This year, we’re starting something new: a monthly roundup focused on environment, sustainability and governance (ESG). There’s no shortage of news about innovative ideas to protect the environment as experts and industry leaders hear the call for drastic changes to combat the climate change.
Last week, we took our plastic bags, mailers, chip bags and other plastic wrap to a local collection center, where a nonprofit is participating in the Trexcommunity recycling program. For every 500 pounds of plastic collected, the company donates a plastic composite park bench. In one year, the organization has collected enough plastic to place nine benches around town. That’s 4,500 pounds of plastic being diverted from the landfill.
As Kermit the frog astutely noted, “It’s not easy being green.” It costs time, effort and money to initiate and sustain environmental, sustainability or other green initiatives. Still, an upfront and temporary inconvenience to help other people, and even future generations, enjoy Mother Earth seems like a small and worthwhile price to pay.
One major environmental concern is agriculture and food supply. How can we continue to grow more food to support a rising world population amid climate change? How can we reduce food waste and greenhouse gas emissions? How can we ensure people have access to healthy food? How can we protect crops and foods that are vulnerable to changing weather conditions, such as drought and natural disaster, as well as pests and other plant diseases? These are unprecedented challenges and solving them will require innovative solutions. They'll also require effort from all stakeholders: farmers, academia, supermarkets, government, nonprofits, consumers, manufacturers, distributors and logistics.
Here are some food-related headlines we found interesting this month.
Coming Soon to a Grocery Store Near You
Walmart has invested an undisclosed amount of money in Plenty, a San Francisco-based vertical farming start-up. The nation’s largest grocer will start carrying Plenty’s leafy greens in all 250 California stores later this year.
The CNBC article explains that food and agriculture start-ups are increasingly attractive to venture capitalists as the pandemic has changed eating habits and strained supply chains.
Vertical farming offers stable sourcing and other environmental benefits. Crops are grown inside controlled conditions, harvested faster, produce a larger yield and can be grown without as many pesticides. Vertical farming also means that food can be grown closer to consumers’ homes, thereby reducing the need for cross country transport. That also reduces associated travel costs, both monetary and environmental, and offers consumers a longer shelf-life, meaning your lettuce could last more than a week before wilting.
We here in Cleveland are lucky to already have some indoor vertical farms (Buckeye Fresh, Great Lakes Growers and Free Leafy Greens) that supply our area grocers. We can attest to the crisp, flavorful taste and the peace of mind knowing the lettuce won't be recalled for an E. coli outbreak. We welcome more players in the vertical farming arena.
Plenty’s kale, arugula and leafy greens are currently sold by some Albertsons and Whole Foods, which is owned by Amazon. The start-up is looking to expand its offerings to include strawberries and tomatoes as well as its operations to the East Coast.
Read the full story here.
California’s Latest Effort to Reduce Climate Change
A new law in California has created the nation’s largest mandatory residential food waste recycling program.
Instead of being tossed in the trash, food waste or scraps must be recycled. The recycled food will be composted or used to create biogas, an energy source that is similar to natural gas.
It’s a small change that is expected to have a big impact. CalRecycle estimates that organic material, such as food and yard waste, comprises half of the contents in California landfills and one-fifth of the state’s methane emissions.
“This is the biggest change to trash since recycling started in the 1980s,” said Rachel Wagoner, director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, to the Associated Press.
She added that it “is the single easiest and fastest thing that every single person can do to affect climate change.”
California’s food waste recycling program is the result of a 2016 law to reduce methane emissions by significantly targeting discarded food. By 2025, the state wants to cut organic waste in landfills from about 23 million tons to 5.7 million tons. It is the second state in the country to establish a food waste recycling program; Vermont’s program started in 2020.
The state also set a 2025 goal of diverting 20% of food that would otherwise go to landfills to help feed people in need. Starting this year, supermarkets must start donating their excess food. Starting in 2024, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools and large event venues must start donating their excess food.
Read the full story here.
A Different Kind of Label
Expired food has long been a problem for grocers. They already donate surplus food or food that has reached its expiration date to help feed people in need or other partners that can continue the cycle (e.g., composting, animal feed, create biogas). But, there's still waste.
A handful of companies are exploring dynamic pricing as another way to target unnecessary food waste. It’s a big problem. According to the nonprofit ReFED, retailers generate 10.5 million tons of surplus food, nearly 35% of which goes to landfill or is incinerated as waste.
Dynamic pricing uses algorithms to calculate periodic, incremental discounts until a perishable food’s expiration date, similar to good deals on last-minute hotel booking sites. Dynamic pricing would automate marking food down prices well before grocers apply those last-minute manager special stickers, which helps but doesn't prevent waste.
Discounting might also encourage people to use the food they buy in the first place and even buy food items with a perceived shorter shelf life for a better deal. Expiration date labeling is also problematic, because those are more suggestion than indicator of food spoilage.
Dynamic pricing seems like a no-brainer, but its biggest barrier is implementation.
"Most retailers don't have a high-quality, real time inventory system and, even when they do, it doesn't track expiration dates. Instead, it just tracks the skews," said Robert Sanders, assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego. "So, they might know how much [product] is on their shelves but they don't know when it expires."
Sanders says the solution is to switch from universal product codes (UPCs) to GS1 barcodes that could include expiration dates. That change would have to happen at the manufacturing level, not in individual supermarkets.
Read more about dynamic pricing and other Congressional and industry efforts to reduce food waste here.