Perspectives from the Food Waste Trenches – Sustainable Brands

Food waste is catalyzing everyone in the food, waste and recycling industries to create new solutions and best practices to convert a negative into value for the environment and for business. Here are insights from some food industry leaders about efforts to reduce waste first, then recycle what cannot be eliminated.

There’s a saying that “waste is only waste if you waste it!” At Vanguard
Renewables
, unavoidable food and beverage
“waste” from manufacturing, and supply chain waste that cannot be consumed by
people or animals and was once sent to landfills or incineration, is the fuel we
use to power our farm-based renewable energy facilities. We are proud to be able
to repurpose that inedible product into something beneficial. And, in the
process, we remove the potential for it to emit powerful greenhouse gases that
pollute the atmosphere.

We also combine that unusable product with farm manure, reducing the farm’s
methane emissions and providing our host farms with a diversified income stream
alongside a manure-and nutrient-management program. Here, I want to share some
insights from some food industry leaders about efforts to reduce waste first,
then recycle what cannot be eliminated.

40% of the US’s waste is organic

Organic materials — including manufacturing process waste, fats, oils and
grease, wash water, packaged waste, discarded food (pre-consumer), and discarded
food (post-consumer) — comprise 40 percent of waste in the US. So, we’ve got all
of this waste that can be recycled — but only eight states (CA, CT,
MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT) have enacted organic waste bans.
More and more municipalities are also working to create organics-recycling
programs; but this process is slow to
date
,
due to the complexities of waste collection and overall waste contamination.

Once a food manufacturer has done what they can to reduce waste upfront, and has
shared edible leftovers to feed the hungry and animals, what options remain for
the rest of the material? How can companies make a difference in our country’s
waste challenge and use the results of that effort to attract new customers,
enhance investor relations, and attract and retain team members?

Alternatives to landfilling

Learn more about recycling food waste …

Join us on June 23 at 1pm ET as Vanguard, Chobani, PepsiCo and Starbucks share lessons learned from their regenerative supply chains in a free webinar — Farm to Plate: How Companies and Consumers are Catalyzing a More Regenerative Food System.

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Most of the food waste at granola manufacturer New England
Naturals
is pre-consumer waste —
including damaged raw materials, waste due to mechanical error or packaging
failure, or waste generated when changing recipes. “We used to send it to local
farmers for animal feed, but demand and reliability was inconsistent and there
were seasonality issues. We never want to send it to landfill,” says CEO and
President Chuck Marble.

To meet company sustainability goals, the company now recycles any waste it does
generate at a Vanguard Farm PoweredⓇ anaerobic
digester

into renewable energy that helps power a local dairy farm.

King Arthur Baking Company has a long
history of sustainability efforts. It has always donated leftover baked goods to
local community partners; any products that could not be donated were given to
local farmers for feed or they composted themselves, onsite.

“Years ago, we had a backyard compost pile that was tended to by employees, and
people could bring a bucket and help themselves,” says James Kirkpatrick,
Director of Facilities. Over the years, for a variety of reasons, the composting
program at King Arthur has become more formal. While the company continues to
donate finished goods to local partners, a local composter now picks up
approximately 25,000 pounds of food scraps annually to make compost offsite.

Meanwhile, Chobani — best known for its Greek yogurt
— tries to first reduce and next to find a beneficial use for every waste
stream. “When I started at Chobani 11 years ago, everyone was concerned about
what to do with whey, a major byproduct of the recipe,” says Dave
Sheldon
, Director of Environment and Sustainability. Today, whey trades on the
feed market as a commodity like corn, and much of it goes back to dairy farmers.
“Now, whey has
value
;
and that helps support our farms,” Sheldon adds. “Also, we recognize that our
manufacturing plant locations are in areas where people live; and we want to be
good neighbors and handle any unavoidable waste responsibly, so we never
negatively impact the community.”

Key organic waste challenges and opportunities

A continuing challenge to food waste recycling today is contamination. King
Arthur sees this at its café, where there are labelled bins for separating
organics from trash; after four years, some customers still don’t take the time
to sort into the correct bins.

Packaged food waste is another key challenge, and separating packaging from food
waste is both a challenge and an opportunity. One way to do this is through
depackaging technology. A pallet of off-grade, packaged yogurt or boxed frozen
food might normally be disposed of at the distributor or retail level and go
right to a landfill or incinerator. Making something beneficial out of its
inedible packaged waste is particularly attractive to Chobani: “This is one of
our biggest waste challenges today,” Sheldon says. Now, that packaged waste can
be removed from the packaging and recycled at an organics recycling facility
that has specialized depackaging equipment. This enables both the depackaged
waste and the packaging to be recycled.

Another way to facilitate this is through packaging innovation. There is a lot
of research and experimentation happening, but solutions won’t happen overnight.
“We need more sustainable
packaging
,
while maintaining integrity and shelf life,” Marble says. “Microplastics are
getting more attention these days. Frito Lay had a great idea with its
compostable bag but that bombed because it was too crinkly.” In 2019, the
CEO-led Consumer Goods Forum — which includes over 400 retail and
manufacturing members including Amazon, Wegmans and Chobani — approved
an initiative to eliminate plastic waste on land and sea. It aims to make the
lifeline of plastic more circular by using less and better plastics, advancing
chemical recycling, and improving the efficiency and collection of plastics.

Final thoughts

As Marble advises, “First, track and measure your waste so that you understand
it and make changes upfront. Second, make it a focus. Third, consider the
finished product while at the product development stage to make it the most
sustainable you can.”

New England Naturals has also learned to adapt. When it’s most sustainably
packaged product line, sold in grocers’ bulk bins, was discontinued during
COVID-19; the company developed a clear, recyclable, one-pound bagged product
with a simple label to replace it. “While the packaging is not as sustainable as
with the bulk line, it is still a sustainable option and it kept the SKU,”
Marble says.

“Don’t be discouraged,” Sheldon says. “Take advantage of the information that’s
out there and find other companies, organizations, and groups for
collaboration.” In addition to the Consumer Goods Forum, Chobani participates in
a packaging coalition. “We need to take care of the consumer and the planet. We
can’t do this in a silo. We’ve got to work together.”

Food waste is a dynamic challenge; and it is catalyzing everyone in the food,
waste and recycling industries to create new solutions and best practices to
convert a negative into value for the environment and for business. Reassessing
how you do things to look for better solutions is always a valuable exercise,
including looking for pre-competitive collaborations. Sometimes those
initiatives require a capital investment; but often they can be implemented with
behavioral change, innovative thinking and shared expertise.


Learn more about recycling food waste and building regenerative supply chains at our
upcoming webinar,
Farm to Plate: How Companies and Consumers are Catalyzing a
More Regenerative Food System
.