Food Waste in Retail and what to do about it

3 min read

Every year the United States alone wastes around 64 million tons of food per year, leaves approximately 10.1 million tons of food unharvested on farms, send 52.4 million tons of food to landfills and spends over $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food for human consumption that is never eaten. This is just for one country! 

Globally, on the other hand, we waste around 1.3 billion tons of food which is said to have a direct economic consequence of around $750 billion USD (1).  

By any means, these numbers are disappointing, even more so when you consider the number of people suffering from both obesity and malnutrition. The way the average consumer eats hasn’t undergone much drastic change in comparison with other industries – and perhaps it’s time we start to change that.  

Below we’ll discuss the different types food wastage done by the every-day customer, the opportunities that could be taken to limit food being needlessly thrown away, and subsequently show you the companies that are leading the way in making the world a much more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and less wasteful place.  

The two types of waste

In our last article, we talked broadly about food wastage in the restaurant business more specifically, highlighting the different ways in which either a chef, farmer, or waiter could treat used food with care. But in this article, we’ll speak more specifically about the people for which the food is targeted – the consumer.   So, without going into too much detail and repeating ourselves, we’ll briefly summarise the two types of waste as well as the two most important assumptions that need to be considered before going any further with our solutions.

Pre-consumer waste: This is the food that is wasted before even getting to the consumers’ tables. This could range from spoiled products, to kitchen scraps, to being generally aesthetically displeasing to the buyer (2).   

Post-consumer waste: Post-consumer waste is the food that gets thrown out or lost after the consumer has received it. And most of the time it’s just the leftovers that people are too full to eat, whether in households or in food shops, but which still represent around 82% of total food wasted by weight in the United States alone (3).   

By limiting both types, not only could the consumer and the supplier make the world more environmentally friendly, but the cost of food could actually decrease, as a result.

Two assumptions

As we said previously, in order to realistically limit the amount of food wasted, the solutions must be both feasible and profitable (6), or any combination of both in varying degrees. And with the definitions out of the way, we can now have a look at the various examples of possible solutions that some are offering to correct our retail food wastage problem.     

What can we do? In a report, published by ReFED in 2018, there are several ways in which retailers and households can limit their food wastage in a way that is profitable and manageable. They range from improved inventory management systems and dynamic routing of food transportation to consumer education campaigns, meal kits, and reduced handling. Let’s have a brief look at some of them:

Reduced Handling   

Simply put, this solution ensures that there is less touching of food as it moves from production into retail stores. This low-cost method will allow more products to reach stores while also being in a sellable condition(7). Either by displaying produce in the box rather than creating a pyramid display or even by sticking a “handle with care” sign, reduced handling is a completely feasible way of ensuring that damaged goods don’t go to waste.   

Meal Kits   Our articles have extensively dealt with the subject of meal kits and foo delivery. And although they may not be the most cost-effective alternative for an average person who goes on a weekly grocery shop, they are certainly very sustainable. By providing the exact ingredients needed for a fresh meal, with no food left over, a household can substantially limit the quantities of food that they buy and subsequently throw away (8). This idea has become so popular that retail stores, such as Wholefoods, are looking into starting their own brand of meal kit   

Dynamic Routing   As a scheme that could potentially be very profitable, dynamic routing involves using sensors to collect data on product freshness so that food with a shorter-than-expected shelf life can be re-routed on the spot to closer distribution centres (9).   

Small-Scale Anaerobic Digestion (AD)   Perhaps less feasible, but certainly more profitable, SS-AD is a technology that would allow animal feed to be more densely packed with nutrients for animals, meaning that farmers would use less animal feed in the first place. Deployed most often on farms, this solution could also be used at large stores or distribution centres (depending on feedstock availability) SS-AD eliminates the need for more traditional, animal feed (10).   

Water Resource Recovery Facility with AD This technology simply allows for food waste to go through a municipal WRRF, where it is treated, and can then be applies to the land as an organic fertiliser (11). Of course, these are not all the examples that exist in the world today and there are many more that are being worked on at the time of writing. This is the tip of the iceberg, and just taste of what mankind is capable of when we really need to put our brains to the test.

Leading by example

While certain solutions do exist, we need to know who, or what companies, are taking the necessary steps forward. Here are brief descriptions of those that are ambitious enough to start to change our food waste problem.

Food Cloud is a social enterprise that connects businesses with surplus food to charities so food wasted in retail stores can get to the people that need it most.
Nu Grocery
The Nu Grocery Store in Canada is food retailer that has recently required shoppers to bring their own containers in order to buy products that are presented in bulk. Glass jars are also made available to shoppers for rent or purchase. Perhaps not entirely to do with food, specifically, but the packaging of our food is equally vital to our earth’s health.
Iceland Foods
In a similar vein to Nu Grocery, this UK-based food retailer has pledged to drastically reduce plastic packaging for its private label ranges by 2023.
This small company are replacing plastics with recyclable glass, metal or paper-based containers, but also bio-based films that are claimed to be compostable. 
SecondBite is an Australia-based company that are aiming to redistribute food surplus from retail stores in favor of local charities, similar to FoodCloud that we mentioned above.
Tesco’s (UK food retailer) charitable branch is also aiming to redistribute food surpluses to local charities so that food is neither wasted nor thrown away without having someone still benefit from its uses.

Bottom Line

There are various conclusions that can be deduced from the information that we’ve provided in this article. But what is clear and certain, is that the amount of food we chuck is unsustainable and harmful to our environment. The UN estimated that there around 815 million starving people in the world, which is shocking considering one country, the United States, can provide food for all of them purely by virtue of not throwing away what it doesn’t eat.   

Whether it is FareShare, SecondBite, Food Cloud or Ekoplaza, change is on its way and allows us to hope for a brighter future. But when it comes to the consumer, or the average food buyer, even they can play a part in wasting less, being more frugal with how much food is bought, and being conscious of the environment that you may or may not be damaging.