The following is a guest post from Pete Pearson, global initiative lead for the food circularity program at World Wildlife Fund. Pearson specializes in food waste prevention and food circularity as part of WWF’s larger food system efforts. He has led local and national sustainability programs in the retail grocery sector across 2,000 grocery stores in 37 states.
Our modern society excels at creating waste. We’ve all used a single-use plastic spoon to eat soup for five minutes, just for it to end up in a landfill where it will exist for hundreds of years. Future generations will look back on us as the most wasteful people in history, and will likely spend decades, maybe centuries, cleaning up after us.
Eliminating waste must become an imperative for our society and the planet.
Thankfully, attention on plastic waste globally is gaining momentum. Yet, it’s the waste of food resources that’s not getting enough attention. Humans waste nearly 40% of all the food we produce, with food and agriculture accounting for 70% of biodiversity loss globally as agricultural lands expand at the expense of nature and habitat loss.
The United Nations estimated in 2022 that 828 million people are facing hunger, while edible food goes to waste along with the energy and resources needed to produce it. Disposal of food waste and organic material to landfill is one of the leading causes of global methane emissions—a major accelerant to climate change.
Unlike plastic recycling, which can be incredibly complex, food and organic resources can maintain a high degree of value if we redesign waste management. Contamination-free (plastic-free) organic material is highly “up-cyclable,” meaning that it has the potential to be turned back into an edible food product for humans or animals, nutrients for soils, even energy from biological processing.
Food “waste” is a misnomer. Food can, and should, always become “food” for something else. To do this, our food system needs to be circular and mimic nature, where nothing is wasted.
The big question is how do we create a profitable circular food economy?
Companies in the U.S. and around the world are pioneering new, and hopefully profitable, ways of recognizing that food should always be thought of as, well, food. A simple, but novel idea.
Do Good Foods takes surplus food from grocery stores at low cost (often free) and turns it into animal feed. This model appeals to retailers that traditionally have had to pay for food waste removal to be composted or landfilled. The surplus food is processed and turned into feed, and then sent to chicken farmers, which helps to offset the cost of chicken feed.
The process also reduces pressure on nature by shifting the need to produce farmed grains for chicken feed, which contributes to the destruction of millions of acres of natural habitats, including grasslands that are often plowed to create animal feed products. Through this innovative approach, Do Good Foods sells the chicken at a competitive price back in the grocery store. If profitable, this circular model could be a game changer for food retailers and a true triple-win scenario. Good for retailers, good for farmers, no waste to landfill.
If it works for businesses, can a circular food economy be attainable for all U.S. households?
Almost 40% of the 80.6 million tons of food waste in the U.S. is generated within our homes annually. While curbside composting programs are implemented in some communities – they often have low participation rates. The sad reality remains – in the U.S., it’s cheaper and easier to dump waste in a landfill, making food waste interventions a difficult sell to municipal and state governments.
A company called Mill is looking to bring food circularity into the home. Mill’s approach represents an innovative way of thinking about food circularity that could disrupt the waste industry. The company’s technology captures kitchen scraps, similar to an average trash can, and then transitions the food you can’t eat (bones, avocado pits, the pizza a toddler threw on the floor) into dried, odor-free granules (think coffee grounds).
People can throw the kitchen scraps in their gardens or Mill offers a subscription mail-back service to send dehydrated food grounds back to Mill via standard mail, where the company turns it into an ingredient for animal feed.
Companies innovating food waste solutions challenge us all to become participants in a new normal where our contributions fuel a better future. With data and analytics, their solutions can even help us prevent food waste, the real win for the planet.
The ultimate goal must be to eliminate food waste and organic resources from entering landfills as quickly as possible. The missing ingredient is resolve and investment from municipal and state governments to act. Once we recognize that the food we toss into landfills has value and is an asset, we begin to see that food, no matter what form we find it in, can always be food. Once businesses and governments see the potential in a circular food future, we will find solutions we can all profit from.