, which means there is an opportunity for creative repurposing or for re-engineering the process to address large losses," Roe said.
Stasz called food waste a "triple bottom line" issue for food manufacturers and producers. By reducing food waste, manufacturers can conserve the material resources that went into the food. By donating food, they can help meet the needs of people with food insecurity, and by reducing waste in sources, they can increase efficiencies and save money.
Reducing waste starts with awareness
Many food manufacturers aren't sure how much waste they're generating in their own facilities or supply chain. The EPA has several tools to help measure and track the amount, type and source of food and packaging waste.
Food manufacturers are also developing their own tools to make waste training more accurate. "We've found that once a business understands its food waste generation, they find opportunities to reduce it almost immediately," Stasz said.
"Once a business understands its food waste generation, they find opportunities to reduce it almost immediately."
Vice President of Packaging and Sustainability, Grocery Manufacturers Association
One of the biggest ways to reduce waste is in better demand certainty, said Stephen Hamilton, Professor of Economics at California Polytechnic State University.
"Not only are you lowering your ingredient purchasing bill in many cases, but [you're] also possibly reducing your waste disposal costs," Stasz noted.
Packaging and labeling
Manufacturers can also support waste reduction through labeling and packaging to extend shelf life or help meet consumer needs in innovative ways, according to Stasz. Wrapping a cucumber in a thin plastic film can extend freshness by 10 days, while individually shrink-wrapping smaller portions of chicken enables consumers to use them as needed.
"Simple packaging changes like these can make a real difference in reducing household food wastes," she noted.
The trade-off is that while more packaging can help food stay fresher and reduce waste, it can also increase the amount of plastic used.
"I'm not sure socially and ethically — if you are using more plastic and packaging — if that is helping the problem much," said Hamilton.
Clearer labeling is also reducing waste — a recent study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found consumers may be unnecessarily discarding edible foods due to confusion around labels. In 2017, GMA, the Food Marketing Institute and 25 companies came together to start simplifying labels to a "best if used by" date. Complete adoption is expected by January 2020.
"There is a lot of labeling where there is a problem with 'best before' date, 'born on' date and different things that cause confusion among consumers," said Hamilton.
Targeting waste in operations
Food manufacturers are also looking to production and operations — where simple changes can have big impacts — to reduce waste, according to Stasz.
ConAgra Brands, which makes Marie Callender’s pot pies, found that a minor adjustment in how it placed pie dough in the shell could allow it to save more than 300 tons of pie dough per year.
The company also discovered it was generating excess waste as it switched a pudding cup manufacturing line from one flavor to the next — which wasn't complementary with the first. Running chocolate and vanilla in the transition (instead of changing the line from, say, lemon to vanilla) allowed it to use a product that would have otherwise gone to waste.
"This blended product is now packaged and sold to correctional facilities, saving more than 1,000 tons of pudding from going to landfills," said Stasz.
Distributing leftovers to human populations is often difficult due to the complexity of moving small quantities to and from multiple locations, according to Hamilton. And with FDA regulations, it's sometimes cheaper to discard damaged products than to try to salvage them.
"Unfortunately, the economic incentives aren't always to prevent food waste," he said.
In many cases, there aren't enough refrigerated trucks or spaces at food banks to move or store perishables, said Stasz. Some food banks are actively seeking grants to expand infrastructure, and some food companies are finding ways to use existing truck routes or donated time from refrigerated trucking companies to get excess food to those in need.
"Unfortunately, the economic incentives aren't always to prevent food waste."
Professor of Economics, California Polytechnic State University
New app-based technologies may also help reduce waste throughout the supply chain by offering a market for imperfect products, Hamilton noted. Imperfect Produce works with a network of more than 200 farmers to buy "ugly" — but perfectly edible — produce at discount rates, and then sells them to consumers at a discount.
USDA estimates that on average, supermarkets in the U.S. lose nearly $15 billion annually due to cosmetic flaws in fruits and vegetables.
"It's creating new supply chains straight from the farmers to restaurants or consumers, and doing something with food that would otherwise go to waste," said Hamilton.
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