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Food Waste Roadmap Shows Cutting U.S. Waste 20% Could Generate $100B in Cross-Sector Value

Image credit: Food Tank

The statistics on food waste — a top-of-mind issue governments, businesses and NGOs across the globe — are staggering: Every year, U.S. consumers, businesses, and farms spend $218 billion growing, processing, transporting, and disposing food that is never eaten. As a result, up to 52 million tons of food is sent to landfills annually, plus an additional estimated 10 million tons get discarded or go unharvested on farms. Meanwhile, 1 in 7 Americans is food insecure without reliable access to sufficient affordable, nutritious food. 

A new report released today from ReFED — a collaboration of over 30 business, government, investor, foundation and nonprofit leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste — analyzes 27 viable food waste solutions that can be enacted today to cut food waste in the United States by 20 percent. This will put the country on track to achieve the national 50 percent food waste reduction target by 2030, as established by the U.S. government in September 2015.

The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste is the first-ever national economic study of food waste to engage a multi-stakeholder group to develop a true plan for action. Its implementation would help spur economic growth, create jobs, increase food security and reduce environmental damage caused by food waste.

The primary finding of the Roadmap is significant: Actions that are feasible and cost-effective today can cut food waste nationwide by over 20 percentor 13 million tons annually.

The Roadmap will require $18 billion of investment over the next decade, less than a tenth of a penny of investment per pound of food waste reduced. This investment will yield a net economic value to society of approximately $100 billion over the same period through consumer savings on lower food bills, new sources of business profit, additional meals donated to the hungry, and a lower government tax burden.

Formed in early 2015, ReFED seeks to unlock new philanthropic and investment capital, along with technology and policy innovation, to catalyze more than 15,000 new jobs, annually recover over 1.8 billion meals for the hungry, reduce national water use by over a trillion gallons, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 18 million tons. The launch of ReFED’s Roadmap builds on momentum generated by initiatives such as Champions 12.3, a coalition of 30 CEOs, government ministers, global institution executives, and civil society leaders aimed at reducing food loss and waste around the world, launched at the World Economic Forum in January.

“Reducing food waste is one of the most tangible ways we can all help contribute to a healthier planet. What is so exciting about the Roadmap is that it clearly identifies actions that can be taken today, which will provide immediate economic benefits to consumers and businesses,” said Sarah Vared, interim director of ReFED. “The Roadmap is just the beginning. We look forward to this spurring further collaboration and action towards meeting our nation’s 50 percent reduction goal.”

The Roadmap uses an analytical framework to assess where waste occurs and the economic potential of each solution, enabling a level of prioritization that has not been possible in previous research. To develop the report, ReFED engaged nationally recognized consulting firms Deloitte Consulting LLP and Resource Recycling Systems, and collaborated closely with the Closed Loop Fund, MissionPoint Partners, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

To ensure the Roadmap accurately represented the current landscape and included actionable insights, ReFED built an advisory board of leading organizations across sectors including Ahold, Bon Appetit Management Company, Sodexo, Walmart, Waste Management, Feeding America, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Harvard University, World Resource Institute, California State Board of Food and Agriculture, the EPA, and the cities of New York, Phoenix, and Seattle.

“Many food businesses have accepted food waste as an unavoidable hit to their income statements. Yet, as the ReFED research has shown, food businesses are leaving almost $2B of potential profit on the table annually. With shrinking margins and increased supply chain volatility, it’s crucial that food businesses take steps to understand where food waste is occurring in their value chains and invest in solutions to reduce it and recover profits,” said Kyle Tanger, a director with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leader of its sustainability practice. “To support businesses’ efforts in food waste reduction and profit recovery, Deloitte has built robust waste and financial tracking tools. Retailers, restaurants, and foodservice providers should identify where waste occurs in their operations and supply chains first and then apply these tools to test, pilot, and scale food waste solutions.”

Other key findings include: 

  • We face a funding gap: Most of the $18 billion of new investment needed will flow from existing government legislation and natural market forces. However, an estimated $100-200 million of new catalytic capital is needed annually to de-risk new innovations, overcome industry bottlenecks, provide low-cost project finance, and enable multi-stakeholder solutions.
  • Consumers and businesses benefit: Scaling Roadmap solutions is estimated to unlock $10 billion in total annual economic value for society ($100 billion over a decade), including $5.6 billion in lower food bills for families and nearly $2 billion in new business profit potential, mainly from restaurants, institutions, and food service providers.
  • Recycling is most scalable: By investing in recycling infrastructure, training, and policy, 9.5 million tons of food scraps — nearly three-quarters of the total Roadmap potential — can be diverted annually from landfills through anaerobic digestion and composting, reducing an estimated 4.8 million tons in greenhouse gases while creating over 11,000 new jobs.
  • Prevention is most cost-effective: Standardizing date labels, consumer education campaigns and packaging adjustments are the most cost-effective solutions that prevent waste from occurring in the first place and provide substantial consumer savings.

These benefits are achievable, feasible, and realistic today, but they will not be realized without a concerted effort. Stakeholders must commit to four levers of action: new financing to scale proven solutions, commonsense policy change, adoption of emerging innovations, and consumer and employee education. The Roadmap is just the beginning. In the year ahead, ReFED will build on the efforts of other pioneers in this space and will facilitate collaboration with key stakeholders to begin working towards the implementation of these solutions. ReFED says additional tools and resources will be shared on its website throughout the year. Ideas, feedback and expertise to build on this work is welcomed and encouraged.


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