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Nov 08, 2011 • By

The impact of food waste

For the last several months, I have been on an educational journey to understand the impact of food waste, and I continue to work within General Mills and with the food industry to reduce the amount of food discarded in landfills.

The impact of food waste is staggering, particularly when you consider:

  • Each year 70 to 80 billion pounds of food is thrown away in the U.S. – equating to almost 250 pounds per person.
  • 20 to 30 percent of all food grown, processed and transported is never consumed.
  • Only a very small portion of food waste (approximately 2.5 percent) is recycled – primarily as compost.

Americans now throw away more food than any other material disposed of in landfills and incinerators, according to Jean Schwab, who leads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Food Recovery Initiative.  And that’s one reason why the EPA has identified food waste as an agency priority.

In the audio clip below, Schwab discusses the growing trend of perfectly good food going to waste.

Environmental, economic and social impacts

All of this food piling up in landfills creates environmental, economic and social impacts.

From an environmental standpoint, landfills in the U.S. are now the second-largest emitter of methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas.

Economically, the cost of disposing food waste in landfills and incinerators is impacting companies’ bottom lines.

And socially, we have a growing number of people in this country who do not know when they may have their next meal. Sadly, one in four children in the U.S. are now considered “food insecure.”

An industry movement

General Mills and a number of peer companies have banded together to form the Food Waste Mitigation Coalition to tackle food waste and the related issues noted above. Coalition companies are looking at the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy for guidance on how to drive out waste. The EPA looks at the following five strategies for food recovery.

The strategies ranked toward the top of the pyramid are the most preferred.

At General Mills, we are working on all of these strategies for food recovery, striving to improve on all five.

Source reduction

The most effective strategy is to limit the amount of waste created in the first place. We spend a lot of time, via our Holistic Margin Management initiative and Continuous Improvement efforts, to identify and more importantly remove waste from our operations.

For example, one of our plants recently identified a new system to heat pizza toppings so they will adhere better to the pizza prior to the freezing process. This system will save thousands of pounds of cheese and other pizza toppings from going to waste each year.

Feed hungry people

This year, we established new systems to help our supply chain more effectively identify opportunities to capture food such as surplus ingredients or over-runs of seasonal or promotional packaging that can be donated to one of the 200 affiliates in Feeding America’s network. Feeding America is the largest hunger relief organization in the U.S.

Recently, one of our facilities identified an opportunity to donate nearly 300,000 cake mix pouches – totaling 90,000 pounds – to food banks in Minnesota, western Wisconsin and San Antonio, Texas. Collectively, these recipient organizations serve hundreds of thousands of hungry people – many of them children.

Feed animals

More than 60 percent of the organic waste that is generated at our manufacturing facilities is sold as animal feed. This not only offsets some of our costs of waste disposal, but it helps reduce the need for animal ranchers to secure feed from original sources.

Industrial uses

This year we brought online our first biomass unit that burns oat hulls – left over from the milling process – to heat the plant and produce oat flour used to make Cheerios and other products.

And for the last several years, one of our Green Giant processing partners in Montgomery, Minn., has used agriculture waste to generate methane, capture it, and use it to heat the facility throughout the winter months.

Composting

In September, we began composting the food waste created at our main campus in Minneapolis, including everything from the cafeteria to our Bakeries and Foodservice culinary center. Each day approximately 700 pounds of waste is being diverted from incineration and landfill to composting.

Landfill/Incineration

As a last resort, the food waste we create as a company is incinerated (sometimes for power) or sent to a landfill. We are committed to minimizing this last resort, and hopefully one day avoiding it altogether.

Following the EPA’s hierarchy of food recovery can serve as a model of sustainability and benefit a company’s bottom line, as Schwab explains in this audio clip.

Schwab says that as the largest disposers of food waste, businesses have a big opportunity – and an economic incentive – to reduce the amount of food going to waste and offset the costs of landfill and incineration.

“With just some tweaks to operations, companies could potentially save a significant amount of money. We have seen foodservice operations and grocery stores that have reduced their waste by 30 percent – just by undertaking a few simple steps.”

The work on food waste mitigation and landfill avoidance is important, challenging and necessary. Over the next several weeks, months and years, you will hear more about our efforts as a company and an industry to make improvements in this area.

Editor’s note: This is the first post in a series about food waste. The second post, titled “How Second Harvest helps rescue food,” was published Nov. 9. The final post in the series, “Foodservice industry talks sustainable food,” was published Nov. 10. You can learn more about our sustainability efforts on GeneralMills.com.

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  • ElliEAF

    The statistics seem unbelievable regarding the food waste and how people choose to discard it all. The ideas and helpful ways to go about fixing this problem seem like great solutions. 

  • Anna Carey

    This was some very interesting reading. I think the solutions are just great.

  • Dianne Tubbs

    I think most everyone now are trying to do all we can to stop wasting everything.  I am learning how to use food scraps in soups and stews (and other uses I haven’t even read about yet).  I think GM is doing great in trying to do their part.  These are very interesting and eye-opening stories.  Each day I learn more and more about waste, recycling and composting.  Thank you for sharing.