How the US can solve its multibillion food waste problem
An $18bn proposal aims to reduce the more than 52m tons of food waste that goes to landfill every year
Businesses could save nearly $2bn a year by cutting the amount of half-eaten entrees, unsold milk and other foods that get tossed into trash bins across the US by 20% over the next decade, according to a new report.
The report, Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste, released Wednesday, lays out strategies that companies, along with governments, consumers and foundations, can implement to reduce the amount of discarded food in the country by 13m tons a year. The $18bn plan from the report comes after the US government set the first ever national goal in September to cut the country’s edible food waste, aiming for a 50% reduction by 2030.
The plan is the first ever by Refed, a project created last year to use financial and other data to come up with ideas for reducing food waste. Funded by 13 foundations, including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Walmart Foundation, Refed marshalled money and other resources from more than 30 businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to create the report. It claims that strategies in the report, if implemented, would create 15,000 more jobs and provide 1.8bn meals of recovered food donations to nonprofits a year – double the current amount – as well as save 1.6tn gallons of fresh water, and cut carbon emissions by 18m tons per year.
Investing in food waste reduction “will help make meaningful progress on a number of national priorities, including food security, water scarcity and climate change mitigation”, according to Mark Cirilli, co-founder and managing director of MissionPoint Capital Partners, an impact investment firm that led the work to create the report.
The US isn’t alone in trying to eliminate the streams of throwaway food. The European Commission is considering proposals to slash the 100m tons of food waste generated annually in the European Union. Last year, France passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food to charities or to be uses as animal feed. UK wastes more than other countries in the EU, a problem the country hascreated campaigns to solve in the past 10 years.
In the US, more than 52m tons of food gets sent to landfill each year, while 10m tons never gets harvested on farms, costing the economy $218bn annually, according to the report. Food waste also carries an environmental cost: food that sits in landfills emits 3.3bn tons of greenhouse gases a year.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that cutting waste by just 15% would provide enough food for more than 25 million people each year. Businesses like restaurants and supermarkets contribute 40% of the food waste, while homes account for 43%, according to the report.
Companies have realized only recently the staggering quantity of food that is being wasted, said Sarah Vared, interim director at Refed and principal at MissionPoint Capital Partners. Last July, over 400 companies, including Colgate Palmolive and Hershey’s, committed to cutting food waste in their retail and manufacturing divisions by half over the next decade.
“Most businesses have historically looked at food waste as a write-off – a simple cost of doing business,” Vared said. “As they start to look more and more at their internal operations and as consumer awareness on the issue grows, there will be a stronger call for solutions that support reductions in food waste.”
The plan presents 27 such solutions that companies, consumers, governments and nonprofits can implement to cut down on food waste. By adopting these strategies to the cost of producing food that gets tossed away, businesses can boost their profits by $1.9bn annually, according to the report. Restaurants, food service companies and institutions like colleges and hospitals would see the biggest portion of that sum, raking in a potential $1.6bn in profits each year.
“Any business that touches large volumes of food – farms, manufacturers, distributors, restaurants, retailers – currently contributes to the food waste problem and has an opportunity for a major reduction,” said Jesse Fink, trustee at the Fink Family Foundation, a seed funder of Refed.
Finding ways to track and analyze inefficient use of ingredients during food processing will give manufacturers the biggest profit boost. Improving food purchasing and kitchen prep processes will collectively save restaurants and food service companies $1bn each year, the report estimated.
Another profitable solution is reducing the amount of food left on consumers’ plates. The report suggests food service companies can offer smaller plates and eliminate trays that are common at buffets so that consumers no longer overload their trays with food they can’t eat. The majority of universities have moved to trayless dining halls, an investment that typically pays back in less than two months in reduced food purchasing costs, said Fink.
Recycling too needs improvement. According to the report, less than 10% of all consumer and retailers recycle their food scraps. A recent survey by industry trade group Food Waste Reduction Alliance found that only between 10% and 60% of restaurants donate leftovers or recycle their food waste.
The unpopular practice reflects the low market value for the energy and the products made from food waste, so businesses and municipalities tend to prioritize recycling more lucrative materials like plastics and metals.
A good system to boost recycling rates will require several key pieces to be in place. “For recycling, you need generators to separate out their food scraps, haulers willing to pick up those scraps separately from their traditional waste pick-ups, and processors to recycle those scraps into compost, energy or other products,” Vared said. “The system won’t work if any one of those elements is missing or not operating at the same pace.”
Refed’s plan would require $18bn to implement, with $8bn coming from government tax deductions to fund an increase in food donations; $7bn in corporate investments in retail stores and better packaging and the construction of dozens of new large food scrap recycling facilities; and $3bn from nonprofits and impact investors, according to Cirilli.
The $18bn investment over 10 years would yield a return that is five times greater, Cirilli added. The benefits include the $5.6bn that consumers would spend on food that never gets eaten, and additional values of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which could be worth up to $1bn annually.
The report said stronger incentives must exist for some of the businesses to act. For example, retailers or consumers will benefit from buying food that is packaged with materials designed to keep it fresh longer, but they may not want to pay more to help defray the cost to manufacturers for improving the packaging.