Food Waste: Feeding Innovation

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Food waste is epidemic and becoming a more important consumer and business issue. As awareness rises, a wave of innovative solutions — ranging from high-tech to low-tech to best practices — is emerging around reducing, reusing, and recycling unconsumed food.

The rewards for reducing food waste are significant, with substantial opportunities for businesses not only to cut costs by reducing their own unnecessary food waste, but to create and champion preferred solutions and enhance their corporate social responsibility profile.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Food waste is a significant cost to consumers, businesses, and the environment.
  • Addressing food waste is a win for all parties, reducing costs and environmental impacts while providing food to people and animals and creating novel feedstocks for industry.
  • Innovation is vibrant around reducing and repurposing food waste for profit and social benefit.

Food waste is massive: Few consumers realize just how much food gets thrown away every day.

  • Worldwide, an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted each year.
  • Put another way, 30 percent of all the calories produced are wasted every year.
  • In the US, a staggering 40 percent of all food ends up as waste — 50 percent more than in the 1970s.
  • According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average US family of four discards about 470 pounds of food per year, equal to 1,400 calories per person per day. In the UK, households toss around 8.3 million tons of food per year.

Food waste is expensive: Food costs money, and both consumers and commercial/ industrial businesses incur significant losses from spoiled or uneaten food.

  • For an American family of four, spoiled food costs an average of $2,275 per year.14 In the UK, the cost per family is estimated at £680 (about $1,075) per year, or about £12 billion total (nearly $19 billion).
  • On the commercial side, US food retailers lose as much as $15 billion annually just in unsold fruits and vegetables, with about half of the nation’s supply of fresh produce going uneaten.15 Foodservice operations, meanwhile, lose $30 billion to $40 billion per year.16 Just hauling food waste to landfills is a substantial business cost.
  • Besides the unconsumed food itself, waste squanders the water, energy, land, and chemical resources that went into producing the food.17 A 2009 report found that globally, food waste fritters away more than one-fourth of all the freshwater used in agriculture each year, as well as 300 million barrels of oil.

Food waste exacerbates climate change and has an unethical dimension: Wasted food has “huge and immediate environmental impacts,” according to the EPA.

  • In a landfill, food rapidly rots—creating methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. It creates nearly 25 percent of US methane emissions.
  • Food production, too, has major environmental impacts, which become pointless when the food goes uneaten. Finally, hauling the waste to dumps generates further emissions.
  • Food waste is increasingly seen as a moral/ ethical issue for consumers and a CSR issue for companies. If just 15 percent of America’s food waste were captured, it could feed 25 million people each day for a year — about half of the 50 million Americans who currently lack food security.
  • The cost of managing and disposing of waste also drives up the cost of fresh foods. This can in turn discourage low-income consumers from buying fresh food, sometimes leading to the emergence of “food deserts” — low-income neighborhoods that lack grocery stores, forcing residents to rely on convenience stores for food or travel long distances to reach supermarkets.

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

  1. Increasing the food system’s efficiency and reducing waste is a win for all stakeholders — but perhaps especially for businesses. Addressing food waste costs little and can create substantial savings not only for companies that manufacture and sell food, but for any company that serves food to significant numbers of employees via dining operations, cafeterias, and breakrooms, as the Intel example shows. As more innovative financing options emerge (such as leasing onsite waste processors—see sidebar, “For Lease, Cheap”), more companies may find it cost-effective and socially responsible to reduce, reuse, or recycle food waste.
  2. Besides reducing their own food waste, companies can become key players in helping consumers curb household food waste. Smart packaging, once it overcomes cost and technical barriers, could become a standard for food products. There are also opportunities to design food-waste reduction directly into the dining or food-buying experience—as shown by the Go Halfsies example above, or the smaller packages being introduced by UK retailers. In fact, the use of design to reshape user behavior, dubbed “design with intent,” is rising — making food-waste reduction an area ripe for innovation not only by food companies, but by companies that design spaces (restaurants, corporate dining facilities) and even online experiences.
  3. At the same time, companies may find themselves under growing pressure to address food-waste issues — whether due to regulatory mandates, consumer pressures, or both. Regulators are becoming proactive about enlisting companies as actors in reducing waste. On the consumer side, as the concept of “footprints” expands to include more kinds of activities, consumers could increasingly demand transparency regarding companies’ food-waste streams and actions to reduce them.