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Process optimization Article | 7-minute read

How to reduce food and other organic waste in your business

Managing organic waste can save your business money while cutting greenhouse gas emissions
People wearing blue outfit with yellow helmets working in a food chain

If your company creates a lot of food waste, you may be squandering money and contributing to climate change.

Researchers estimate that 20% (or 11 million tonnes) of all the food produced in Canada each year ends up in landfills where it mixes with other organic material such as yard waste and soiled paper. As this mixture degrades, it emits methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. By one estimate, food waste alone generates more than 56 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions in Canada every year.

Disposing of food that’s still perfectly good to eat is not in line with what we need to be doing in society.

Graph showing the hierarchy of practices for combatting food waste

How your business can reduce food waste

Although every company should be concerned about reducing food waste, recent studies have shown that most of it comes from the food industry. If you’re in the food business, wasted food can not only represent a direct loss of value but can also increase your waste management expenses. That’s because many waste management providers charge by weight.

So, reducing the amount of food and organic waste you need hauled away will help your bottom line while lowering your GHG emissions at the same time.

1. Evaluate your purchasing and handling process

Restaurants, food producers, processors and distributors should conduct waste assessments, study their processes and set targets for reducing food waste, says Stuart Lilley, founder of ReFeed Canada, a Vancouver company on a mission to reduce food waste.

For example, you can look for points in the production line with abnormally high rates of waste or rejection and investigate why.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as installing higher guardrails on your conveyor belts so things aren’t falling off onto the floor,” Lilley says. “Little things like that can really add up.”

You may also be able to reduce waste by analyzing sales trends to improve your procurement practices. Good forecasting, healthy supplier relationships, and rigorous purchasing and planning practices will ensure you’re buying the correct amount of food to meet customer demand. Good inventory management is especially important for avoiding losses when dealing with resources that have a short storage life.

2. Re-use, upcycle, resell or donate your unused food

Once you’ve eliminated as much upstream organic waste as possible from your business, you can also address your downstream waste by upcycling and reusing products.

Upcycling means taking food waste and turning it into another food product. For example, food service businesses (such as hotels, restaurants and even office cafeterias) can use leftover vegetables from one day to make soup for the next day.

Re-using food starts by feeding people with unsold – yet edible – materials. You can either resell unused food or donate it to non-profits like food banks. Reselling typically involves finding alternate avenues for selling food that would otherwise go to waste. For example, prepared items like sandwiches can be offered at a discount toward the end of the day or donated to a food bank or other not-for-profits after close of business.

On a larger scale, reselling and donating help to solve one of the biggest food waste problems in the industry: the food that’s disposed of before it even gets to retailers or consumers despite being perfectly edible. While private sector initiatives and legislation are helping reduce this issue by promoting the acceptability of “ugly” produce that does not meet aesthetic standards, a substantial amount of food still goes to waste every year.

“There are two sides to this problem,” Lilley says. “On one hand, you have all this food that doesn’t quite meet grading requirements and so is thrown away. On the other, you have people going hungry. Food banks and other non-profits are happy to take this food, but they don’t have the capacity to manage it.”

That’s where ReFeed and other organizations like it across Canada come in. These organizations recover produce that has been rejected for reasons ranging from size or visual abnormalities that don’t meet grading requirements to purchase agreements that have fallen through.

You can seek out food banks and other non-profits across the country that work closely with food retailers to collect edible food that would have been thrown out and donate it to people in need.

3. Transform your food waste

For food waste that is no longer fit for consumption, before putting it in the compost bin, check if you can reintegrate them into the supply chain so that they can be used by another business.

Instead of being extracted, used and then disposed of (what’s known as a linear economy), resources in a circular economy are recovered for reuse or reprocessing into something else within a closed loop. This uses far fewer resources—and generates fewer carbon emissions—than creating something entirely new. Look for possible synergies around you.

A good example of synergy is a brewery that produces beer from recuperated uneaten bread. Its principal waste by-product is draff, a malt residue leftover from the brewing process. This food waste can still go to another business, which turns it into flour to produce new foodstuffs.

4. Start to compost

After reselling, donating and transformation, “what remains is only what’s truly unusable as food,” says Lilley. But that material still doesn’t become waste. Instead, it can be processed with insects and soil amendments to be turned back into nutrient-rich soil that can be used to grow more produce.

Composting is the final step in handling food and other organic waste, turning it back into useful soil that can be used to grow more food or other plants. This helps to create a more circular economy.

The results speak for themselves: in 2022, ReFeed diverted 4.5 million kilograms of produce from landfills at 100% utility, representing a reduction of more than 8,600 tonnes CO2 equivalent (CO2 equivalent, or CO2 eq, is the measurement unit used to calculate the carbon footprint).

“And that’s just what we can account for directly,” notes Lilley. “The real number when you look at the impact on the whole system would be much higher.”

Louise Schwarz co-owns the Vancouver-based waste consulting firm Recycling Alternative with her business partner Robert Weatherbe.

“We can’t extract resources indefinitely, so circular is the only path we can ultimately go,” she says.

What can you do? Start by asking your current waste management provider what options they offer for organic waste. Some may be able to take food and other organic waste to a large-scale composting facility where emissions will be appropriately captured. Others may be able to help you set up an on-site program. What you really want is to avoid hauling organic waste to landfills. If your waste hauler cannot offer a suitable option for organic waste like composting, consider incineration with energy recovery instead.

Depending on your property and the amount of organic waste you’re aiming to process, you may be able to do your own basic composting and use it to enrich the soil on your grounds. For larger amounts, consider investing in a compacting composter. These machines quickly process organic waste into a dry material that takes up 80% less space and is lighter and easier to transport.

“With these, you’re still having material hauled away, but the frequency is much lower,” Schwarz says. “And people generally find these a big improvement over loading bays full of smelly totes that sit there attracting fruit flies until they get picked up.”

5. Get your employees on board

Employee engagement and behaviour are critical to the success of your waste management efforts, so be sure to include awareness campaigns and education when you launch your food and organic waste strategy.

“Even in offices, simple changes like removing deskside garbage bins can be extremely effective at reminding people of the need to separate organics and other types of waste. And if employees understand the reasoning behind it, it usually isn’t hard to get them on board,” Schwarz says.

“Most of the time, they want to help,” she says. “With waste management, they can see and understand their own impact in a way that’s much more tangible than other environmental initiatives like energy efficiency.”

New solutions are on the horizon

Canada is committed to reducing this waste and allocated $20 million in the 2019 federal budget to a Food Waste Reduction Challenge, along with additional resources to support federal action on food waste, including within government operations. Several provinces have also set food waste reduction targets and introduced regulations for the disposal of organic waste, including, in some cases, banning it from landfills.

Whether you’re running an office building handling leftovers from employee lunches, a restaurant dealing with food preparation scraps and uneaten meals, or a producer seeking an alternative for rejected produce, waste management technologies and solutions are improving all the time. Recently, there is a rise in mobile apps that allow people to rescue unsold food that would be otherwise thrown out.

“How you do things today won’t necessarily be how you do them tomorrow,” says Weatherbe. “So if you’re dissatisfied with your current system, keep looking. There might already be a better way.”

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