Image: German concept grocer Original Unverpackt sells everything in bulk, allowing shoppers to buy as much—or as little—as they need.
Food waste is a staggering global problem: Roughly a third of the food produced for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted, according to the United Nations Environmental Program. Meanwhile, 805 million people around the world are estimated to be chronically undernourished. The juxtaposition is enough to put you off your lunch.
We have a long way to go before we fully address this problem, but a select few companies are taking innovative approaches to cut those figures down to size. From small startups to major multinationals, this week we tip our hats to 10 companies that are rethinking food waste.
Like most cafes, Panera Bread serves fresh baked goods to its customers daily, meaning all unsold items need to be discarded at closing time. Rather than toss perfectly edible bagels, breads and desserts into the trash, Panera Bread sends these items to local nonprofits — as it has done since its inception.
Through the company's Day-End Dough-Nation program, Panera bakery-cafes donate approximately $100 million worth of unsold bread and baked goods every year.
Swedish caterer Rude Food is all about rethinking food waste: The all-volunteer, mostly vegan catering service cooks up accessible and easy-to-replicate meals made almost entirely from food waste. Around 95 percent of everything that Rude Food makes comes from "expired" items, blemished produce, or leftovers from salad bars and the like, Fast Company reported this week.
Original Unverpackt (pictured above), a concept store in Berlin, is basically the grocery store of the future. Shoppers purchase everything in bulk using reusable containers, eliminating the need for packaging. And despite the term "bulk buying," customers can purchase as much or as little as they need, which can drastically cut down on food waste at home.
Darden Restaurants, the Fortune 500 giant known for brands like Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, began its Darden Harvest food rescue program more than 10 years ago. Through the program, restaurant employees box up food that has passed internal sell-by dates — but is still perfectly fit for consumption — and sends it to local hunger relief organizations.
With full participation from all Darden restaurants, the program has donated more than 77 million pounds of surplus food to hungry families since its inception, totaling more than 100 million meals.
Donating unsold food to hunger relief organizations can dramatically cut down on the organic waste grocers send to landfills, but what about spoiled or damaged food that can't be donated? Sainsbury's, the second largest grocery store chain in the U.K., collects inedible food waste from 1,200 locations and turns into energy to power its stores.
The chain announced that its Cannock, England, store will be directly powered by tossed food waste, with more waste-powered stores expected in the future. "It was the right thing to do, but also it was the right commercial thing to do," Paul Crewe, head of sustainability at Sainsbury's, told Fast Company. "Putting food waste into landfill costs £150 per ton, and the alternative of [turning it into energy] is significantly cheaper. It's putting that waste to true, positive use."
One reason why food waste in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom hovers around 40 percent is that shoppers tend to turn up their noses at produce that isn't a uniform shape or color. This first-world problem leads grocers and their suppliers to discard misshapen or “ugly” produce before it ever hits store shelves.
But Canadian grocer Loblaw is bucking the trend: Instead of throwing these fruits and veggies away, the grocer will soon sell them at a discount at some of its outlets in Ontario and Quebec, Loblaw announced last month.
3-D printing is pretty awesome, but what's not so awesome is that most 3-D printed items — from large manufacturing parts to household trinkets — are made from plastics that are difficult to recycle.
Enter AgriDust: a concept that turns 3-D printing on its head. The brainchild of Italian designer Marina Ceccolini, AgriDust is a 100 percent organic 3-D printer feedstock. Around 65 percent of the material is made from common food waste items like coffee grounds, peanut shells, tomato husks and citrus peels. The remaining 35 percent is a binder made from potato starch.
The material can be used to replace plastic in certain short-lived products, like packaging or plant pots, and could also be used to print out samples before making a final product, Fast Company reported. "These technologies are mainly used to create the first prototypes and objects that serve only for a first phase of the study," Ceccolini told Fast Company. "I don't want to eliminate the use of plastic, because in some sectors that is unthinkable, but in the case of disposable products, you might start to think and act differently."
Rajesh Karmani first took notice of America's food waste problem while attending the University of Illinois. And after graduation, he decided to do something about it.
Using his computer science background, Karmani set out to create a convenient, safe and efficient online food-donation marketplace to help restaurants move surplus food to nearby soup kitchens and shelters. Founded in Chicago last year, his startup Zero Percent has already donated 537,000 meals to more than 200 nonprofits -- converting what was once considered trash into wholesome nutrition for neighbors in need.
"We want to grow this from where we are now at 1,500 pounds per day to 15,000," Karmani told Starting Up a Startup. "This is a hard problem because there are so many variables involved such as time, location, and size of delivery. The real challenge is meeting those at the supplier side and the need side."
Like most grocery chains, Kroger produces a staggering amount of food waste -- around 150 tons daily. But rather than shell out disposal fees while flooding local landfills, Kroger’s food divisions, Ralphs and Food 4 Less, opted for a more innovative solution.
The grocers installed an anaerobic digestion system at their distribution center in Compton, California: It takes in the food and puts out biogas, providing power for the campus where the center is located. “Anything that can’t be sold or donated comes into the system,” Kendra Doyel, a spokesperson for Ralphs and Food 4 Less, told GreenBiz.
French grocery chain Intermarché has also made big bucks by selling "ugly" produce. Last year, the company launched a commercial and print ad series called Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables, featuring stars like "the grotesque apple," "the ridiculous potato" and "the ugly carrot," to encourage shoppers to see the beauty in funny-looking fruits.
Image credit: Original Unverpackt
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.