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Dumping Dollars: The Food Waste Economy

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Dumping Dollars: The Food Waste Economy

One industry sent $1 trillion to landfills last year. It wasn’t textiles with its fast fashion, trend-chasing ethos. Nor...

6 Minutes Read

One industry sent $1 trillion to landfills last year. It wasn’t textiles with its fast fashion, trend-chasing ethos. Nor was it tech, with its constant churn of new gadgets, planned obsolescence, and short product lifecycles. It was the food industry, where one third of all production is wasted. And 90% of that waste winds up in our ever-growing landfills. Most of us assume thats no big deal. Food is organic matter so it just decomposes, right? Food does indeed decompose in landfills, but not in the way we all think. For starters, that rotting food releases methane, a gas that’s 20x more harmful than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere. The layering of stuffed trash bags in landfills acts as a mummification process for our wasted food, so the decomposing process takes quite a bit longer. In fact, it can take up to 25 years for a head of lettuce to fully decompose. By the time the salad you threw out last week is fully decomposed, our global population will be approaching 10 billion. In that future scenario, we’ll need more land for landfills just as much as more land for people. An ever wasteful industry is not quite the future of food we’re all hoping for. How could that waste be better put to use? What would happen if we collectively decided to reclaim the $1 trillion lost at landfills every year?

The most important use for food will always be human consumption. As the global population is set to add another billion hungry mouths over the next twelve years, this use increases in priority. But some food simply isn’t fit for human consumption. Whether spoiled or otherwise inedible, not all food can make it to our plates. However, many uses still exist that can divert food from landfills and create value from those scraps. The EPA’s food recovery hierarchy calls for feeding animals, energy creation, and composting when food cannot be used to feed people. The financial value in each of those uses not only offsets the costs of properly managing food waste but also creates additional revenue sources within the food industry.

The amount of food used for livestock every year is enough to feed 3 billion people according the United Nations. Due to stringent laws and fear of outbreak, livestock diets consist mostly of grains and corn. Food waste is a readily available solution for this conflict and is already in use in some countries. In Japan, the Food Ecology Center diverts over 30 tons of waste per day from landfills. The company treats the food scraps for bacteria then creates “eco swill” to feed pigs at farms across the country. Not only does this process reduce Japan’s waste problem and free up grains for human consumption, the pork from these farms is considered among the best tasting by consumers. Thus, farmers can earn a premium for higher quality products. Pigs raised on such diets take longer to reach maturity, but feeding them with eco swill is about 50% cheaper than traditional livestock feed.

Some food waste isn’t fit for animal consumption either, especially since the omnivorous among us will eventually eat those animals. Fortunately there are industrial uses that still provide value at this stage in the supply chain. Through anaerobic digestion and hydrothermal conversion processes, food waste is used to create energy in the form of biogas. At $21 per converted ton of food waste, diverting the 60 million tons of US food waste produced throughout the supply chain to energy creation facilities creates over $1.2 billion of potential revenue annually. In the United Kingdom, this process powers over 1 million homes. Startups like Waga Energy in France and HomeBiogas in Israel are innovating ways to make the conversion of food waste to energy more efficient and user friendly.

Earthy households have composted leftover food scraps and yard waste for decades without any particular commercial prospects. Composting is a process that speeds up the natural decay of organic material using micro-organisms and controlled environments. The resulting material provides the nutrients and benefits of commercial fertilizers, cheaper and without the negative environmental impacts that are of growing concern. At a value of up to $30 per cubic yard, composting is more than a hippie hobby. Its a full on business enterprise in waiting. US households produce an average 850 pounds of food waste per year. Given that much of composting takes place at households, opportunity exists to facilitate the products these households produce and provide a marketplace to sell to agricultural operations. Restaurants and other food-based companies produce even more waste than households and thus have greater economic opportunities to monetize their food scraps.

With the volume of food waste produced and growing revenue potential for proper management, the Food Waste Auditor is a job of the (near) future in the food industry. Using blockchain or other digital ledgers, these auditors will track the food that misses our mouths throughout the supply chain to understand the volume of product not serving its intended purpose. Putting that waste to good use calls for brokering systems and cultivating relationships that allocate the right amount of waste at the right time to the right partner to maximize the value of non-edible food materials. Doing so will help food companies turn waste management from a monthly fee to an environmentally friendly revenue generator. As this practice matures, food waste scores may become just as common as food health inspection scores (and equally important to customers).

Simply put, managing food waste is good for business. Every $1 that companies invest in alternative uses for their food waste, results in $14 of savings. In doing so, the food industry creates jobs, relieves strain on our food system, and positively impacts the environment. This post largely glosses over the most pressing concern about food waste, feeding hungry people. In a world where 800 million go hungry every day, the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year looks less like an economic opportunity and more like a moral failure. Analysts forecast the need for a 70% increase in food production between now and 2050 to feed the projected global population of that time. The magnitude of food waste indicates that our challenge doesn’t lie with increasing production, but with improving logistics. The most pressing imperative for feeding the future lies in putting the food we already produce to better use by drastically reducing food waste.


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