“Eat everything on your plate.” “You can’t leave the table until that plate is clean.” “You know, there are starving kids that would love to have that food on your plate.”
Maybe you grew up hearing that many times. Maybe you snuck some of those yucky veggies to your dog. Maybe you even remember the Clean Plate Club, a campaign launched by the U.S. government in 1917 to ensure that the limited amount of food America had as a result of World War I didn’t go to waste, and to avoid food imports as much as possible. Using patriotism during the war, the “Clean Plate” campaign encouraged school children especially to not leave a scrap of food on their plate and to not eat between meals. As a way to ration and save food, it instilled in many of our parents and grandparents a mindset of “eat everything on your plate.”
But the war is over, food rationing is no more, and now we have the opposite problem. In a Supersized first world economy, portions have gotten bigger, our waistlines keep growing, and food waste has become a widespread issue.
“About 1.3 billion tons of food is lost or wasted every year – an estimated one in three mouthfuls of food every day,” according to Alessandro Demaio, Chief Executive Officer of the Norway-based EAT, an international NGO engaged in the fight against hunger. “In poorer nations, this waste generally occurs pre-market. In wealthier countries, the majority of waste occurs after market, in supermarkets and in our homes.”
Food waste has become such a mainstream issue now that United Kingdom-based food tech company It’s Fresh! launched a food waste calculator to enable consumers to understand the true cost of the fruit and vegetables they discard.
It’s not just a U.S. problem either. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese. Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight. Maybe the Clean Plate Club and your Mom telling you to eat all your food wasn’t such a good idea after all.
So what can we do about all this food waste?
Since the supply chain is the biggest issue in poorer countries, better supply chain technologies like packaging and refrigeration could help alleviate food waste. Precision agriculture could also help tremendously. For wealthier countries, individuals can make a huge impact by just buying less, avoiding impulse buys, and going back to 1970’s food portion sizes instead of today’s supersized portions (.
While we can surely curb food waste, it probably will always still be there to some extent. So what do you do with the food waste that remains?
Scotland-based Celtic Renewables has a good solution for whisky residue anyway, turning it into biobutanol that can power a car.
Montana-based Blue Marble Biomaterials is creating advanced flavorings made from seemingly impossible materials, including a highly sought after U.S. and E.U. Natural version of bacon dithiazine (bacon flavor ingredient) made from food waste like old coffee grounds and spent grape pomace (the stems, skin, pulp, seeds leftover after juice pressing).
Ohio State University researchers discovered a way to use food waste as a replacement for fossil fuel based fillers used in tire manufacturing. Eggshells made the rubber larger surface area for better contact with the rubber, and tomato peels made the rubber more stable at higher temperatures, allowing these two food waste products to be flexible and resilient options to replace carbon black. This would allow the U.S. to rely less on importing carbon black or other rubber fillers from overseas, help deal with food waste issues, and help improve rubber tires’ properties and performance.
Tomato waste seems to be pretty useful with Italy-based BIOPROTO project which aims to create bioplastics from the tomato fruit peel residues. They are an abundant and inexpensive waste from processing tomato industries rich in polysaccharides (chiefly cellulose, pectin and hemicelluloses) and lipids (soluble waxes and a non-soluble long-chain biopolyester named cutin). These new bioplastics are biodegradable, use an inexpensive agro-waste (tomato peel), and the fabrication of these bioplastics and the use of tomato peels could generate new business and employment opportunities. Sounds like a win-win-win.
What about composting? Or landfills?
So why can’t we just compost all this food waste generated around the world? Well, there are several challenges presented with that, mostly an infrastructure that lacks composting facilities. Most cities and municipalities around the world don’t have composting facilities. Most people don’t do a backyard compost pile either. So other than launching a huge campaign to get people to start backyard compost piles (or for those in cities and apartments, indoor worm composting), we need to do something.
And why can’t the food waste just to go landfills? Methane gas is a big issue in landfills and food doesn’t adequately compost mixed in with all those plastics, metals and other non-biobased materials that take hundreds of years to decompose. In fact, if food waste is composted properly with access to oxygen (which doesn’t happen in a landfill), then it doesn’t emit methane at all…it emits carbon dioxide, much less toxic to our planet and our health than methane.
However, companies like California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy are making progress with what food waste does go to landfill, that something valuable still come out of it, like biojet fuel. Canada-based Enerkem is also turning trash to treasure with their waste-to-chemistry project in Rotterdam to be the first of its kind in Europe to convert municipal solid waste into methanol, ethanol and other widely-used chemicals.
Velocys enables modular gas-to-liquids and biomass-to-liquids plants to convert unconventional, remote and problem gas and waste biomass into valuable, drop-in liquid fuels. And most recently has repositioned from being a technology component supplier into initiating and drive the development of biorefineries from concept to full operations. By taking the lead in projects, they aim to reduce delivery risk and accelerate growth. At the same time, delivering modular, fully integrated, financeable, cost-effective and operations-ready biorefineries.
Velocys has also been making strides with technology that helps modular gas-to-liquids and biomass-to-liquids plants convert unconventional, remote and problem gas and waste biomass into valuable, drop-in liquid fuels. They’ve been working with big name companies like Red Rock Biofuels to get their technology in place and make the magic happen.
Maybe you already work at a company that is leading the way in food waste innovations and turning what otherwise would be destined for a landfill into something valuable like tires or biofuel. Using food waste from production of tomato sauce for example is pretty neat since ther is no real way to not have some food waste when processing food, but as an individual, there is always more you can do as well. For example, curbing your own food waste wherever you go and bringing this issue to the attention of others can make an impact. Check out the NIH’s slideshow comparing how portion sizes changed from 20 years ago – that might just change your mind about what to put on your plate next time. Maybe we need to downsize instead of supersize.
In the meantime, check out the many documentaries now out there to see just how big of an issue food waste is today, like ‘WASTED! The Story of Food Waste,’ ‘Taste the Waste,’ ‘Just Eat It,’ ‘Expired: Food Waste in America’ and if you can stomach it, ‘Dive: Living off America’s Food Waste.’