3 reasons the food industry sends so much to the dumpster

3 reasons the food industry sends so much to the dumpster

Taking out garbage
ShutterstockRissy Story
The Food Waste Reduction Alliance published a report about what the food industry does with food waste from production to restaurant scraps. While a lot of food is recycled, there is still much to be done to reduce waste.

Food waste is a problem that plagues food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants—albeit differently. Several factors, including the number of locations, type and amount of food disposed of and average distance from food recycling facilities, create unique constraints and possibilities for food waste diversion.

How are each of these three sectors faring in combating food waste? Getting to the bottom of this was the primary aim of the 2014 Analysis of U.S. Food Waste among Food Manufacturers, Retailers and Restaurants (PDF), released last week by The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and National Restaurant Association (NRA).

Together, the three organizations form the Food Waste Reduction Alliance. The alliance is an industry-led initiative focused on reducing food waste by increasing food donation and sending unavoidable food waste to productive use—such as energy and composting—and away from landfills.

The survey respondents represent only a portion of each industry, but their responses give insight into food waste trends. Here are some of the highlights:

1. Recycling is most attractive for manufacturers, but barriers remain

Of the 7.1 billion pounds of food waste generated by food manufacturers in 2013, some 94.9 percent was diverted from landfills. A vast majority (86.6 percent) of this was repurposed for animal feed, while the rest went to fertilizer, compost and biofuel. Some 106 million pounds of discontinued, mislabled, bulk or otherwise safe but unsellable food was donated to families in need.

Manufacturers work with large volumes of food and ingredients, as well as a relatively limited number of manufacturing locations, which makes recycling the most attractive waste diversion method.

But some 63 percent of food manufacturers say there are barriers to food waste recycling, including the limited availability of recycling facilities, transportation costs associated with long travel distances, strict internal requirements for food waste handling, liability concerns and regulatory requirements that limit the reuse of certain types of food waste.

Even for the food that can be donated, as many as 60 percent of manufacturers said there are barriers to food donation, such as an inability to donate mislabeled or misformulated food, lack of refrigerated storage for donations, limited employee awareness of donation programs, and a lack of organizations or resources to accept donated food.

2. Logistical problems dampen grocery store recycling

Grocery stores diverted around 42 percent of the 1.4 billion pounds of food waste they generated in 2013, the survey indicates. Although recycling was the most prevalent waste diversion tactic—at 29.2 percent—grocery stores have the highest donation rate—at 13.2 percent—of the three sectors, largely due to the predominance of finished food products.

Still, food waste diversion remains a significant management and logistical challenge for retailers, which have several locations and a diverse range of products.

Retail food waste infographic

Courtesy of the Food Marketing Institute

Each department within a store has its own food diversion requirements, retailers mainly handle finished food products, which tend to be packaged. Packaged products are more suitable for donation and are often harder to recycle because most recyclers require that the packaging be removed.

Food waste diversion rates vary from company to company—anywhere between 10 and 80 percent of food waste is donated or recycled. This diversity in approaches to managing food waste is largely due to different business models—some grocery retailers also manufacture their own-brand foods—and to different levels of expertise and emphasis on food waste diversion.

3. Organizational diversity complicates restaurant waste management

Restaurants diverted only 15.7 percent of the 2.1 billion pounds of food waste they generated in 2013—the lowest diversion rate of all the sectors. However, retailers and manufacturers do not handle significant amounts of food waste generated by consumers—unlike the restaurant sector.

Options for decreasing and diverting food waste can differ significantly throughout the restaurant sector because it includes many different types of businesses—from managed-services cafeteria operations to quick-service restaurants to fine dining establishments.

Companies with franchise-based business models also face challenges to centrally track food waste and institute system-wide food waste programs. Even more centralized, single-unit restaurants face difficulties dedicating scarce resources and staff time to effectively manage food waste programs, the report notes.

Donating prepared food is also easier said than done. Restaurants must consider many factors, such as food safety concerns, local laws and regulations and food storage and transportation.

Recycling is also difficult for restaurants—some 54 percent of small businesses and 92 percent of larger companies say there are barriers to recycling food waste, such as through composting. Many areas of the country lack composting infrastructure, as well as few economic incentives to compost. This pales in comparison to the popularity of used cooking oil recycling, which is in demand for conversion to biodiesel.

To illustrate, Darden Restaurants, parent company of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and several other popular restaurants has recycled  nearly 13.5 million pounds of cooking oil since November 2010 but has only just begun piloting organics recycling projects.

Where to go from here

The food industry is working to reduce overall food waste through three primary avenues.

First,the industry is cultivating collaboration through organizations such as the Food Waste Alliance. It's also affecting policy change by working with state and federal policymakers to make food donation and recycling easier. Finally, it's improving logistics by working with partners to overcome transportation and and food shortage limitations.

With that said, it's good to remember 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.

Other contributors 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).

But fret not:there are several emerging innovations that promise to significantly reduce this waste.