Food waste is a big problem. About a third of all food in the United States never gets eaten. It gets thrown out—whether it’s expired products off a grocery store shelf, food scraps from a restaurant, or those leftovers we never got to. The result is an estimated $218 billion loss to the U.S. economy each year, an enormous toll on the environment, and a missed opportunity to feed food-insecure communities. But this is changing as a new wave of research, innovations and entrepreneurs are reducing the amount of food that we toss and reshaping how we think about food waste.
Digital technology for preventing food waste
The same digital technologies that are transforming manufacturing are helping a variety food sectors to prevent and reduce food waste through better planning, ingredient selection, and shopping. Leanpath sells data intelligence software to restaurants, food producers, grocery stores, and the hospitality sector to measure exactly how much food waste they generate in order to make more informed decisions about purchasing and food prep in their kitchens.
The grocery chain Price Chopper recently implemented similar algorithm-based intelligence software for production, sales, and shrink history. In the first year of its shrink reduction program, the company saw a savings of $4.375 million in fresh produce alone.
Economic opportunity through food waste
Food recycling may sound counterintuitive, but it’s how leading researchers describe diverse methods for realizing new economic values in food waste. It’s also known as “valorization,” and it’s opening unique opportunities for food producers to work together to build a sustainable food supply chain.
Baldor Foods, one of the largest food distributors in the northeast United States, has made a commitment to become a zero-waste operation. Their SparCs Program (“scraps” backwards) is an ambitious initiative to ensure that 100% of the leftover food created during its processing of fruits and vegetables is captured and used for human or animal consumption. That’s no small amount of food diverted from landfills, totaling in 150,000 pounds per week and 6,000 tons since SparCs began.
Assured Edge Solutions (AES) aims to develop new products and revenue streams using discarded, excess food generated by agriculture and food manufacturing. Using food dehydration and milling, engineers at AES designed a method for turning a veggie noodle company’s unused organic vegetable peelings into highly nutritious powders that can be used in smoothies or desserts. Companies like AES are converting waste into valuable commodities that not only drive value for one company, but power the larger economy by establishing new supply chain relationships between food producers.
Research in food waste valorization may yet create more new economic opportunities for businesses and farmers. A team of researchers at Cornell University noticed that whey, the most common byproduct of yogurt production, has properties that could be used to ferment alcohol, like lactose and the presence of wild yeasts. They used it to replace the usual ingredients for brewing beer. The result—after some savvy taste-engineering using lime and ginger—wasn’t too bad. The researchers thought that the new alcoholic brew, though not a beer per se, might catch the attention more adventurous craft-brew enthusiasts. The Cornell whey project shows how valorizing food waste as part of a supply-chain-level approach can uncommon connections between diverse food producers and sectors.
Innovation and new technologies for global impact
While the businesses highlighted above are inspiring, they remain exceptional. Plenty of hurdles have to be cleared before advanced methods for tackling food waste will be widely adopted. One persistent challenge comes with measuring the environmental impacts of reduction and valorization tactics, both individually and comparatively. What trade-offs, if any, are being made while curbing food waste? Is the initial benefit offset by the creation of greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, or use of natural resources? What are the economic and social impacts?
A team of researchers at GIS are developing novel methods to help policymakers and educators answer these questions, giving them a systems-level understanding of food waste and the different ways it can be prevented or recycled. Their research will allow them to perform cost-benefit analyses for each method and to set waste-reduction targets through policies and regulations. Ultimately, this work will make it easier for governments and businesses to see where and how new technological innovations can be best applied to convert the growing volume of food waste worldwide into clean energy or value-added products.
The innovative work of researchers and businesses summarized in this article was originally presented at “Managing Food Waste in New York: Opportunities, Innovative Technologies, and Best Practices,” a conference hosted at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability and sponsored by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at GIS on June 4, 2019.