Tackling the Food Waste Dilemma in the United States

by | Jun 5, 2013

Each year, an estimated 40% of the American food supply goes uneaten. This staggering percentage has implications up and down the food value chain, not to mention serious environmental repercussions. Through a collaborative value chain approach that involves farmers, producers, distributors, retailers, consumers and government, we can realize substantial cost savings while preserving the natural capital (energy, water, land, etc.) invested in food production and distribution. It has been estimated that a typical US household throws away approximately 25% of the food and beverages they purchase; by ending this practice, they could save upwards of $2,000 per year equating to billions of dollars recovered through the efficient purchasing and consumption of food.

Diverting edible food from the garbage bin can also help to foster food security in a nation where 14.5% of the population lacks access to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle. Reducing loss from farm to fork will also have a material impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Food waste decomposing in landfills is both a financial burden on cash-strapped municipalities and results in the release of methane emissions which have a climatic impact at least 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. While the root causes of food waste are multifaceted and complex, the costs of inaction are too great to ignore.

Combating Loss with Packaging

This begs the question, what can we do about it? At Tetra Pak, we focus on the positive impacts we have on maximizing efficiencies in the processing, distribution and retail segments of the food value chain. The notion of using packaging to reduce waste may seem counter-intuitive, especially given the highly-publicized efforts of food and beverage manufacturers to reduce their packaging through lightweighting and redesign. However, packaging is crucial in protecting products from physical damage and spoilage.

A case in point is our aseptic technology which enables product-life extension to avoid food waste. They can be stored up to 24 months without the need for refrigeration or added preservatives, saving energy and eliminating carbon emissions associated with powering the refrigeration process. This technology offers substantial benefits during the distribution and retail stages of the food value chain which are known to be a significant source of losses, especially for perishable items. Breakdowns during transportation and delays causing unreliable refrigeration during distribution combined with overstocking perishables, labelling issues and inflexible pack sizes at food retailers negatively impact shelf life and increase spoilage. Tetra Pak cartons eliminate these challenges while delivering safe, high-quality food to consumers at a low cost to producers.

The Consumer Dilemma

In the United States, food losses largely occur after the food has been purchased by consumers; a phenomenon driven by perverse incentives caused by low food prices, the propensity for bulk purchasing, the effects of busy lifestyles on meal planning, and the newfound reliance on date marking instead of human senses to determine food freshness. Packaging can help to reduce food waste at the household level by providing consumers with options that delay spoilage such as resealable and vacuum packaging or portion-control packs so that people only open what they’re able to eat.

The need to rethink packaging design in this way is supported by demographic trends. The fastest growing and largest population segments in the US are now single- and two-person households, mostly falling into two segments – Millennials (the now 18 to 34 year-olds) and Baby Boomers (45 to 65 year-olds). Both segments are demanding products that are convenient for busy lifestyles with regard to size, storage and disposal, and have positive environmental profiles. For the beverage and dairy value chains, this means it’s time to think smaller and introduce “right-sized” products that marry flavor with functional ingredients geared towards fitness and health and packaged in sustainable formats.

While right-sized packaging designs are part of the solution, systemic changes are needed to dramatically alter consumer behavior. Retailers and large food and beverage producers are increasingly taking on a responsibility in this segment of the food value chain. Retailers can drive efficiencies up and down the value chain by collectively rejecting aesthetic standards that exclude produce that is a peculiar shape or color and by creatively addressing consumer expectations for a broad range of choices and around-the-clock availability that commonly results in wasted food. Through marketing and education, and operational best practices, they can shift the perception of “good food” in the minds of consumers and help encourage better consumption habits to reduce food waste.

The key is to appeal to what consumers truly care about, such as household cost savings, and empower them with simple, prescriptive actions. Unilever UK, for instance, has launched a nationwide consumer challenge to help households save money by reducing food waste. The campaign will focus on providing consumers with the tools to overcome common challenges including using food before it spoils, dealing with leftovers and preparing appropriately-sized meals. By making the logical connection between food waste and their wallets, campaigns such as this one have a higher chance of engaging consumers than broad appeals for “green” action.

Transforming Food Value Chains

Minimizing food waste is a daunting challenge. Losses occur at every stage of the food value chain which is global in nature and consists of many actors. Like any complex problem, it is important to reduce it into manageable parts and gather data to inform decisions. Audits can be conducted at each segment of the value chain to quantify food waste and help actors understand the dynamics and triggers of food waste within the system and identify “hotspots” for targeted action. Investments can then be directed to reducing food losses where they are greatest along the chain from harvest to consumption.

For packaging producers, opportunities to contribute to solving the food waste dilemma lie in our ability to provide right-sized packaging that meets the needs of the value chain while addressing consumer preferences, and in our offerings of process solutions that optimize the use of packaging during processing and distribution.

A holistic solution is not complete, however, without the elusive consumer element. Confusion, low food prices, retail sales practices and a lack of awareness of the true costs of food waste are driving American consumers to throw away perfectly edible food.  To counter these triggers and foster an American appetite for an efficient, healthy and respectful food system, a long-term action plan with the involvement of all value chain actors is needed.

For more information, please see Tetra Pak’s Magazine on the theme of Food Waste.

Sources of information for this article:

Dana Gunders. Natural Resource Defense Council. August 2012. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.

IPCC – “Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis – Summary for Policymakers,” Fourth Assessment Report -FAR, Working Group 1, Chapter 2, IPCC Secretariat, Geneva, Switzerland, February 2007, p. 212

Elisabeth Comere is the director of environment and government affairs for Tetra Pak in North America, the world leader in packaging and food processing solutions. She joined the company in 2006 as Environment Manager for Europe where she helped define and drive Tetra Pak’s environmental strategy. She joined the North American operations in 2010, focusing on advancing Tetra Pak’s commitment to sustainability in the US and Canada, and she is active in various industry and customer packaging and sustainability initiatives. Elisabeth previously served as a political adviser to a member of the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, and headed the environment department of the Food & Drink Industry group in Europe.

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