The food waste movement is alive and well, experiencing rapid growth and continually attracting awareness, according to discussions at this week's 2018 U.S. Food Waste Summit.
While many attendees at the Cambridge, Massachusetts event have been working in this field for years, something about the recent boost has felt different. Even since the inaugural event at Harvard Law School in 2016, the organizers have seen a big uptick in interest. Yet all involved also recognize there is significant work left, likely decades more, to truly reckon with the full scale of this issue and the opportunities it presents.
Among the many takeaways and pieces of news during the two-day summit, here are three areas that bear watching for the waste and recycling industry.
As is the case with broader recycling discussions, the appropriate role of packaging in preventing food waste elicits a wide range of opinions. Industry groups such as Ameripen assert that various forms of flexible or film plastic can prolong shelf lives. Yet that also raises questions about the true recyclability of such material and how that balances out the benefits of preventing food spoilage.
Supporters of compostable packaging — such as the Biodegradable Products Institute — believe theirs is a better approach and are working to standardize definitions and processing standards to expand it. Some even wondered if China's import restrictions on certain commodities could drive greater interest in the compostable space because that material can be managed domestically.
These big-picture questions came up during a June 27 panel, with no clear resolution.
- Ron Cotterman, vice president of sustainability at Sealed Air Corporation, said more compostable packaging could be possible if the market signaled an interest. Though he said so far the main signals from China have been for industry to use more recycled content and explore "chemical recycling" solutions, rather than going compostable.
- Rob Kaplan, co-founder of Closed Loop Fund, said he didn't expect packaging to get any simpler, "save for some kind of regulatory shock." As for whose responsibility it is to help figure out what to do with it, Kaplan said it would require "a system solution" and no one party could make that call.
- This inherent ambiguity between packaging companies making new products — in the name of preventing food waste or otherwise — and the recycling industry then having to react shows no sign of becoming clearer. When asked for her take, EPA's Lana Suarez felt this was best decided at the state and local level, saying, "I don’t think there's one national policy that can get us that industry response that we're talking about to create those markets."
Infrastructure & Investment:
Like the packaging discussion, the overall food waste conversation often comes back to investment. ReFED has called for $18 billion in investment — which could unlock up to $100 billion in value — over the next 10 years to begin making true progress throughout the supply chain.
Much of this is focused upstream for solutions at the farm, distribution, retail and consumer level. During a June 26 panel, investors from big-name groups such as The Rockefeller Foundation, Walmart Foundation and MissionPoint Partners said they've seen rapidly growing interest, but few big opportunities. Aside from the latest buzz around Apeel Sciences, panelists and attendees struggled to think of other ideas with widespread potential to become say the next initial public offering.
Though some attendees felt this discussion overlooked the need to establish downstream processing options too, given that certain amounts of wasted food are expected to exist for the near future.
Figuring out how to attract attention from larger funds that may feel an individual digestion project is too small, while also recognizing interest among some of the industry's early adopters may be waning, increasingly appears to be a space for governments. New York and Tennessee were mentioned as examples, though California is currently the clear leader.
- CalRecycle has become a national model for grant funding through a state cap-and-trade program — $24 million for the latest fiscal year — yet the agency sees a need for much more. "What we're doing from a money perspective is a drop in the bucket. It's seed money," said Kyle Pogue, environmental program manager. The agency has also been fielding interest from philanthropic organizations about potential partnerships.
- During a separate session, New York Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said industry buy-in was critical. "This doesn't work unless I get the people who are in the garbage business to actually manage food as well, because otherwise I can't get to scale," adding that community-scale operations were great but, "It's not going to happen with somebody on a bicycle."
- Garcia added that local governments can choose to view this as not just about values, but about long-term budgets. In areas such as the Northeast, where disposal costs are "horrifically high" then being "cost competitive with Waste Management, or Republic or Covanta, is actually not that hard." The key is showing investors that programs and policies will stick around.
Another important metric — and one that may in turn incentivize more funding — is how policies are progressing at the state and local level. During the summit's opening session, Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic Director Emily Broad Leib said her team has noticed a lot more bills being introduced in recent years. Some, such as date labeling or wild game handling standards, may not be as directly applicable to recyclers as waste bans — but they still show a growing awareness about food waste in general.
- During the most recent set of legislative sessions, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic tracked at least 91 unique food waste-related bills in 30 states. Ongoing local work in areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, the Portland, Oregon metro region and others was also touted.
- ReFED Executive Director Chris Cochran also pointed to increasing commitment from large corporate players — such as Ikea, Kroger and many others — as a positive sign of market-driven change. "I think we have incredible tailwind on this issue," he said.
- Another hopeful theme was that amid an increasingly divisive political atmosphere, reducing food waste and insecurity can be bipartisan. Massachusetts State Rep. Hannah Kane said the same is possible for state-level work, adding, "The only way we can stop this is if we change the dynamic."
Current debate around the Farm Bill at the federal level is seen as the next big test of that ideal and just one of many key areas to watch within this ever-expanding food waste conversation in the months and years ahead.