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Reduce Food Waste by Changing Mindset

The future of food means thinking differently. When manufacturers change their mindset, they can prevent waste and save money. Here’s what 50 companies show.

The conveyors at the vegetable processing plant were running well. Not quite full capacity, but not far off. The Operations Manager was satisfied as he looked down at his clipboard: Another good day in the plant.

The cracked flap between the conveyor belts didn’t register as a major issue. True, some of the beans were ending up on the floor rather than in bags. But it certainly wasn’t enough to warrant stopping the line. Anyway, he figured, a little waste was par for the course when you process food for a living. It was all going to compost anyway…

By the end of the day, a small pile of beans had accumulated under the machine. Cleaning staff swept it up and disposed of it. The same happened the next day, and the next.

Then, a visiting engineer did the math and worked out that the plant was losing over $300,000 worth of product each year. Beans and other vegetables, just falling off the line. A little every hour of every day. Over a year, it adds up.

When the plant’s real “bean counters” — the accountants — saw those numbers, it didn’t take long for operating procedures to change. Changes to routine machine maintenance caught the broken flaps and swapped them out.

This is a real story, and a relatively common one. Over the last decade or so, we have visited hundreds of food and beverage manufacturing facilities across North America. Every one had clear opportunities for waste prevention.

We analyzed food waste in 50 manufacturing facilities

In 2019, my organization, Provision Coalition, launched a program to assess food loss and waste in 50 food and beverage manufacturing and processing facilities across Canada. Provision Coalition worked with the Walmart Foundation, the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and engineering company Enviro-Stewards.

At each facility, our team did an engineering assessment and measured the impact of food waste in social, economic, and environmental metrics. We also held an awareness session with employees to share the results and how they could support efforts to prevent and reduce food loss and waste.

In these 50 facilities, we identified 9.3 million kilograms of preventable food and beverage waste. We found that by preventing this waste, each facility could save an average of $228,000 per year.

That’s huge value. If a manufacturer or processor operated at a margin of 10%, it would need to generate more than $2 million of additional sales to make the same contribution to the bottom line.

Food waste challenges are just as large globally, with food loss and waste costing an estimated $300bn per year. The environmental impacts are equally staggering. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the US.

Food waste happens at every stage of the value chain, from farm to table. But processing and manufacturing may be especially critical; in Canada, they account for 47% of food loss and waste.

Focus on prevention, not diversion

We have seen too many companies focused on end-of-pipe solutions: diverting waste from landfills.

Sending hundreds of tonnes of avoidable waste to biodigesters or composting facilities each year is akin to making your product and instead of selling it, choosing to pay people to throw it away for you. It makes no sense.

Manufacturers should try first to prevent food waste and then find highest-value ways to repurpose unavoidable waste. After all, there really is no such thing as waste. It is simply a by-product that contains nutrients and can be a real contribution to the bottom line, ingredients for a new product, or a new revenue stream.

Reducing food waste involves opportunity identification and mindset change

My team and I have spent much of the last decade focused on preventing and repurposing food waste. In our experience, change comes when businesses take a holistic approach. The magic combination includes an engineering assessment to identify opportunities and a mindset change to enable action.

1. An engineering assessment highlights opportunities

Provision Coalition’s FLW (Food Loss & Waste) Toolkit is an assessment tool that identifies opportunities for economic, environmental and social benefit. The Toolkit breaks down the amount of waste into avoidable and unavoidable categoriesand provides technical solutions to prevent the avoidable waste. It also calculates the value of that waste in different ways: in terms of finished product;embedded greenhouse gases, water and energy; and the calories in terms of meals represented. (It’s the FLW Toolkit that provides the cost saving estimates we reference in this article.[1])

2. A mindset change enables action

Ultimately, food waste is a mindset, a part of the mental conditioning that we all have, where we tend to use things until they don’t work and then throw them away.

For the operations manager in the story at the start of this article, waste was a fact of life, and its diversion to compost (rather than landfill) meant that it didn’t seem like a problem. He didn’t instinctively understand the business case for prevention.

At Provision Coalition, we use an ADKAR model to help manufacturers realize this mindset shift. ADKAR captures five outcomes people need to achieve for lasting change. They must gain Awareness of the problem, Desire to do things differently, and Knowledge of what a different approach means.

They must also have the Ability to actually implement a different set of behaviours and actions – both practically in terms of tools or workflow and culturally in terms of incentives. Management needs to create systems to Reinforce positive behaviours.

Canadian food and beverage processors change mindset on food waste

Changing mindset can be the greatest challenge in the shift to prevent food loss and waste. Any shift in behaviour is fundamentally a human adventure, not a technical one.

Here’s how change happened in our recent project with 50 Canadian food and beverage manufacturing facilities. We began the ADKAR effort by focusing on raising awareness of the business case for prevention, because so many companies aren’t seeing the opportunities in food loss and waste.

The response from employees was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, employees suggested many of the prevention opportunities identified during the program. People especially resonated with results presented in terms of meals saved; that perspective helped them move from Awareness of the problem to Desire to change.

This first phase of the program created Awareness as well as a number of quick, technical wins. Many of these related to cost savings that required minor changes. For example:

  • At a poultry processing facility, we discovered that because of a simple error, good product was mistakenly being sent from a deboning machine to rendering. The reassignment of one operator to prevent this saved the facility $306,000 per year in lost product. It also saved 567 tonnes of CO2e and put an equivalent of 156,000 meals on the table for Canadians. The time it took to reassign this operator was measured in minutes.

  • At a meat packing facility, our engineering team noticed that pork was being lost from gaps in equipment. By adjusting a catch tray and covering a gap in the line, the firm was able to save $130,000 of pork annually. With just an hour or so of maintenance they put the equivalent of over a million dollars’ worth of additional sales onto their bottom line.

In early 2021, we begin a second phase of the program. We will provide implementation support through a comprehensive ADKAR-based model, addressing technical challenges in parallel with the mindset that causes waste.

Our belief is that drawing awareness to the economic, social and environmental impact of that waste opens the hearts and minds of employees to the difference they can create, and that this is the beginning of the mindset shift. We’ll keep you posted as we move with the manufacturers on that journey.

More about the Project

Case studies:

About the Author

Cher Mereweather is a food and beverage industry sustainability expert. As President and CEO of Provision Coalition Inc., Mereweather works directly with food and beverage companies across the supply chain to increase revenue, reduce costs and elevate their brands – purposefully. Contact her at cmereweather@provisioncoalition.com

[1] Here’s more detail on what our study found. We worked with 50 Canadian food manufacturing and processing facilities. Our data showed that if all 50 manufacturers implemented the food waste prevention opportunities identified, the following economic, social, and environmental savings would be realized. Economic benefits include $11.4 million total savings identified/ year, with a 12 month average payback period per facility. Average implementation cost per facility is $104,000, and average annual savings per facility is $228,000. Environmental benefits include a total GHG reduction of 32,600 tonnes CO2, and 1,500 cubic meters of water saved on average per facility. Social benefits include 15.4 million meals worth of food saved per year in total. See the infographic.

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