4 steps to keep food waste from super-sizing climate change

What do coal-fired power plants, SUVs and Sunday night leftovers have in common? Surprisingly, it’s carbon emissions — significant amounts, in fact. Our leftovers aren't belching out CO2, but our food production and consumption (or lack of it) habits appear to be contributing significantly to climate change.

According to a report released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (PDF), food waste is one of the most overlooked causes of climate change and is gaining international attention as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Health, safety and environmental managers and others focused on managing resource inputs and carbon outputs no longer can ignore this piece of the sustainability pie.

While most sustainability professionals are at least broadly aware of the carbon impact of the food chain, the impact of what is wasted along the way is rarely included in the tally. From corn to cattle, growing and producing food requires vast energy inputs that result in greenhouse emissions. (In the case of cattle, there’s a certain degree of direct output as well.) But that’s just the beginning.

The FAO report paints a stark picture of the volume of wasted food; how that waste translates into loss of land, water and biodiversity; and the resulting economic costs and impacts on climate change.

So, just clean your plate, right?

Unfortunately, waste occurs at every step in the food chain, from production to processing, packaging and finally consumption. The farther along the chain the waste occurs, the greater the environmental impact as the toll taken by refrigeration, transportation, processing activity and packaging is compounded.

What we do when food finally gets to the fridge — the consumption phase of the food chain — accounts for more than 35 percent of the global greenhouse gas footprint of food waste. On the upside, this also may be where we as business managers, sustainability professionals and individuals can exercise the most control.

Supersized waste

Apple image (Credit: D H Wright via Flickr)If they saw our food waste, our Depression-era forebears would disown us.

According to the FAO report, about one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste. That’s about 1.4 billion tons of edible food annually plus even more in non-edible components. That equates to $750 billion dollars of food wasted annually.

For greenhouse gas specifically, the emissions associated with food waste is estimated at 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The economics of culinary efficiency

As individuals, reducing our personal food waste can be as simple as rethinking how we shop for, cook and store food. Buying local and buying unprocessed, whole foods — already in vogue for health and environmental reasons — also reduces the lifecycle waste of foods we eat. But at an institutional level, strategies become more complex.

For sustainability professionals, there are both economic and environmental incentives to consider in managing waste as an organization. Opportunities are in every sector, from food service providers to hospitals, prisons and schools.

Clearly, companies, organizations and public agencies taking steps to manage their carbon footprints must incorporate food waste into the calculus.

Compass takes action

For example, Compass Group NA recently launched an initiative to measure and reduce the environmental impacts associated with its food service operations. That meant examining the preparation and delivery of tens of thousands of meals daily in restaurants and corporate and campus cafeterias across North America.

Cherimoya seedling image by davecito via FlickrThe program's first phase focused on putting basic sustainability measures in place for daily operations. Chefs and kitchen managers were encouraged to implement best practices in one of four operational areas to shrink emissions. Efforts ranged from making menu changes (less meat, for example) to rethinking the use of energy-intensive kitchen equipment to addressing non-kitchen activities such as lighting and solid waste.

The company then deployed software dashboards that food managers now use to track emissions in real time. The Compass database accounts for production, packaging and transport of individually purchased food items, serving materials and cleaning chemicals and site-specific factors, so that GHG impacts can be accurately assessed.

Four steps to managing culinary efficiency

The Compass program is sophisticated, but most environmental managers can take more basic steps to assess and reduce the GHG contributions of food waste streams. Here are just four to consider.

1. Get the word out

Promote awareness among employees and partners and promote best practices by food service professionals charged with purchasing and preparation.

2. Measure what you do

We can only manage what we can measure.  Find out where your food waste is coming from today and how much is being generated, and then work to reduce waste as needed. Starting with low-hanging fruit (so to speak). Collect the data needed to make good decisions. You do not have to guess any more.

3. Improve food logistics to reduce waste

Food logistics — i.e. proper menu preparation and serving size allocation — can reduce waste considerably.  Don't prepare more than is needed or serve more than can be eaten. Every time food is thrown out, so is all the energy and carbon generated and used from the time the seed was planted or the animal born. Concerned about backlash from hungry diners? Look for opportunities to collaborate with customers to optimize meal sizes and menu selection to reduce food waste.

4. Repurpose uneaten food

Sending freshly prepared but unserved food to those in need — the homeless or shelters for women and children, for example — isn't just a way to give back to your community. It actually carbon impacts by reducing the amount of food prepared at shelters. And plate scrapings can become compost to enrich future harvests.