The Business Pickle
September 1, 2022
to rethink the way they've understood and dealt with food waste. Businesses approaching the problem of food waste with an attitude of ‘progress over perfection’ are yielding outcomes that are good for business and for the planet.
There are businesses solving this problem using tried and tested methods that are well within our reach: we don't need dazzling new innovations to redistribute food and prioritise food for people.
The fact that we are using huge amounts of resources to produce food, and then wasting a third of it, is a wake up sign to those in business: to varying degrees, we are all part of this mind bogglingly inefficient global food system.
"They like to see stuff tested... That path through pilot programs and repeated testing is sort of the death march for lots of startup companies. You just can't get to the other side and get to the point of making revenue."
"Activated carbon is like a sponge. If you have a Brita filter in your home or pitcher based systems, what's in there is activated carbon, to pull out the chlorine and take out the odour, and a lot of the things that affect the taste of the water. [We added] an additional capability to that basic carbon structure, to be able to pull dissolved metals out."
"We're taking the world's most plentiful ag waste product, which is rice hulls, and converting it into a water filtration media that can help to clean up water around the world. It's a new application of an old technology. A lot of people call it biochar."
"...which means you cook it in the absence of oxygen. What that does is it doesn't release carbon dioxide and methane; instead you convert it into a stable carbon format.”
"Most people burn it in the fields, which produces almost a trillion pounds of greenhouse gas every year."
"It takes time, whether it's for a waste management contract to be up for renewal, or for the right people in the business to have the time and bandwidth to really consider whether or not this is the right thing for them to do... and to look at all of the operational and logistical challenges to make it actually work.”
Goterra is taking food waste that falls into the fifth category - unavoidable waste that would otherwise go to landfill - and moves it up the hierarchy to the third category - producing animal feed; creating a circular economy.
For Goterra, the innovation lies in marrying up an age-old natural process - using insects to process organic waste - and modern robotic technology that monitors temperature, humidity, and controls when to move waste from the internal receival tanks to the larvae, ensuring a healthy environment for the insects.
"If we're able to take the waste management infrastructure to the site where the waste is managed, then we can be far more efficient. ...we can also get more value locally from those wastes through producing food [for animals].”
and push this through existing wastewater management systems to be processed - Goterra alternatively creates a high value product off of food waste, without the need for integration into existing waste management logistics networks.
“Particularly with post-consumer food waste, it's got lots of stuff that's not particularly good for composting, like meat and dairy and citrus. And it's got lots of contamination. ...we're able to handle these materials that aren't useful to anybody else and put them to really good use. And that's where we're creating the circular economy.”
"...take low grade wastes that can't be used for anything of higher value and valorize them. If we're doing that, we're actually genuinely creating a circular economy."
Unavoidable food waste consists of elements of food production that we would not normally consider edible, such as meat bones, egg shells, or coffee grounds. In these cases, the opportunities for businesses often lie in developing new technologies and systems that are able to process these forms of waste and create value from them.
Looking to longstanding human techniques of prolonging the life of food through preservation, Rubies in the Rubble has created a sustainable range of products that add value to ‘out of spec’ produce, meet consumer demand, and create a point of difference in the retail and hospitality space.
and finding new ways to repurpose them and market them to customers, can create a distinctive and profitable business.
"...definitely showcases what we're all about in a really interesting way: taking an ingredient that was a waste product, and really trying to find a demand for it.”
Rubies in the Rubble first considers what types of produce are generating greater amounts of waste, and then looks to develop products that use them in a way that appeals to consumers.
"...which is a byproduct of cooking chickpeas. It has the same properties as egg whites. So we've teamed up with hummus manufacturers. And when they cook their chickpeas, they normally throw away that water. We collect that water, turn it into a powder so it's in an ambient state and then use it for our mayonnaise."
"I’ll take things that are undersized, oversized. Sometimes, if it's a cherry tomato that has a short shelf life, or they've got too much and the demand for it wasn’t realized, or if it fails that test and that prick test of the 15 day life, we'll take it. We can turn it into a relish that then adds a two year life on it and adds value to the tomato."
of preserving food to extend its shelf life and add value to produce that is not fit for the high aesthetic standards of supermarkets, or doesn’t have the shelf life for transporting to and displaying in stores.
"And then at the other end, it's governed by us and our demand, which is also unpredictable. And in the middle, these giant supermarkets are showing everything in plentiful volumes. With it being perishable, what happened when that supply and demand didn’t add up?”
producing condiments including tomato ketchup, mayonnaise and relishes made from food that otherwise would have gone to waste. Started by Jenny Costa in 2012, Rubies in the Rubble supplies their products to some of the UK’s most recognised retailers and restaurants.
“I work on the business mantra of quid pro quo, both sides benefit. And so whenever I worked with somebody, it was always like, I got a deal for you. ...at the end of the day, my business was how do I make my city, Washington DC, a better place to live for everybody.”
"I opened up the DC Central Kitchen on January 20th, 1989, which was George Bush Sr’s inauguration. I called up the inauguration committee and said, ‘Hey, you're gonna have these big parties, you'll have tons of leftover food. Let's do each other a favour that makes you look good. I've got a new refrigerated truck, let's do business.’ ...we had media from around the world wanting to cover food going through the inauguration celebrations to a kitchen and feeding people the next day. And that set the framework for the kitchen as being an open source business that would constantly innovate, but also share whatever we came up with.”
"If we started a cooking school, you could feed twice as many people, and you could shorten the line by the very way you served it because you'd be offering the chance for people to come out of the line to be part of the solution versus endless recipients of charity.”
The Kitchen collected donated food from producers, restaurants and hospitality services, which they would prepare and serve free of charge to people in need. At the same time, DC Central Kitchen would purchase food that was ‘out of spec’ at a lower cost, and train people with barriers to employment for careers in the food industry, running a catering business and cafe.
There are express provisions built into legislation in the USA, the UK, and Australia, as examples, that protect food donors from liability if the food has been donated free of charge and is safe to eat at the time it was donated, as well as that instructions are given if particular storage is required.
"Which was the first time we created that same liability protection that exists now."
"It's probably one of the greatest urban myths almost globally, because you hear this constantly, even today. Media channels were coming to the kitchen every day. And a big part of my responsibility was trying to say, ‘There is no law that says you can't donate food'."
businesses that donate excess food products are able to claim a tax deduction on the value of goods, making this a more financially viable option than dumping stock. However, many businesses are averse to donating food, believing that they will be held liable if a recipient falls sick - is in fact a myth.
Nando’s had to assess the added time, training and resources it would take to roll out a food redistribution program. Taking an honest look at the potential hurdles, developing a system that was as straightforward as possible for team members to implement, and developing internal buy-in about the social and environmental benefits of rescuing food, has led to success in these cases.
"Be really fair about the way that you operate the trial and the way that you assess that trial. Present that back in a way that's really fair. Get more buy-in, expand the trial, go to the next stage. ...the very first step in all of that is about getting emotional buy-in from people...when you have emotional buy-in from people in the team, then they're prepared to stick with you.”
“If you can make things easier for the team, save money and save the environment...you get a lot of traction really quickly. But on the flip side of that, when you don't tick all three of those boxes, you can meet a lot of resistance, and things can be really hard."
“The hero project, both in the UK and in Australia, was the work we did redistributing surplus chicken to people in need. We set up local relationships between local restaurants and local charities so that (Nando's) could donate chicken that would otherwise have gone into the bin."
"Whether it's 5, 10 or 15 percent of companies who are really pushing the boundaries, I think we're seeing change happen quite quickly now. And I think we'll see that pace of change accelerate."
"But you look at the likes of Unilever, who are really pushing to build genuinely sustainable, large scale businesses that are able to have significant impact. And then there are operators throughout the middle tiers that are the same. It's the diffusion of innovation."
Startups and small businesses provide templates for what a different relationship to food can look like - but they can’t solve the problem alone. It will take the biggest food producers, manufacturers, retailers, and government regulation, to move us in the right direction.
"You have innovators and early adopters who make up about 16% of the market. Then you've got the early majority at 34%, the late majority at 34%, and laggards at 16%. There's a real opportunity for smaller players in the market to disrupt by being innovative. The challenge you've got is getting above 15%."
"...You'll be growing rice and putting it onto a global market. Sometimes western countries might be demanding more than they actually need and taking more out of the global supply chain."
"You've got the food waste on the plate, and then out the back trying to understand what the demand is going to be for different things on the menu and wanting to give the consumer choice. And then in our own homes."
"It's very hard for them to manage supply and demand of what's going to sell and what's not. Sometimes, just to make the shelves look full and abundant and make people feel like they want to pick that product. One lonely melon often doesn't do it!"
"The specifications on produce (result) in a lot of waste: if you're turning on and off a production line, or you've got fresh produce and you don't know what the demand again is going to be in your planning. You're often having to start making an order three or four days before the order is due and the demand might change."
"(A bad crop) will simply be thrown away because the price is not good enough to bother harvesting it."
The immediate financial costs and gains of producing, selling and wasting food are not the only economic considerations. The FAO’s assessment shows that the way our current food system is built to operate is economically inefficient and environmentally unsustainable.
"Agriculture needs to go through this profound change over the next 30 years where it needs to significantly increase production and significantly reduce emissions. At the same time, it needs to do all of that whilst adapting to rapidly changing conditions as a result of climate change."
In higher-income countries, while many people still struggle with food insecurity, the accessibility and relative affordability of food has created a perfect storm of consumption and waste as the value we place on food has dropped.
"And when it's packaged up so beautifully, it's hard to relate to, that something comes in seasons, it's governed by weather, and all of those things that we need to make sure that farming and our food system is something that serves our planet as well."
"It's the third largest emitter of carbon after China and America, if it was a country. And we're planning to double our food supply by 2050 to feed the expected 9 billion on the planet, but yet wasting a third of what we produce.”
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