Effective treatment of food waste can be turned from a liability to a point of pride and cost reduction. Forty percent of total US waste stream is organics that has been historically landfilled but can be recycled. Recycling reduces the cost of organics “disposal” and produces renewable energy and highly potent fertilizer. Recycling this waste seems like an easy decision to make; however, widespread adoption requires behavioral change on the part of food waste generators. With few remaining landfills and a need to reduce the methane greenhouse gas emissions from food waste decomposition, food waste generators must get serious about diverting the byproduct of their operations from disposal. The early adopters are already creating sustainable business practices, but an enormous amount of food waste is not recycled, representing an environmental hazard and unrealized business revenue. The primary carrot for behavioral change is the lower cost of recycling compared to disposal.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food waste as food fit for human consumption that is wasted at the retail or consumer level. Food loss differs and represents production, postharvest, and processing loss. Food waste and food loss combined account for 30% of all food produced globally. Food waste can be as simple as meat trimmings or as insidious as returned defective products in a distribution warehouse. It can be solid or liquid as in manufacturing wash water, beverage manufacturing, and dairy products. It all has the potential to be recycled.
Three Factors Influencing Food Waste Recycling Momentum
Three unrelated factors must align to change the way the industry looks at food waste.
#1: Food waste generators must want to become more sustainable.
Consumers make purchasing decisions based on recycling and sustainability. A recent survey by The Recycling Partnership found that 74% of Americans polled said they’d rather spend money at a “green business,” or a business that recycles, and Swytch found that 35 to 40% of employees polled favor working for greener companies. Food waste generators that recycle have an opportunity to present a strong sustainability and brand platform that will generate business. This important market perception combines well with internal cost savings motivation to produce a desire to separate the food waste from regular trash.
#2: Producers must educate their workforce on what is food waste and create programs to separate the organic stream from trash.
The food industry’s challenge is to assess operating processes to identify food waste generation areas and develop a segregation system for food waste recycling. The benefit is reduced waste disposal costs in most markets, less waste overall, increased sustainability, and positive branding opportunities. Whether recycling via composting or anaerobic digestion, training employees about waste segregation is critical to ensuring waste acceptance by the hauler and recycling facility. The separation and recycling of cardboard, previously co-mingled with all other waste, is an example of this model. Today corrugated “cardboard” is recycled more than any other packaging material.
#3: Those companies that choose to recycle their food waste need to inform their customers about all the benefits the program have produced.
Most consumers are either unaware of or unhappy about where commercial food waste ends up being disposed. Companies that have gone through the internal training to recycle their food waste need to communicate their success and sustainability commitment to their customers and shareholders. Utilizing the beneficial carbon equivalencies, such as how many cars on the road or household electric demand that has been reduced, is a straightforward way to relate to customers the impact of the food waste recycling program.