Five Quick Questions: Preventing Waste Along The Food Chain
As the statistics on food waste continue to rise and awareness of those statistics becomes more pronounced, Dr. Ron Cotterman, Vice President of Sustainability at Sealed Air, weighs in with food waste awareness and prevention strategies for the manufacturer.
1. Let’s separate food waste into two categories – the food itself and its packaging. Which do you feel offers an easier, simpler or most cost-effective waste avoidance solution?
In principle, food waste is easier to manage than packaging waste. Packaging is essential to preserving, distributing and storing food. From time-to-time, you hear calls for food to be sold unpackaged. Packaging can be optimized, but it cannot be eliminated, otherwise large food losses can result. The impact of the packaged food is ten times greater than the packaging used to protect it. One of packaging’s greatest benefits is the food waste that it prevents.
Awareness around food waste is growing rapidly as a result of a number of recent studies illustrating how much and what types of food are wasted. According to the EPA, 21% of municipal waste comes from food waste, making food waste the largest single category of waste going into our landfills. Furthermore, 44% of that waste comes from residential sources. It has been estimated that 30-40% of the food that we purchase in the United States does not get consumed.
Even though the food waste statistics are staggering, they help identify areas of opportunity for improvement. Approaches based on consumer education, improving date labeling of food, utilizing innovative packaging designs and increasing efficiency of supply chains can all be utilized to reduce or prevent food waste from occurring.
2. How can manufacturers keep from getting complacent about their sustainability programs?
Sustainability programs need to build on the inherent strengths of a company to further advance the company mission, engage employees and differentiate the company in the market. I believe that complacency may occur when companies equate sustainability only to cost savings initiatives. In reality, sustainability programs help companies envision their future and can help define the roadmap for achieving that future state. In a recent UN Global Compact survey of over 1,000 CEO’s, for example, 93% of CEOs see sustainability as important to the future success of their business and 80% see sustainability as a route to competitive advantage in their industry.
Within Sealed Air, for example, we define sustainability within our vision: to create a better way for life. Our commitment to sustainability means we are innovating business and product solutions today to ensure a better way for life for the future. We deliver on this promise through our SmartLife initiative: we deliver innovative solutions designed to help our customers achieve their sustainability goals in the face of today’s biggest social and environmental challenges—while driving economic growth.
SMART—Helping customers make informed choices
LIFE—Delivering value through the entire life cycle
3. Where did the issue of food waste originate?
Food waste has been steadily increasing in importance as consumption has continued to increase globally, natural resources have become constrained and economic conditions have forced a focus on greater efficiency.
Earlier this year, the United Nations updated their global population forecast. By 2050, the world population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion, from 7.1 billion today. Further, this population will be increasingly urban with rising incomes. The net impact on food demand is that 70% more food will be required in 2050. In addition, the rate that we are consuming energy, water and natural resources will not be sustainable until 2050. Finally, add to the above trends the estimate that approximately 30-40% of edible food that is produced is never consumed and this becomes a call to action to industry, governments and consumers.
4. To some this might not seem like such a big problem, as farmers and processors can always make more. How are you working to bring greater attention to the issue?
The statistics and future trends around food waste indicate that we can expect to see greater shortages of food, energy and/or water. The interdependency between these three resources if often referred to as the “food-energy-water nexus.” For example, it takes energy and water to produce food, water to produce energy and energy to pump water. As one or more of these resources becomes limited, it will lead to price volatility in the market and a trend toward higher prices.
Consumers are keenly aware of the economic impact of food price increases. Furthermore, consumer surveys indicate that, although consumers are aware they waste a lot of food, they generally hold the food supply chain accountable. Therefore, food retailers, restaurants and food manufacturers will need to work together to deliver food to consumers with the expected freshness, quality and price.
Within Sealed Air, we have looked in depth at various factors that could prevent or reduce food waste. We are working to expand the adoption of a number of our innovations that can extend shelf life, portion food for use or storage, prevent damage during distribution, increased pre-packaged meal solutions, make it easier to remove food from packages, or help to manage the cold chain to preserve freshness.
5. If you could give U.S. food manufacturers, or the manufacturing sector in general, one thing, what would it be?
A focus on package design. There should be greater attention to package designs that add value by matching portions and shelf life to consumer family sizes and lifestyles. For example, according to the Hartman Group, 70% of U.S. households have no children under the age of 18—a significant increase from earlier decades. In addition, only 20% of primary shoppers are moms and 28% of U.S. households are single person households. Insight from these demographic trends can be utilized to design new packaging sizes and functionality to match current consumer needs and, in the process, lead to significantly lower consumer food waste.