Waste Across Industries, No. 2: Your business can take steps to reduce food waste expenses

Any restaurant, grocer, care home, or other food services provider knows food waste is a big problem. In the United States alone, between residential, commercial, and institutional avenues, from 30—40 percent of all domestically produced food goes unsold or uneaten.

In 2018, that meant 61.3 million tons of wasted food. That number is so gargantuan, it’s hard to picture what all that wasted food looks like. One thing is for certain: if your business deals with food, all that extra food waste is money lost.

For businesses and consumers alike, there’s something to be done.

Part two of Schooley Mitchell’s five-part series.

Last installment, we answered the question, ‘why is waste removal so expensive?’ This week, we look at the true cost of food waste, and how your business can find savings.

Who’s producing the most food waste?

According to ReFed, almost 85 percent of food waste happens towards the end of the supply chain, at consumer-facing businesses and homes. This includes supermarkets, restaurants, manufacturers, distribution centers, among other facilities.

Restaurants alone generate 14 million tons of food waste every year, due to overpreparation, surplus product, and a ton of other reasons. Grocers are estimated to collectively waste $15 billion of edible produce per year because of “cosmetic flaws” — or, fruits and veggies that are perfectly safe to eat, but look off in some way.

Food waste is a multilayered issue. Blame can’t be put solely on the business or the consumer. However, everyone has a part to play.

What is food waste costing you?

On top of the often exorbitant cost of frequent waste removal, food waste represents a significant loss of product. On average, the annual value of uneaten food is $408 billion.

Whether or not this cost impacts you depends on your business model. Food waste might represent a higher price for a grocer or care home compared to a restaurant, where guests are paying regardless of whether they eat everything on their plate. In either case, for business and for consumer, this is a significant amount of money down the drain every year.

It’s worth noting, this is before accounting for all the resources used in food production and transportation. Between 2018 and 2019, for example, U.S. businesses are estimated to have lost $74 billion on the cost of growing, processing, and disposing uneaten food.

The environmental cost.

When we think of waste as a pollutant, food waste might seem more innocuous. After all, food is biodegradable.

However, food waste also includes a lot of byproducts, like packaging, stickers, boxes, and a fair amount of plastic. Likewise, much of that waste — biodegradable or not — ends up in landfills and in incinerators. In 2018, for example, more than half of American the waste generated from food products ended up in a landfill, while only four percent was composted. Even though food waste can be disposed of more naturally, it often is not.

Health and safety regulations add to the problem.

Health and safety regulations save lives and are critical components of public wellness. However, some food related regulations have the unintended consequence of creating food waste.

Due to liabilities and the public backlash that go along with the perception of having broken food safety regulations, many businesses would rather throw out food that might be considered perfectly edible in a private home, rather than take any chances.

Likewise, facilities that have extra food they might want to donate are often restricted due to health regulations, preventing food that has been touched from being donated.

What can your business do to reduce food waste?

Reducing food waste is going to some regulatory and cultural shifts. A lot of that is outside of your control as an individual business owner. However, you can choose to start implementing solutions, rather than continuing to eat the costly consequences.

Ways to get started include:

  1. Create a food waste reduction task force. Ask individuals within your organization who have the initiative and drive to identify where in your business model food waste is a problem. Offer them the authority to spread awareness, educate employees, and help build and enforce waste reduction strategies.
  2. Set concrete goals and benchmarks to reach those goals. Eliminating food waste entirely might not be possible, but you can certainly take a look at what you’re wasting and make specific reduction goals. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has excellent tools for measuring and tracking food waste within your organization.
  3. Audit your waste expenses. Do an internal or external audit of your waste expenses to make sure your services are optimized. Resolve any billing errors and ensure your collection frequency is cost efficient, so you know that you’re not wasting money elsewhere.

Once you understand the food waste situation within your own organization, there are plenty of external ways to make a difference.

  1. Donate when possible. In 2020, 50 million Americans suffered from food insecurity, largely due to the economic ramifications of COVID-19. That’s one in six people. Businesses can help combat food insecurity and reduce food waste by donating unspoiled food to food banks, soup kitchens, and other such organizations.
  2. Connect with a food waste recovery program. These programs work with organizations to collect food and redistribute it to those in need. You can locate one in your region, here.
  3. Or, create your own. If you know of a way you can create a food waste redistribution/recover system in your community, a little initiative goes a long way. This is also a great way to connect with and give back to community members.
  4. Be proactive with dining services and food vendors. Collaborate on all ends to reevaluate portion sizes, what foods and materials you buy in bulk, menu sizes, etc.
  5. Establish a composting program. Composting is a great way to reduce food waste while making a positive environmental impact.

In conclusion…

Food waste is a big problem; a billions-of-tons and dollars problem. It’s bad for the environment and bad for business.

It’s not up to any one business to entirely eliminate food waste or singlehandedly change our regulations and culture. However, there is still a lot you can do to save money, reduce waste, and even possibly combat food insecurity.

Next week…

Next week, in part three of our series on waste expenses across industries, we explore the shocking statistics behind construction and demolition related waste.

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