Last Miles to Zero Waste: Packaged Food Waste Recycling
You try to be sustainable and not generate food waste. But at times, you can’t avoid the problem of having packaged food go bad before it gets out of your plant or the warehouse—or maybe it’s recalled for a labeling error, and it’s now expired.
What to do? I asked Ray Hatch, CEO of Quest Resource Holding, who’s had extensive experience in food service industries and waste management to talk about the options, which, unfortunately, are not many.
Ray Hatch: In the recycling business, when a company is seeking to achieve zero waste, the last few steps are known as the “last miles.” These are the steps where you have to get creative to develop easy-to-use and cost-effective recycling solutions for the hard-to-recycle materials.
Food manufacturers work hard to streamline the manufacturing process and run efficient lines that produce as little waste as possible—but there is always going to be one big hurdle: expired, out-of-spec, damaged or recalled packaged food.
Packaged food is tricky, especially when generated in large quantities. Simply sending it to the landfill is the absolute least sustainable way to handle it and should be avoided—so what should a food manufacturing company do to deal with packaged food waste? There are essentially two schools of thought:
Option 1: Better Packaging
If you really want to make an environmental impact as a food manufacturer, switch to compostable packaging. Not recyclable, or readily biodegradable, but compostable. Unfortunately, it will take some time for compostable packaging to offer the same protective qualities as plastics and other non-compostable materials. Not to mention the fact that it still needs to maintain a visual standard to remain attractive to consumers, all without extreme increases in cost.
Option 2: Better Recycling
Working with companies that can recycle food waste and de-package the material is a convenient way to divert the food waste from the landfill without having to manually remove the packaging. De-packaging is a happy medium between cost-effective and eco-conscious.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, essentially your recycler will collect pallets or dumpsters of packaged food, which is then fed into one end of these enormous grinding and cutting machines, and the food waste is separated from the packaging (paper, plastic, cans etc.). The food waste can then be recycled as compost, animal feed additive or as a source of energy through bio-digestion. The contaminated food packaging is landfilled, but the pallets, shrink wrapping and boxes containing the packaged food are all recycled or reused.
The landfill diversion impact is quite significant. If you assume 100 tons of packaged food needs to be disposed of per month, using a recycling program that allows for packaged material would help you divert about 90 tons from the landfill. For companies wanting to achieve zero waste to landfill, that’s huge.
Recycling packaged food can be quite expensive. The material is heavy and if you are not careful, the transportation costs alone can make the service cost prohibitive. However, with the right processes in place, the right training and the right network of outlets—recycling packaged food can be achieved at about the same cost as landfilling the waste. A win-win solution for everyone.