More than 1.6 billion tons of food goes to waste annually, representing $1.2 trillion in value and a third of all global food production. In a 2018 report, Boston Consulting Group said the problem is getting worse. Annual food waste will reach 2.1 billion tons by 2030.
The largest source of food waste in landfills in the U.S are households, according to Meghan Stasz, Vice President of Packaging and Sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. Manufacturing, meanwhile, represents only 2% to 15% of all food waste, said Brian Roe, Ph.D., Professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Developmental Economics and faculty lead at the Ohio State University Food Waste Collaborative.
However, manufacturers have scale and financial incentives to respond. "When loss does occur, there is often a lot of material in one place, which means there is an opportunity for creative repurposing or for re-engineering the process to address large losses,"Roe said.
Stasz called food waste a "triple bottom line" issue for food manufacturers and producers. By reducing food waste, manufacturers can conserve the material resources that went into the food. By donating food, they can help meet the needs of people with food insecurity, and by reducing waste in sources, manufacturers are increasing efficiencies and saving money.
Reducing waste starts with awareness
One of the biggest issues is many food manufacturers aren’t sure how much waste they’re generating in their own facilities or their supply chain. The EPA has several tools to help measure and track the amount, type and source of food and packaging waste.
Food manufacturers are also developing their own tools to make waste training more accurate. "We’ve found that once a business understands its food waste generation, they find opportunities to reduce it almost immediately," Stasz said.
"Once a business understands its food waste generation, they find opportunities to reduce it almost immediately."
Vice President of Packaging and Sustainability, Grocery Manufacturers Association
One of the biggest ways to reduce waste is in better demand certainty, said Stephen Hamilton, Professor of Economics at California Polytechnic State University.
"Not only are you lowering your ingredient purchasing bill, in many cases, but also possibly reducing your waste disposal costs," Stasz said.
Packaging and labeling
Manufacturers can also support waste reduction through labeling and packaging to extend shelf life or help meet consumer needs in new and innovative ways, Stasz said. Wrapping a cucumber in a thin plastic film can extend freshness by 10 days, while individually shrink-wrapping smaller portions of chicken enables consumers to use them as needed.
"Simple packaging changes like these can make a real difference in reducing household food wastes," Stasz said.
The trade off is while more packaging may help food stay fresher in small quantities and reduce waste, it can also increase the amount of plastic that is used, Hamilton said. “I’m not sure socially and ethically if you are using more plastic and packaging if that is helping the problem much,” Hamilton said.
Clearer labeling is also reducing waste, and a recent study by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found consumers may be unnecessarily discarding edible foods due to confusion around labels. In 2017, GMA, the Food Marketing Institute and 25 companies came together to start simplifying labels to a "best if used by" date. Complete adoption is expected to be in force by January 2020.
"There is a lot of labeling where there is a problem with best before date, born on date, and different things that cause confusion among consumers," Hamilton said.
Targeting waste in operations
Food manufacturers are also looking to production and operations to reduce waste, where simple changes can have big impacts, Stasz said.
ConAgra brands, which makes Marie Callender’s potpies, found a minor adjustment in how it placed pie dough in the shell could enable it to save more than 300 tons of pie dough per year.
In another example, ConAra discovered it was generating excess waste as it switched a pudding cup manufacturing line from one flavor to the next with flavors that weren’t complementary to each other. Instead of changing the line from lemon to vanilla, running chocolate and vanilla in the transition enabled it to use a product that would have otherwise gone to waste.
"This blended product is now packaged and sold to correctional facilities, saving more than 1,000 tons of pudding from going to landfills," Stasz said.
While there’s a desire to distribute leftovers to human populations in need, it’s often easier said than done due to the complexity of moving small quantities to and from multiple locations, Hamilton said. With FDA regulations, in some cases it’s cheaper to discard damaged products than to try to salvage them. "Unfortunately, the economic incentives aren’t always to prevent food waste," Hamilton said.
In many cases, there aren’t always enough refrigerated trucks or spaces at food banks to move or store perishables, Stasz said. Some food banks are actively seeking grants to expand infrastructure, and some food companies are finding ways to use existing truck routes or donated time from refrigerated trucking companies to get excess food to those in need.
"Unfortunately, the economic incentives aren’t always to prevent food waste."
Professor of Economics, California Polytechnic State University.
New app-based technologies may also help reduce waste throughout the supply chain by offering a market for imperfect products, Hamilton said. Imperfect Produce works with a network of more than 200 farmers to buy "ugly" yet perfectly edible produce at discount rates, then sells them to consumers at a discount.
USDA estimates on average, supermarkets in the U.S. lose nearly $15 billion annually due to cosmetic flaws in fruits and vegetables."It’s creating new supply chains straight from the farmers to restaurants or consumers and doing something with food that would otherwise go to waste," Hamilton said.
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