Why consider animal digestible food packaging?

Food waste is a major problem.

Where does food waste happen? graphic. On farms, 10 million tons of food is wasted each year (16%), in manufacturing 1 million tons (2%), in consumer facing businesses 25 million tons (40%), and in homes 27 million tons (43%).
Graphic by Anastasia Bodnar, data from ReFED. Icons by Smashicons, Freepik, and Monkik via Flaticon.

Food waste is a multi-billion dollar problem. According to Rethink Food Waste through Economics and Data (ReFED):

"American consumers, businesses, and farms spend $218 billion a year, or 1.3% of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten." Food waste consumes about 20% of all fresh water, fertilizer, cropland, and landfill volume!

As examined by ReFED, there are many ways to tackle food waste, some more successful than others. Education about food waste, and careful planning throughout the supply chain are some of the most important strategies.

Even the best planning will still result in some waste. Most waste happens in consumer-facing businesses and homes, resulting in a staggering 52 million tons of food waste per year sent to landfills.

Why does food waste from restaurants and grocers end up in landfills?

Image of food waste with orange peels, salmon fish bones and skin, lettuce leaves, with a spoon and some paper mixed in.
Image by Taz via Flickr.

Food waste itself can be composted into soil or rendered for manufacture into animal feed, if the infrastructure is available to separate, transport, and treat the food waste properly.

About 40% of all food waste in the United States comes from businesses, including restaurants and grocery stores. Along with all of that wasted food, we have millions of tons of packaging that end up in landfills.

Food packaging includes: straws and straw wrappers, paper tray covers, napkins, sandwich wrappers and boxes, fry holders and food boxes, drink cups, salad containers, and take home bags.

Image of dirty plastic cups showing food waste trash.

Packaging is a mixture of paper, plastic, and other materials. Some can be recycled, if the infrastructure is available to separate and transport it, and if appropriate recycling facilities are available nearby. Some can be composted with food waste. And most is currently only suitable for landfill.

Due to this complex mix of food and packaging materials, food waste from retailers such as quick-service restaurants and grocery counters most often ends up in landfills. Notable success stories such as Panera Bread's Day-End Dough-Nation program are an uncommon exception.

Should businesses care about the environmental effects of food waste and associated packaging?

Increasingly, consumers demand social responsibility from companies they do business with. Consumers are ready to reward companies that take bold stands on important issues, such as reducing single-use plastic and food waste.

Food Recovery Hierarchy Graphic. From Most to Least Preferred: Source Reduction, Feed People, Feed Animals, Energy Production, Composting, and Disposal.
Graphic by Anastasia Bodnar with information from the EPA.

The Food Recovery Hierarchy, which was developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "prioritizes actions organizations can take to prevent and divert wasted food". According to the EPA, "the top levels of the hierarchy are the best ways to prevent and divert wasted food because they create the most benefits for the environment, society, and the economy."

The Hierarchy lists animal feed as the most preferred method of diverting human-inedible food waste from disposal in landfills. Yet, little food waste from consumer-facing businesses is processed into animal feed, in part due to the food being mixed with packaging.

Businesses can take a bold stand on both food waste and single use-plastic by supporting research necessary to discover new food packaging materials that are digestible by animals.

What would happen if quick service restaurants and grocers used animal digestible packaging?

Image of a cute calf in a feedlot, looking at the viewer.

Reusable, recyclable, and compostable packaging are well-intentioned, but continue to contribute to landfill waste. Animal digestible food packaging will have inherent value simply as an alternative waste-stream for food packaging, but holds further potential economic incentive as a supplement in conventional animal feed.

Packaging that meets grocery and quick service restaurant food safety, integrity, and quality requirements, and that is digestible by animals, either does not exist or is not readily available. If such packaging were to become available, food waste would become a resource. Instead of being sent to a landfill, food waste and its packaging together could be manufactured into animal feed.

Recovered would be all the energy and natural resources that went into producing and manufacturing the food and its packaging. The animal nutrition value and the economic value of the combined food and packaging waste would be recovered as well.

What are businesses currently doing to reduce food waste?

According to the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, many companies can not report how much food waste they are producing. The Fall 2016 report, Analysis of US Food Waste Among Food Manufacturers, Retailers, and Restaurants, described that "49% of respondents were unable to provide data regarding the quantity of food waste their companies disposed." Of the respondents in 2016, only 24% of retail/wholesale companies and 0% of restaurants were diverting food waste to animal feed.

Diverted Food Waste Graphic. Retail/Wholesale has more means of disposing of food waste than Restaurants.
Graphic by Anastasia Bodnar, data from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance.

Many companies would like to do more to reduce food waste. Barriers to food waste diversion include liability concerns, regulatory constraints, transportation issues, and insufficient storage space for diverted food waste.

Animal digestible food packaging would provide restaurants and grocery stores another option, expanding their opportunities for diverting food waste from landfills and turning it into a resource.

To meet this need, the Animal Digestible Food Packaging Initiative encourages the development of a public-private partnership to research and implement animal digestible food packaging. Contact us to get involved today!