Is Food Waste the Next Frontier for the Circular Economy?

Heavy machinery at the Robin Hood Bay landfill

 

As much as half of all food produced in the United States each year is wasted. That quantity has increased 50 percent since 1974 – all while some two billion people go hungry or malnourished each year.

Clearly, we have a problem, and it is only getting worse. The UN predicts that the global population will top nine billion by 2050. As the world looks to feed all those extra mouths, the enormous quantity of food that goes wasted — and what to do about it — will become an increasingly urgent problem.

Fortunately, governments, corporations and individuals are already taking steps to move our food system from a inefficient, linear model to a more closed-loop system that is “restorative and regenerative by design.”

food recovery hierarchy
The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy

Last year, the U.S. government — taking a cue from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — pledged to cut retail and consumer food waste in half by 2030.

Meanwhile, the governments of France and Italy went a step further — mandating that supermarkets donate unsold produce to charity or otherwise make use of surplus inventory.

At the corporate level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has suggested a five-tired framework by which companies can reduce their food-waste footprint. A number of companies have already answered the call — achieving economic, as well as environmental, benefits along the way.

Quicken Loans attacks waste at the source
Sometimes, the simplest way to reduce food waste is by using less food in the first place.

That was the insight behind Quicken Loans food scrap recovery program, begun at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena in 2011. By tracking their kitchen waste daily, the company managed to cut the amount of food composted by more than half — from 3.5 tons down to an average of 1.5 tons.

Besides the environmental benefits, this strategy has the added value of reducing costs.

Kroger takes a bite out of hunger
Roughly 37 million tons of food were thrown away in the U.S. in 2013. Meanwhile, about 14 percent of American households were food insecure. By redirecting food waste to hungry people, companies can reduce their environmental impact, improve communities’ wellbeing, and reap economic benefits in the form of tax deductions.

Kroger is leading the charge against food waste and hunger through its Perishable Donations Partnership program. Through this initiative, Kroger donated 56 million pounds of fresh food to local food banks in 2015 alone.

Purdue University goes whole hog against food waste
Livestock production accounts for roughly three-quarters of agricultural land use globally — much of it devoted to raising corn and soybeans for animal feed. Corporate initiatives that transform waste into feed substitutes could have a dramatic impact on these figures.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that turning food waste into pig feed could free up some 4.4 million acres of agricultural land — much of it in environmentally sensitive areas of South America — and cut costs by as much as 50 percent.

One company is already ahead of the curve. Since 2007, MGM Resorts has been diverting much of the pre-consumer waste from their Las Vegas Strip properties to a local pig farm.

MGM requires that restaurants, buffets, and employee dining rooms separate food waste inside their kitchens. The company also employs a 24-hour recycling staff to sort food scraps and mixed recyclables.

The initiative has been successful, with volume of waste recycled increasing from 3,350 to 14,000 tons in a four-year period.

Purdue University turns waste into wattage
Even when food waste can’t be fed to the hungry or converted to feed, there is often residual value that can be captured and diverted to industrial uses.

Through anaerobic digestion, food waste can be converted into valuable biofuel and soil amendments — reducing the environmental footprint of our food system while increasing alternative energy use.

Purdue University is an early mover in this space — partnering with the city of West Lafayette, Louisiana, to convert food waste into a renewable energy source.

The college sends one to two tons of food scraps to the local wastewater treatment plant each day, where it is processed by microbes into a biogas and a solid residual that can be used as fertilizer. The program has reduced natural gas usage at the plant by 40 percent, in addition to diverting tons of waste from landfills.

New Seasons Markets sow what they reap
Despite our best efforts, we’ll never be able to make use of every bit of food we grow. However, much of this waste can be composted to fortify soils, improve water quality, and grow the next generation of crops.

New Seasons Markets, a small grocery chain in the Pacific Northwest, has more than doubled its waste diversion program since 2006— saving more than $25,000 in waste expenses during one two-year period alone.

For more food waste reduction strategies, check out the USDA’s Food Recovery Challenge. To join the conversation about how a circular economy can transform our food system, take part in the Disruptive Innovation Festival, organized this month by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Image credit: Colin Delaney, Flickr

T.S. Strickland

T.S. Strickland is the founder of Neon Tangerine — a branding, strategy and experience shop focused on food, tech and social good. His writing has appeared in Impact Alpha, Entrepreneur, the Food Rush and elsewhere.

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