I recently attended and spoke at the Sustainable Packaging Symposium in Houston, Texas. One of the major themes of the meeting was the topic of food waste, which makes up a hefty 14% by weight of the US municipal solid waste stream (2009 EPA estimate). Food waste is an issue where food manufacturers, grocery retailers, and restaurants, in particular, feel especially responsible and engaged. The whole meeting was great, but a few weeks later, I am still thinking about the message two speakers brought to the group about food waste.
Michael Hewitt, Director of Environmental and Sustainability Programs at grocery chain Publix, gave a keynote address that addressed the economic and social implications of post-harvest food waste. He noted that we throw away 121.6 billion pounds of post-harvest food waste in the US annually in a country where millions of people are hungry or food insecure. This translates directly into throwing our money away, as in the US households pay between $500 – $2,000 more each in annual food bills, businesses foot the bill for unsold food and waste removal, and the societal costs of poor nutrition, hunger, illness, and lost productivity continue to rise. This does not even take into account the fuel, water, fertilizers, and pesticides that go to produce wasted food.
Michael illustrated this message with a story about the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Florida (“Strawberry Capital of the World”) near his home. The festival has everything you might imagine to celebrate the spring bounty of fruit, including all types of food, entertainment, games, and of course, a Strawberry Queen. This fun event matches the mood at the beginning of the harvest, when farmers receive a premium price for ripe (but extremely perishable) strawberries. However, as the harvest progresses, the price of strawberries drops below the cost to harvest them. The result? Tons of perfectly good strawberries left to rot in the fields. I imagine that the Strawberry Festival folks would prefer to ignore the wasted, rotting berries instead of figuring out a way to turn these berries into jam, frozen fruit, ice cream, or some other delicious product. We should definitely not be celebrating this way of doing business, where waste is ignored or casually accepted.
What role could packaging play in reducing food waste? In the UK, Marks & Spencer grocery story has debuted a new feature for its fruit packaging. It’s a small strip that absorbs ethylene gas (the gas that encourages fruit to ripen) and does not impact the package’s recyclability. With this strip, the fruit that is harvested stays fresh for several extra days and less is wasted.
Dune Lankard gave another great talk about food waste and salmon fishing. Mr. Lankard is a native Alaskan from Cordova, on the Copper River. Spurred on by the anger over the environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill near his home, he turned to working with local salmon fishermen to regain control over the processing, packaging, labeling, and marketing of the now famous Copper River salmon. This has involved spreading best practices in processing; for example Dune and others discovered that if fishermen clean the fish at sea immediately upon catching them, it doubles the shelf-life of the product and also brings the fishermen higher prices. His work has touched on waste, because when fish are filleted, 50% of the fish becomes waste. The waste is traditionally dumped into the ocean near shore, where the high levels of nutrients create dead zones. Dune hopes to start a processing facility where that fish waste can be made into omega-3 capsules, fish meal, biodiesel, or compost. Finally, packaging comes into play because Copper River salmon are in such high demand that they are routinely flown to the lower 48 and around the world. The fish must be kept cold, but finding packaging that protects the fish but which is also recyclable remains a big challenge.
It is clear that packaging has an important role to play in finding solutions to food waste. Industry associations, like the Grocery Manufacturers Association & Food Marketing Institute in particular, are also working to reduce food waste and find better alternatives to landfill, such as composting. They have also invited the NRA (the National Restaurant Association, that is) to participate in this effort. I look forward to hearing about their progress at reducing levels of food waste in the future!