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Seven Areas for Taking Action to Reduce Food Waste

Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Dana Gunders

Dana Gunders

Executive Director, ReFED

Food waste is a systemwide problem, affecting all stages of the supply chain. Therefore, solving it will take a systemwide approach. A new report by ReFED, Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50%, was designed to provide food businesses, governments, funders, and more with a framework to align their food waste reduction efforts.

Apples in harvestThe Roadmap to 2030 outlines seven key action areas for reducing food waste over the next 10 years. They align with ReFED’s food recovery hierarchy, adapted from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy framework, of prevention (stopping waste from occurring in the first place), rescue (redistributing food to people when it’s at risk of going to waste), and recycling (repurposing waste as energy, agricultural, and other products). We’ve placed a focus on prevention-related action areas, as they typically have the greatest financial and environmental impact compared to the investment required, yet have received less attention than rescue and recycling in the past.

The Roadmap to 2030’s key action areas are:

PREVENTION

Optimize the Harvest

Optimizing the harvest means aligning what is grown with what is ultimately harvested by avoiding overproduction and then harvesting as much as possible. When it comes to wild-caught products, such as fish, some animals, and certain types of produce, it means sourcing only what’s needed. Solutions in this action area include finding new ways to sell and donate what’s left after harvest—such as developing innovative contract structures that don’t incentivize overproduction—and improving systems of communication that relay forecasted demands back up the supply chain to producers. Additionally, technological innovations that streamline individual, cross-sector, and cross-supply chain data-sharing could amplify the benefits. While these solutions manifest in less waste at the production level, the opportunities and responsibility to implement them lie across all supply chain actors.

Enhance Product Distribution

Enhancing product distribution means maximizing freshness and selling-time by harnessing the power of technology to create smart systems that efficiently move products to their destination. Solutions in this action area include technological tools—such as intelligent routing and sensors that aid in cold chain management—which must be situated within updated management procedures that prioritize remaining shelf life and intelligent routing practices that shorten transit times. These solutions lead to improved freshness and quality, so both suppliers and buyers have much to gain.

Refine Product Management

Refining product management means aligning purchases with sales as closely as possible, and when a surplus arises, finding secondary outlets to accommodate it. It also means building out systems and processes for optimal on-site handling. Solutions in this action area employ tactics that simplify inventory management, such as dynamic pricing with artificial intelligence (to improve use of products in stock) and software that enhances future demand planning (to ensure that future product orders won’t lead to excess supply and waste). Product management solutions also include diversifying product outlets in case excess arises, establishing markets for last-minute products through alternative sales channels, and innovative new approaches such as markdown alert apps.

Maximize Product Utilization

Maximizing product utilization means designing facilities, operations, and menus to use the most of each product as possible. It also means rethinking the concept of “waste” by turning surplus and byproducts into food products through upcycling, which has opened new doors for innovation and investment. Solutions in this action area focus on using ingredients and products in their entirety, preventing waste through minimizing losses on a production line, extending product life, designing menus to use all product parts, and more. Some of this can be implemented through basic staff training, while other solutions involve the development of new food processing equipment.

Reshape Consumer Environments

Reshaping consumer environments means driving consumers toward better food management and less waste by creating shopping, cooking, and eating environments that promote those behaviors. There’s also a big opportunity to shift our overall culture to place more value on food and to make sure that people truly understand the implications of food waste for our environment, economy, and more. Retail, foodservice establishments, and homes are environments where the narrative around food purchasing, consumption, and management can be shifted. In dining environments, solutions that encourage less wasteful consumption patterns can include offering smaller portion sizes, using smaller plates, or removing trays to minimize consumers taking more than they will eat. In shopping environments, solutions include integrating meal planning support into customer assistance or creating promotions that don’t promote over-purchasing. More broadly, awareness and education campaigns can help shift our culture toward greater appreciation for our food and the resources that went into it.

RESCUE

Strengthen Food Rescue

Strengthening food rescue means furthering the rescue of high-quality, nutritious food by increasing the capacity of food relief agencies, addressing distribution bottlenecks, and improving communication flow. A stronger food rescue system requires expanded storage, transportation, and staffing capacity within food rescue organizations—as well as a consistent flow of goods from food business donations, which can be achieved by implementing solutions like business education and coordination, and matching technologies that make food donation easier. The capture and sharing of real- or near-time data can play a key role in enabling more food to be donated and identifying gaps to fill. As solutions in this action area are implemented, it’s critical to maintain an emphasis on the health and dignity of the end recipients—the more than 50 million Americans currently struggling with food insecurity.

RECYCLING

Recycle Anything Remaining

Recycling anything remaining means capturing nutrients, energy, or other residual value by finding the highest and best use for any food or food scraps that remain. Solutions in this action area range from mature practices of feeding food scraps to livestock, to modern innovations such as insect farming. Solutions that make use of existing food for other creatures are preferable to the next category of recycling, which includes processes such as composting, anaerobic digestion, and co-digestion at water treatment plants to break down the materials for their more basic nutrients. Alternatively, innovative markets for waste-derived bioplastics, agricultural inputs, and other industrial uses model the development of circular economies that can capitalize on existing wasted materials for new products, fuels, packaging materials, and more.

Within each of these action areas, the ReFED Insights Engine outlines a range of solutions for various food system stakeholders. We’ve also shown where funding is needed and provided policy recommendations at the federal, state, and local levels.

Editor’s Note: The Environmental Law Institute Food Waste Initiative's Co-Directors, Linda Breggin and Carol Jones, are pleased to host Dana Gunders as a guest blogger. Dana’s pioneering work on food waste reduction, as well as ReFED’s valuable resources, have inspired and supported many of ELI’s food waste projects, including its work identifying local strategies for food waste reduction, promoting food scrap recycling solutions, and evaluating the business case for co-digestion of food waste at water resource recovery facilities.

All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.