It’s no secret that food waste is a mounting problem in the United States. In 2010 31 percent — or 133 billion pounds — of the 430 billion pounds of the national food supply went uneaten, according to a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This equates to around $161.6 billion, based on average retail prices.
Before you go reprimanding your children for wasting their vegetables, keep in mind that food waste is only responsible for a portion of overall food loss. Food waste is related to consumer and retailer behavior, while food loss speaks to the diminishing level of edible food throughout the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing stages of the supply chain.
Besides consumer and retailer behavior, other culprits contributing to food loss include the perishable nature of most foods (technical factors); the time needed to deliver food to a new destination (temporal and spatial factors); and costs to recover and redirect uneaten food to another use (economic factors).
Clearly, there is a practical limit to how much food loss the United States or any other country realistically could prevent, reduce or recover for human consumption. But that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Luckily, several companies and organizations are innovating to develop new tools and approaches to solve our food loss problem. Here are nine of the most notable ones:
1. Reusable shipping vessels
After working with design consultants at RKS to create a more efficient solution for made-on-demand, direct-to-consumer food delivery, FreshRealm developed a first-of-its-kind temperature-controlled and reusable shipping vessel. Unlike other available shipping options, the vessel delivers food two days after it’s made and keeps that food cold at 40 degrees F for 40 hours without any electricity or consumables. Another sustainable aspect of the vessel is that it complies with existing FedEx requirements so as to not put more trucks on the road.
2. Redirecting food in-store
Capitalizing on consumers’ love for a good deal, Food Star partners with retailers to redirect food in-store before it will be wasted. Through flash sale emails, shoppers are notified of limited-time produce sales events where they can buy at extreme savings. After the event, any unsold perishables are directed to composting instead of landfills.
3. Automated food-waste tracking systems
Founded in 2004 by a team of Portland, Ore.-based entrepreneurs, LeanPath seeks to replace the food industry’s inefficient “paper and clipboard” approach to waste management with industry’s first fully automated food-waste tracking system. Although the company’s initial goal was to help organizations with financial sustainability, this later evolved to include environmental sustainability. LeanPath has been helping foodservice organizations fight food waste for 10 years, working with more than 150 operations.
4. Using anaerobic digestion to turn food waste into energy
A firm called Feed Resource Recovery has designed and implemented a zero-waste solution for the food industry that leverages customers’ existing transportation and distribution systems to generate clean, sustainable power for onsite operations — reducing emissions and saving millions of dollars on waste-removal costs. In nature, wetlands use anaerobic digestion to purify the earth’s wastewater. Feed uses this natural process, along with technology and optimization advancements, to cleanly and efficiently convert the carbon in organic waste into a renewable natural gas. This results in zero odors, a net surplus of energy and a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Similarly, a company called Waste Management, Inc. collects food scraps from restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and food processing plants, takes them to a company facility in Carson City, Nev., and grinds them into a slurry. That liquid is taken to a Los Angeles County wastewater treatment plant, where it is mixed in with sewage — one part food waste to nine parts human waste — and processed in an anaerobic digester. This results in a biogas that can be burned as fuel.
5. Leveraging food waste for fertilizer
California Safe Soil provides a full-cycle process that helps supermarkets recycle their organics, improve store hygiene and reduce costs, while also helping farmers save money, increase crop yield and reduce nitrate runoff. Harvest-to-Harvest, the company’s flagship fertilizer product, mechanically grinds and heats food collected from supermarkets, then processes it through enzymatic digestion to obtain a liquid that is pasteurized, screened, stabilized and homogenized to an average particle size of 26 microns. Farmers can use Harvest-to-Harvest to add organic matter to their soil and stimulate soil fertility through existing irrigation equipment. It is certified pathogen free and safe to use on all crops.
6. Cutting food waste with consumer apps
Simple apps such as Green Egg Shopper allow consumers to save food and money in three steps. First, users create a shopping list starting with a new or archived list. They can plan the quantity of food by viewing previous lists, as well as check prices at which items previously were bought. Second, users "tick off" items in the list while shopping, or set "Use by" date for perishables. Setting "Use by" automatically ticks off the item in the list. Third, users can view a list of items near expiry, and check the "Use Me Now" list before planning meals. They also can view reports on expenses to see how much, where and on what they are spending.
7. Delivering groceries via drone
Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos has outlined his company’s plans for a fresh grocery business called Prime Fresh, which has been offered for five years in Seattle and expanded to Los Angeles and San Francisco. For $299 a year, members receive same-day and early-morning delivery on groceries and other items such as toys, electronics and household goods. Bezos said the goal is to expand to more cities, and eventually use drones to deliver packages. It will take years to advance the technology and for the Federal Aviation Administration to create the necessary rules and regulations for this to become mainstream, but this could prove to be a great technology for reducing waste by rapidly delivering groceries.
8. Targeting post-harvest waste
The Post Harvest Project looks at food waste before it hits the supermarket shelves by working across the public, private and non-profit sectors to improve harvest-to-plate food preservation in low and middle-income countries. The organization selects a commodity or small group of commodities and begins a holistic assessment of food waste throughout the supply chain within a country or region. It then identifies problem areas where industry, technology and/or training could reduce waste and ensure partners meet the needs identified in the assessment.
9. Helping charities reclaim food waste
Wholesalers and distributors throw away thousands of tons of perfectly edible food every day. Although many would rather donate the food than waste it, they often have trouble finding charities before the food perishes. Despite the fact that the food supply chain is longer and more technologically interconnected than ever before, many food charities haven’t progressed beyond spreadsheets and e-mail. Food Cowboy helps charities look and act more like supply-chain companies by helping truckers and other donors search for them by location, operating hours, storage capacity and even loading dock type. It also can handle scheduling and communications so transfers happen as efficiently as possible, as well as streamline charitable donation paperwork so donors can get valuable tax benefits.
Food loss and food waste will continue to become a growing global concern as the population grows and food-production resources become even more limited — but forward-thinking companies should view this as a business opportunity. Firms can add to their bottom lines by reducing waste-disposal fees, generating savings through improved inventory management, gaining tax deductions for donations or selling organic matter to others. Cutting food waste also can help companies achieve their greenhouse-gas reduction goals — food decomposing in the landfill produces methane gas, which is more potent than carbon dioxide. Companies can even improve supply-chain stability by reducing the demand for ever more food production and the related need for the resources and inputs to grow, process and transport food.