Waste Not, Want Not
Food waste is a massive problem. Reducing it in your facilities could help people, the environment and maybe even your bottom line.
By Matt Alderton
Let’s face it: Food is delicious. It’s especially tasty, however, for food-focused business. From grocery stores and restaurants to entertainment venues and traditional retailers — many of which have added foodservice components to their operations in recent years — what is extremely delectable can also be extremely profitable.
In the United States, for example, consumers, businesses and government entities spend approximately $1.7 trillion per year on food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which says Americans spend nearly 10% of their disposable income on food. Due north, Canadians likewise spend 11% of their disposable income on food, according to the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. That adds up to another $120 billion per year. Literally and figuratively, that’s a lot of cheddar.
In a world that has become more vigilant about sustainability, however, alimentary enterprises can no longer afford to measure their performance based only on how much food is eaten. Increasingly, they must also benchmark their success according to how much food is wasted.
The amount is shocking. In the United States alone, 35% of available food — over 78 million tons — is unsold or uneaten, according to ReFED, a nonprofit whose mission is ending food loss and food waste. Most of that — 54 million tons — is disposed of in landfills, incinerators or garbage disposals, or left to rot in fields. The numbers are equally staggering in Canada, where 58% of food produced — 35.5 million tons — is lost or wasted every year, according to Second Harvest, a Canadian food rescue organization.
Waste exists at every level of the food supply chain:
About a third of food that’s grown — an estimated 10 million tons of specialty crops — is wasted on farms, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF—not to be confused with the former World Wildlife Fund), which blames factors such as labor shortages, cosmetic imperfections and weather.
Supermarkets lose $15 billion per year in unsold fruits and vegetables, according to the USDA.
Up to 10% of the food that restaurants purchase is wasted before it reaches the consumer, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), which says restaurants in the United States generate an estimated 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste each year due to factors like oversized portions, inflexibility of chain store management and extensive menu choices. Institutions like schools, hotels and hospitals generate an additional 7 to 11 billion pounds of food waste per year, it says.
The average household wastes 31.9% of the food it buys, according to researchers at Pennsylvania State University.
Wherever it occurs, food waste is problematic for people and for the environment, according to WWF. Although the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people, it says, one in nine human beings is undernourished. Meanwhile, more than 66 trillion gallons of water go toward producing food that’s lost or wasted — food that subsequently emits more than 3.3 billion tons of harmful greenhouse gases when it ends up in landfills.
If the United States spent $14 billion per year to reduce food waste, it would save enough food to prepare 4 billion meals per year for people in need and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons, suggests ReFED, which says the same investment would create $73 billion per year in net economic benefit and generate 51,000 jobs over 10 years.
In that way, what’s good for the planet also is good for business. In fact, 83% of global CEOs expect sustainability investments to produce improved business results in the next five years, and almost half say increasing sustainability is one of their organization’s highest priorities in the next two to three years, according to the IBM Institute for Business Value. In addition to sustainability efforts being desirable, it is an area of impending legislation for regulators seeking to make it mandatory. See below for an evolving list of regulations currently on the books in a variety of locales.
For facilities managers who work in venues that produce or sell food, the opportunity is clear: By engineering and executing activities that reduce food waste in their facilities — through means such as food diversion, composting and biodigestion — facilities managers can reduce waste costs, add value to their companies, increase their professional credibility (while potentially advancing their careers) and make the world a better, cleaner place in which to live.
United Nations: The United Nations raises awareness about food waste and loss every year during its International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste.
United States Department of Agriculture: The USDA explains why food waste matters and what can be done to reduce it.
The World Wide Fund for Nature: WWF highlights the negative impact that food waste has on people and the planet.
Natural Resource Defense Council: NRDC shines a light on the causes of food waste, as well as potential solutions.
Waste Reduction Week in Canada: A list of provincial resources on food waste.
Tools for FMs:
ReFED’s Impact Calculator: Designed to help an organization determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of their food waste.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The EPA has put together a toolkit to help prevent and divert wasted food.
Jurisdictional Regulations (updated as more information becomes available):