Perspectives from the Food Waste Trenches
I have a saying that “waste is only waste if you waste it!” At Vanguard Renewables, the unavoidable food and beverage “waste” from manufacturing and the supply chain waste that cannot be consumed by people or animals and was once sent to landfills or incineration is the fuel we use to power our farm-based renewable energy facilities. We are proud to be able to repurpose that inedible product to make something beneficial for people and the planet. And, in the process, we remove the potential for it to emit powerful greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere. What’s even better is that we take that unusable product and combine it with farm manure, reducing the farm’s methane emissions and providing our host farms with a diversified income stream alongside a manure and nutrient management program. Here, I want to share some insights from some food industry leaders about efforts to reduce waste first, then recycle what can not be eliminated.
Forty percent of America’s waste is organic materials
Organic materials, including manufacturing process waste, fats, oils & grease, wash water, packaged waste, discarded food (pre-consumer), and discarded food (post-consumer) comprise 40% of America’s waste stream. So, we’ve got all of this waste that can be recycled but only eight states have enacted organic waste bans (CA, CT, MA, MD, NJ, NY, RI, VT). More and more municipalities are also working to create organics recycling programs but this process is slow to date due to the complexities of waste collection and overall waste contamination.
Once a food manufacturer has done what they can to reduce waste upfront, and has shared edible leftovers to feed the hungry and animals, what options remain for the rest of the material? How can companies make a difference in America’s waste challenge and use the results of that effort to attract new customers, enhance investor relations, attract new talent, and retain team members?
Alternatives to landfilling
Most of the food waste at New England Naturals, a New England-based granola manufacturer, is pre-consumer waste including damaged raw materials, waste due to mechanical error, packaging failure, or waste generated when switching over to a new recipe. “We used to send it to local farmers for animal feed, but demand and reliability was inconsistent and there were seasonality issues. We never want to send it to landfill,” says Chuck Marble, CEO & President. To meet company sustainability goals, New England Natural Bakers now recycles any waste they do have at a Vanguard Renewables Farm PoweredⓇ anaerobic digester. And, they are happy to help support a local dairy farm where their waste is recycled into renewable energy.
King Arthur Baking Company has a long history of sustainability efforts. They have always donated leftover baked goods to local community partners; any products that could not be donated were given to local farmers for feed or they composted themselves, on site. “Years ago we had a backyard compost pile that was tended to by employees, and people could bring a bucket and help themselves,” says James Kirkpatrick, Director of Facilities. Over the years, for a variety of reasons, the composting program at King Arthur has become more formal. While the Company continues to donate finished goods to local partners, a local composter now picks up approximately 25,000 pounds of food scraps annually to make compost offsite.
Chobani, best known for its Greek yogurt, tries to first reduce and next to find a beneficial use for every waste stream. “When I started at Chobani 11 years ago, everyone was concerned about what to do with whey, a major byproduct of the recipe”, says Dave Sheldon, Director of Environment and Sustainability. Today whey trades on the feed market as a commodity like corn, and much of it goes back to farmers who supply us with milk. “Now whey has value and that helps support our farms,” adds Dave. “Also, we recognize that our manufacturing plant locations are in areas where people live and we want to be good neighbors and handle any unavoidable waste responsibly so we never negatively impact the community.”
Key organic waste challenges and opportunities
A continuing challenge to food waste recycling today is contamination. King Arthur Baking Company sees this at its café, where there are labelled bins for separating organics from trash; after four years, some customers still don’t take the time to sort into the correct bins.
Packaged food waste is another key challenge and separating packaging from food waste is both a challenge and an opportunity. One way to do this is through depackaging technology. A pallet of off-grade, packaged yogurt or boxed frozen food might normally be disposed of at the distributor or retail level and go right to a landfill or incinerator. Making something beneficial out of their inedible packaged waste is particularly attractive to Chobani, “This is one of our biggest waste challenges today”, says Sheldon. Now, that packaged waste can be removed from the packaging and recycled at an Organics Recycling Facility that has specialized depackaging equipment. This provides a recycling destination for that depackaged waste and an opportunity for the packaging to be recycled.
Another way to facilitate this is through packaging innovation. There is a lot of research and experimentation happening, but solutions won’t happen overnight. “We need more sustainable packaging, while maintaining integrity and shelf life,” says Marble. “Microplastics are getting more attention these days. Frito Lay had a great idea with its compostable bag but that bombed because it was too crinkly.” In 2019 the CEO-led Consumer Goods Forum, which includes over 400 retail and manufacturing members including Amazon, Wegmans, and Chobani, approved an initiative to eliminate plastic waste on land and sea. It aims to make the lifeline of plastic more circular by using less and better plastics, advancing chemical recycling, and improving the efficiency and collection of plastics.
Chuck Marble advises, “First, track and measure your waste so that you understand it and make changes upfront. Second, make it a focus. Third, consider the finished product while at the product development stage to make it the most sustainable you can.” New England Natural Bakers has also learned to adapt. When it’s most sustainably packaged product line, sold in grocer’s bulk bins, was discontinued during COVID-19, the company developed a clear, recyclable one pound bagged product with a simple label to replace it. “While the packaging is not as sustainable as with the bulk line, it is still a sustainable option and it kept the SKU,” says Marble.
“Don’t be discouraged”, says Dave Sheldon., “Take advantage of the information that’s out there and find other companies, organizations, and groups for collaboration.” In addition to the Consumer Goods Forum, Chobani participates in a packaging coalition. “We need to take care of the consumer and the planet. We can’t do this in a silo. We’ve got to work together.”
Food waste is a dynamic challenge and it is catalyzing everyone in the food and waste and recycling industries to create new solutions and best practices to convert a negative into value for the environment and for business. Reassessing how you do things to look for a way to do it better is always a valuable exercise, including looking for pre-competitive collaborations. Sometimes those initiatives require a capital investment but often they can be implemented with behavioral change, innovative thinking, and shared expertise.
About the Author
Founder and Chief Corporate Development Officer, Vanguard Renewables
John Hanselman is the Founder and Chief Corporate Development Officer of Vanguard Renewables — the U.S. leader in farm-based organics to renewable energy. John has more than 30 years of experience leading mission-driven companies focused on disruptive, emerging technology and processes. He launched Vanguard Renewables in 2014 and has focused his work on developing a decarbonization pathway for the food and beverage industry by enabling the repurposing of unavoidable manufacturing and supply chain waste into renewable natural gas. John’s strength is bringing together partners in the decarbonization journey and Vanguard has strategic partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America, Dominion Energy, VGS, and ONE Gas among others. In 2020, Vanguard Renewables launched the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance alongside founding members Dairy Farmers of America, Unilever, and Starbucks, a pre-competitive movement to explore decarbonization strategies – recycling unavoidable food waste at farm-based anaerobic digesters and converting a portion of thermal load to renewable natural gas. Vanguard Renewables currently has six operating farm-based anaerobic digesters, seven under construction, and 10 in development across the U.S. The company plans to expand its program to 100 operating anaerobic digesters in the top 20 markets over the next five years.