This post was originally published March 2020 and has been updated.
Imagine before every meal, you dutifully scrape 40% of your full plate directly into the garbage. That’s a fair metaphor for America’s food waste problem. Between residential, commercial, and institutional avenues, between 30–40% of all food produced in the U.S. goes unsold or uneaten.
More than table manners or a wag of the finger from mom, all this wasted food has drastic effects on the economy, the environment, collective food security, and your organization’s bottom line.
Fortunately, businesses large and small can stem their scraps at the source through a number of waste reduction and management strategies. All you need is an appetite for change.
According to the EPA, the U.S. generated 63.1M tons of food waste in 2018.
UNDERSTANDING THE FOOD WASTE PROBLEM IN THE U.S.
Numbers vary, but without fail, nearly 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted annually—with the average American throwing away over a pound of food per day.
To put that in perspective, food waste advocacy group ReFed reports that the sale value of that uneaten food would be worth $408B.
The price is actually far steeper, though. A drain on natural resources like the water, gasoline, energy, labor, land, and fertilizers, 18% of U.S. cropland and 14% of freshwater use was dedicated to the uneaten food’s production between 2018 and 2019. Over that period, we spent $218 billion growing, processing, and disposing of the food that never found our stomachs, costing U.S. businesses $74 billion.
Food waste is also a growing burden to the environment, and that’s the result of all the production byproducts, forgotten bags of spinach, and unwanted pizza crusts rotting in the landfill.
Many ask: What’s the harm in throwing food out if it’s biodegradable? To be direct, the harm is attributed to scale and process.
In regard to scale, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our waste stream. In total, the EPA reports that food waste represented nearly 22% of total municipal solid waste (MSW) production in 2018—of that 56% went to the landfill (63.1M tons), 12% was combusted, 4% was composted, and the remaining 28% was a mix of donation, conversion into animal feed, and other means.
That’s a bad ratio.
When food waste ends up in landfill, it decomposes anaerobically and releases methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period and 84 times more on a 20-year scale. Worldwide, 8.2% of greenhouse gas emissions result from food waste alone.
Unfortunately, when it comes to pointing fingers, no other country is more responsible than the U.S. And in America, food waste results from our neglectful everyday choices.
WHO IS PRODUCING THE MOST FOOD WASTE?
While food waste occurs in each stage of the supply chain, ReFed reports that nearly 85% occurs downstream at consumer-facing businesses and homes.
Consumer-facing businesses include supermarkets, restaurants, manufacturers, distribution centers, and more. One of the main reasons commercial and institutional businesses generate so much food waste is due to over-preparation of food. Every year, restaurants generate 14 million tons of organic waste due to large portion sizes, the inflexibility of chain-store management, and pressure to maintain enough food supply to offer extensive menu choices at all times.
Likewise, food service businesses, hotels, hospitals, prisons, schools, and restaurants that serve their meals buffet- or cafeteria-style rely on estimates of how much food consumers want to eat, often putting out more than is consumed.
Food safety protocols also amplify the problem. Businesses must comply with strict food safety regulations to keep consumers safe, leaving little room for error, and most businesses would rather eat costs than face penalties or public distrust from someone eating tainted food.
For example, a typical grocery store throws away significant quantities of products every day for spoilage and quality standards, with the sector tossing a collective 43 billion pounds per year by some estimates. “Quality,” for that matter, can refer to aesthetics—and the USDA estimates that grocers discard $15 billion of edible produce with cosmetic flaws annually.
And for the cafeterias in businesses, hotels, and other institutions, health regulations often prevent food that has been touched from being donated, resulting in large amounts ending up in the trash.
However, impacts can be made all along the chain. While food manufacturing only represents between 2% and 15% of food waste production, by making small changes to inputs that mitigate overall waste, manufacturers are finding they can increase efficiency and save money.
"We’ve found that once a business understands its food waste generation, they find opportunities to reduce it almost immediately," says Meghan Stasz, VP of packaging and sustainability for Grocery Manufacturers Association.
HOW YOUR BUSINESS CAN HELP REDUCE FOOD WASTE
While reducing food waste may seem like a complex issue, taking simple steps can make an overwhelming impact in overcoming this problem. Here are seven tips any business can implement that yield great results:
1. FORM AN EDUCATIONAL COMMITTEE OR TASK FORCE ON FOOD WASTE
Education is a powerful tool for any company, and identifying or nominating individuals within your organization who are passionate about sustainability or reducing waste is invaluable.
Set up the framework for a task force, whose mission can be to spread awareness, educate your organization on the importance of reducing food waste, build positive habits among your employees, and enforce compliance with food regulations.
One such lesson your committee can impart on your business is clarification around “sell-by,” “use-by,” and “best-by” dates stamped on many food items. Sell-by and best-by are indicators for grocers and retailers telling them when their product will likely become sub-optimal, not inedible. Meanwhile, past expiry and use-by dates don’t automatically designate them for the garbage. When in doubt, consult this handy tool from the USDA.
2. SET GOALS AND DEVELOP A STRATEGY
Whether it’s a subcommittee or part of your overall operational plan to improve sustainability, before getting started, you’ll want to set goals and develop a strategy to help you reach them. This plan can help you figure out where to start, how to set realistic timelines, which organizations to engage with, which strategies make sense to implement, and much more.
As a first step, consider using these tools from the EPA to start measuring and tracking the amount of food waste your organization is actually producing.
3. CONNECT WITH FOOD WASTE RECOVERY PROGRAMS
Food recovery programs will work with your business, school, grocery store, or restaurant to collect food and redistribute to those in need. For example, the Food Recovery Network works with schools to recover food waste that would otherwise go to waste.
Locally, there’s likely a food rescue service operating near you—use this locator from Sustainable America to get in touch and start benefiting your community.
4. MAKE DONATIONS
According to the ReFed, the number of people lacking reliable access to sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food grew to more than 50 million in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic—that’s one in six Americans facing food insecurity.
Businesses can combat this problem by donating their unspoiled food to those in need. Any business, from grocery stores to farmers to hotels, can become a food donor. For instance, nationwide retailer Trader Joe's has established a food donation program that gives perfectly good but unsellable food to food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. In 2018, Trader Joe's donated nearly $370 million of products or 72 million pounds of food!
5. WORK WITH DINING SERVICES AND FOOD VENDORS
Work with the dining services, food vendors, and cafes in your building to discuss food reduction options. Start by adding signage in dining halls, reevaluating portion sizes, and adjusting menu sizes.
Just as well, a waste audit may be able to help identify what materials—like fresh food, plastic packaging, or cardboard—you’re spending the most money to dispose of. Note: RoadRunner provides the service for free.
6. ESTABLISH A REDISTRIBUTION SYSTEM
When looking to find meaningful avenues for perfectly good food, start from within your organization. Redistributing food to students, faculty, staff, or workers in need can help make a huge difference. It provides food directly to those in need, boosts company morale, helps achieve environmental goals, and saves on waste disposal costs!
If intracompany outlets prove to be a dead end, or you have an even greater surplus, food waste app Too Good To Go is an innovative platform that partners with restaurants, bakeries, and other food service outlets, connecting them with consumers for end-of-day sales at great discounts.
7. COMPOST, COMPOST, COMPOST!
The most circular option in reducing food waste is composting, a natural form of giving back to the Earth! It turns organics into valuable resources and will help reduce methane and greenhouse gas emissions, reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and add nutrients back to our soil. Implementing a composting program also keeps heavy food waste out of the trash, lowering your recurring monthly costs.
To get started with a program of your own, get in touch with RoadRunner today. From education for your business to making sure you never spend more than you have to on scraps, we’re ready to help.