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While most of us are taught from a young age that it’s not good to judge a book by its cover, we do it all the time with the fruits and vegetables we choose to buy — or not buy. In the United States, this obsession with blemish-free food causes us to throw away almost as much food as we eat, which deepens hunger and poverty while inflicting a heavy toll on the environment.
Large amounts of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill because of unrealistic cosmetic standards. Between the farm and our tables, high-value and nutritious food is being sacrificed to retailers’ demand for unattainable perfection, according to farmers and others on the food distribution chain. One in five fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. never make it off the farm due to tiny cosmetic defects that don’t affect quality, according to Imperfect Produce.
Besides being a social and environmental problem, this practice of throwing away perfectly edible but ugly food also contributes to our massive food waste challenge. Nearly 40 percent of the food we grow in the U.S. goes to waste, which costs businesses as much as $161 billion annually.
Luckily, several innovative companies are stepping up to find ways to make sure even ugly fruits and vegetables make their way into our stomachs rather than our landfills. Here are a couple we think are awesome:
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Many of the foods we eat every day — energy bars, canned goods, deli meats and more — were invented not for civilians but for our men and women in uniform. Many food innovations resulted from efforts to make soldiers’ rations taste good and last longer. But just as the U.S. military has influenced the food and beverages we eat, it also may be showing us the way to making sure we don’t waste it.
The military is doing this for myriad reasons. For one thing, those who defend us have openly voiced their concern about the impacts of climate change on national security, calling it a “threat multiplier” which will increase the likelihood of conflict as the earth warms up. And food and beverage waste is a major driver of climate change. Another is the economic — dealing with food and beverage waste is expensive for the military just as it is for businesses. Also, the less the military has to haul out means a more streamlined supply chain that increases the safety and effectiveness of our troops.
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Coffee is kind of a big deal here in the United States — the average American adult drinks around three cups a day, which adds up to some $40 billion each year, according to the National Coffee Association. That’s no small beans.
Globally, coffee production generates more than 23 million tons of waste per year — from the pulp of fresh coffee cherries through the packaging that brings the roasted beans to your favorite barista. For most people, used coffee grounds are the most visible example of this waste — what we throw out after making each fresh brew. While most of us don’t give a second thought to our spent grounds, these black, sodden remains of pulverized coffee seeds have great potential for finding new life as renewable resources.
With Earth Day reminding us that it’s time to get smarter about food waste, here are three ways businesses already are turning coffee waste into valuable resources:
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In 1970, the first Earth Day helped launch the modern environmental movement. Started as a grassroots effort, Earth Day generated public support for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and contributed to the passage of some of the hallmark environmental laws — including the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act and several others. Since then, it has grown into an annual event to celebrate our planet’s environment and build awareness of its greatest challenges. The day, marked on April 22, is observed worldwide with rallies, conferences, outdoor activities and service projects.
Here at Nourished Planet, every day is Earth Day, as we constantly strive to drive change wherever food and beverage waste occurs. This Earth Day will be particularly important for our planet, given the current uncertainty of environmental action in the United States. That’s why we will see a slew of marches across the country and in our nation’s capital, including the March for Science, where scientists, businesses, and the general public will come together to reaffirm support for the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments.
Earth Day is a reminder that there is no Planet B, and we must nourish the planet we have so that we all can prosper in perpetuity. As such, it’s more important than ever for businesses to come together to lend their collective voices to drive home the point that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability can and must go hand-in-hand.
Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. Investing just a single dollar in food waste reduction techniques generates around $14 dollars in return, according to a report released last month by the World Resource Institute. Restaurants typically experience the highest returns, with hotels, food service companies and food retailers tending to have ratios between 5:1 and 10:1.
In the corporate sphere, WRI looked at food waste reduction efforts at nearly 1,200 business sites across 17 countries and more than 700 companies, including food manufacturing, food retail, hospitality, restaurants and other food service. They found that 99 percent of the sites earned a positive return on investment. The median benefit-cost ratio — where half of the sites achieved a higher ratio while half achieved a lower ratio — was 14:1. In other words, half of the business sites earned greater than a 14-fold financial return on investment.
The report also explores how food waste reduction efforts play out at the city level. Recognizing the important role cities play in cutting food waste, it uncovered some financial impacts of food waste efforts.
Reducing food loss and waste can generate a “triple win” by saving money for farmers, companies and households. It also can help feed more people while alleviating pressure on water, land and climate. But despite this clear economic benefit, nearly 40 percent of the food we grow in the United States goes to waste, costing as much as $161 billion each year. Manufacturers are major generators of this food waste, creating more than 7 billion pounds each year. This level of inefficiency in the food system has huge economic, social and environmental consequences.
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Waste does not exist in nature — all materials are part of a cycle of use and reuse. When a plant or animal expires, every part of it goes back to nourish something else. In short, there is no such thing as a worthless material in nature — there is no such thing as waste.
The concept of waste is something created by humans to describe the items we create but no longer need and discard. Merriam-Webster defines waste as “refuse from places of human or animal habitation.” The World Book Dictionary defines waste as “useless or worthless material; stuff to be thrown away.”
While it’s safe to say that waste has existed as long as humans have, it’s impossible to pinpoint when the first piece of litter hit the ground. But throughout history we can look back at how waste was generated and handled across cultures and societies all the way up to the present.
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Today is International Women’s Day, a day which commemorates the movement for women’s rights. On the heels of the historic Women’s March in January, this year’s commemoration of women’s equality is more resonant than ever.
At first glance, food waste and women’s rights might not seem like natural bedfellows. But across the world, women play a key role in the food production cycle. They are primarily responsible for food production and for feeding their families.
In the global South, where one-third of all food is wasted before it leaves the farm, and in the global North where one third of food is wasted at the retail and consumer levels, women’s roles on the farm, in the factory and at home — including their empowerment — access to resources, and knowledge matters a lot. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, women farmers are responsible for a majority of the production, processing and storage of food. This means that engaging women on food waste reduction could go a long way.
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While food waste often is viewed as a social and environmental problem, it’s also an economic one. Each year, uneaten food costs the world up to $400 billion annually. More than half of this comes from the United States — which spends more than $218 billion growing, processing, transporting and disposing food that’s never eaten. That’s a full 1.3 percent of total GDP.
Given the high economic stakes, it makes sense that food companies around the world are looking for innovative ways to cut down on food waste. There is $1.9 billion of annual business profit potential from the revenue and cost savings of implementing various recycling and food waste prevention strategies, research shows.
Many forward-thinking food firms already are acting on this by investing in food waste solutions. Here are some notable ones:
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Our cities are facing a growing waste problem. As more and more people leave rural areas for the economic opportunities cities offer, the world increasingly is becoming more urban. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and this is expected to rise to 60 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, the amount of waste generated by cities is mounting alongside population growth. By 2100, the global urban population will be producing three times as much waste as it does today, according to the World Bank. This could create serious physical and fiscal consequences for cities around the world.
While it’s easy to picture these mountains of waste being built of plastic and paper, the most prevalent form of waste is food. In the United States, people throw out more food than plastic, paper, metal and glass.
And this has major impacts on the climate and society. Food loss and waste annually contribute 3.3 gigagrams of carbon dioxide equivalent — or over twice the total emissions of India. If only a quarter of this lost or wasted food across the world was recovered, it could feed as many as 750 million people, according to the United Nations — a shocking stat when presented in the context of global food insecurity and hunger.
Addressing food waste in cities also could help businesses become more competitive, says The World Bank. With more conscientious management and better logistics systems for food and food waste in supermarkets and restaurants, cities will have businesses with modern operations that are able to engage in corporate social responsibility in a way they have been unable to do before.
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Looking back, 2016 was a year marked by unprecedented social, political and environmental happenings. And change in the political winds in Washington created new barriers for those engaged in environmental sustainability. Meanwhile, climate change continued to rear its ugly head — 2016 was the hottest year on record, according to NASA.
As we move into 2017, we wanted to take a look ahead at what already is shaping up to be a wildly unique year. While things aren’t looking so good for the environmental movement politically at the national level, we see some developments at the international and subnational levels, which give us reason to hope. Meanwhile, businesses and consumers increasingly are recognizing the dual challenge and opportunity waste poses.