Waste Not, Want Not

Reducing waste in the food and beverage industry

If plastic bottles are high up on the environment’s Public Enemies list, it was a good bet that it wouldn’t be long before disposable plastic straws made the lineup too. And sure enough now they’ve been banned not only from food service giants like Starbucks but even from entire cities like Seattle and Miami Beach.

The plain fact is, today’s consumers are putting their money where their mouth is, especially when it comes to food. Increased awareness around the impact of waste is prompting people to change their behavior in favor of making more sustainable choices. As brands rely more and more on values to differentiate their products in a flooded marketplace, some are proving that they can walk the walk on sustainability by investing in innovation that reduces waste in unexpected ways.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, about one third of the food produced around the world every year ends up going in the trash — more than enough to feed the 821 million people living with chronic food deprivation. Most of this waste is fruits and vegetables. Enter Apeel Sciences of Goleta, CA, which has developed a plant-based coating that protects produce and extends its shelf-life. It’s caught the eye of big grocers like Costco and Kroger, stocking up on Apeel-coated avocados. Meantime, Springdale, AR-based Harps Food Stores, with 87 outlets in the Mid- and Southwest, already has cut food waste by 60% in the few months since introducing the treated produce.

Not only is this waste reduction ethically beneficial, it also leads to significant financial gains. American retailers suffer a combined $18 billion annual loss on food that had to be chucked out after going bad. Longer-lasting produce could change this by leading to increased sales. Take Harps, where stocking Apeel avocados has boosted sales by 10%.

Another doing its part to reduce food waste is Sweetgreen, by serving its salads in new hexagonal bowls made of compostable material. This slightly larger size eliminates the need for stainless-steel mixing bowls as well as the process of transferring ingredients from one bowl to another. It helps reduce water use from washing the bowls, and food waste from scraps that are lost during the transfer — saving an estimated half-a-million pounds of food.

Better yet, Sweetgreen’s new bowl keeps customer experience in mind. As the new design cuts down part of the salad-making process, it reduces wait time for those standing in line. The larger bowls also make it easier for people ordering online to mix their salads themselves. With Sweetgreen known as a category disruptor, this latest wrinkle shows how the chain continues to evolve as customers’ needs and expectations change.

Elsewhere, Denmark-based brewer Carlsberg is shaking things up in the beer industry by replacing plastic six-pack rings with something entirely different. In the past, six-pack innovation took edible form. Now Carlsberg has eliminated the rings altogether; its cans are held together instead by a new kind of glue. The company says the glue won’t affect the recyclability of the cans, which in fact already had improved thanks to the kind of ink now being used to print on them. By cutting back its plastic use by 75%, Carlsberg hopes to make a dent in the 18 billion pounds of plastic going into the ocean each year.

Carlsberg clearly is positioning itself as a leader in the movement for sustainable innovation and material waste reduction. Once this new glue becomes widely available, look for other brewers and soft drink manufacturers to consider making the shift as well. That could only be good for their brands, as it would resonate with the current cultural climate and earn goodwill from eco-conscious consumers.

It’s impossible to please everyone, however. Grocers face the possibility that consumers will reject produce coated with an unfamiliar substance, even if Apeel is tasteless and seen as safe by the FDA. Some people have complained that Sweetgreen’s larger bowls make it harder to multitask and browse their cellphones while eating their salads with one hand. Worse, the plastic straw bans neglected to consider the needs of those with limited mobility and have come in for pushback from disability rights advocates.

This much we know: Progress is never easy or instantaneous. But this latest wave of sustainability innovations shows there’s still plenty of room to grow. The future could hold a world without single-use plastics altogether, where everything is made out of, say, algae. It is time for the inventors and entrepreneurs among us to seize this opportunity to introduce surprising solutions to the food industry. In the meantime, catch you at Costco, where I’ll be stocking up on avocados.

This post was written by Carina Sandoval with thinking contributed by Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.