Food Waste: Problem to Profit
‘Food Waste’ isn’t a topic that tends to grab attention. But it is a growing problem that poses opportunities for grocery stores, hospitals, universities, and municipalities.By Hannah Schroer
When our economy was largely based on farm production, food waste was hardly a problem. As far as the farmer is concerned, this is still true. If produce is subpar or deemed unsalable, it is cut back into the field as compost to enrich the mineral content of the soil. The increase of urbanization has changed the dynamics. Now large quantities of produce need to be transported, housed in warehouses, then stored in restaurants and grocery stores. Add in the increased time between picking and eating, and what you get is a solid waste stream that has been increasing by four percent each year.
“Over the past 20 years or so, food waste has been exploding,” said Michael Manna, Managing Director of Organic Recycling Solutions.
REDUCING FOOD WASTE
Reducing food waste by half would prevent close to 50 million tons of waste from entering into the waste stream. Composting is the least expensive alternate disposal method, but packaging is an issue for food waste recycling. Because food recycling centers cannot accept plastics, waste generators must set up recycling programs and educate staff about recycling techniques in an industry with little infrastructure and few regulations. Anaerobic digestion, another method of managing food waste, creates heat, steam, electricity or gas as a by-product. While anaerobic digestion systems take a larger initial investment, costs are decreasing as technology improves.
“Unfortunately, only 2-3 percent of the food waste being generated actually makes it to an alternate recycling or alternate disposal method at this point.”
The current waste management system perpetuates the need for larger landfills and disposal sites for the 350 million tons of waste generated in the United States annually. Composting sites are monitored at the state level by an environmental protection department. Food waste recycling restrictions are similar from state to state because most states adopt each other’s regulations. “It’s something that comes along with the territory,” Mr. Manna added.
DIVING INTO THE WASTE STREAM
With help, some organizations, such as hospitals, restaurants and supermarkets, are beginning to see food waste composting as part of the solution. In the ‘90s, Mr. Manna realized that New Jersey’s recycling rates had hit a plateau. As more fast food chains opened, food packaging increased and pre-made, on-the-go foods gained popularity. He realized that food waste would be the next frontier in recycling. When he first began speaking about food waste recycling, he faced small, under-educated audiences who did not see food waste as an issue for their times. Since then, businesses and their customers began to see themselves as part of the solution, and attention to food waste recycling increased.
“Over the last 10 years or so, it has really started to pick up steam. More people are seeing the value in recycling food waste.”
He now develops food waste recycling programs tailored to his clients, the corporate cafés, supermarkets and casinos generating waste.
He starts by analyzing waste. With 20 years of experience, he is not afraid to dumpster dive. Mr. Manna visits his customers’ facilities and separates food from trash in order to measure how much food waste the company generates.
”If you know what’s in the waste stream, you can find ways to divert it or avoid it totally,” Mr. Manna said. “I think that’s a key to any business operation."
The food waste recycling industry is growing. Beyond its more obvious environmental impact, the industry affects the economy, creating jobs and savings that help waste generators as well as local and state economies. Mr. Manna, who sits on the US Composting Council’s board of directors, has watched the industry develop over the decades. Thousands of people attend the council’s annual conference and the attendees are diverse. Over the years more company representatives began making appearances, which Mr. Manna sees as evidence of the industry’s foothold in the larger economy.
“These are green jobs that we’re creating. This is a growing industry, and it can help our economy.”
CASE STUDY: WEIS MARKETS
Weis Markets, Inc. is determined to make inroads in the disposal of their food waste. The company is a member of the Food Marketing Institute, a national association that helps stores fight food waste and improve distribution methods. The institute asks members of trade organizations to find ways to reduce food waste other than traditional waste management. They find that location makes the difference.
Each Weis store approaches its waste management differently because of the unique circumstances each branch faces. Factors such as whether a store uses compactors or dumpsters, as well as the store’s size and the frequency of trash pickups, affect whether a store will be considered for the recycling program. Weis’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint includes managing food waste through its food donation policy, composting practices and, occasionally, food waste digestion.
“There are higher uses [for food] than just having it go to a landfill,” said Patti Olenick, sustainability officer for Weis Markets.
The initial food waste recycling pilot program in 2009 was not the success they had hoped for. The pilot focused on nine stores around the chain’s Harrisburg headquarters, a region with low waste management costs. However, the pilot faced complications from the beginning. Weis hoped to reduce the cost of waste disposal by cutting its trash volume by half. But the additional cost of composting still had to be factored in, which meant that pilot stores with already low waste disposal costs saw overall costs rise. One of the reasons was that Weis had to pay an independent hauler to transport food waste to the composting farm. There, the company was charged an additional tipping fee (cost for disposal per ton) to unload the cargo. As a result, the first pilot failed from a business perspective because the costs involved in transporting and recycling food waste proved higher than the cost of sending the waste to a landfill. Based on data analysis from the first pilot, some stores will never geographically make the business case for food waste recycling. Ms. Olenick came on board shortly after the failed pilot program and committed herself to reevaluating the possibilities. After analyzing every store, she came up with 50 locations to begin recycling food waste. “We now go to areas where it’s making economic sense,” Ms. Olenick added.
Food waste generators like Weis Markets have to know their waste streams before they can reduce food waste. Understanding the waste stream opens up numerous opportunities for increasing efficiency and smarter purchasing. A supermarket bakery that knows it is throwing out material every day can learn what material it is over-purchasing by looking through its waste. Similarly, restaurants can set smarter portions by looking at food waste leftover from meals. “The whole issue of food waste is now a national issue,” Ms. Olenick said. Food waste generators and their communities will be able to attack the problem of food waste more readily with additional infrastructure in place. Education and partnerships among city, state and federal regulators, generators and end users are crucial to improving the emerging industry. Additional infrastructure requires collaboration between government regulators, investors, end users and waste generators.
“The industry, I think, needs more green investors ... people who are willing to take a chance to build the infrastructure, or expand the infrastructure,” Mr. Manna concluded.