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Evolving the sustainability journey in the food and beverage industry

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Determining the best sustainability solutions for a company’s specific needs cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach.

Over the last several years, many companies have announced commitments to sustainability, environmental goals and social responsibility initiatives. In the food and beverage industry, no longer is using recyclable packaging enough—making the entire product life cycle sustainable becomes the ideal. By evolving the organization’s sustainability efforts, food and beverage manufacturers not only show that the environment and consumer health are top priorities, but that focusing on them also attracts customers by creating a positive reputation for the brand.

Over the past five years, decreasing food waste has become a higher priority, with USDA and EPA calling for a 50% reduction in food loss and waste by 2030. The food and beverage industry and its partners are motivated to focus on achieving this target—ahead of schedule, if possible.

To meet this national goal—as well as a business’s waste reduction objectives—finding a sustainability partner who shares an organization’s long-term vision is critical.

Getting started with waste reduction

Finding the right partner to help with reducing waste and improving sustainability is a critical step. While a food and beverage manufacturer is focused on manufacturing its own products and distribution to the consumer—whether another business or the end consumer—the sustainability partner is focused on providing the expertise for all the components behind it to build the right sustainability programming, aiming toward the client’s long-term vision.

A few initial steps a partner can help with when looking at the waste cycle include:

• Evaluating packaging and going upstream from there.

• Looking at all the different components, from package design to processing, logistics and distribution, byproduct production and more.

• Determining what can be prevented from being generated in the first place.

• Considering how to reduce the company’s carbon footprint and the logistics of where things need to move.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), about 6-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if food were no longer wasted. Everything a company can do to reduce, reuse and recycle helps decrease the carbon footprint.

Companies need to think through not only how a waste product can be recycled, but also how the organization can reduce the volume being generated. Often, this means going back to the beginning and looking at the complete process from a different perspective. Evaluating overages is one example—not just focusing on the waste at the end (consumer homes and groceries); rather, evaluating design, generation, ultimate disposal and usage along the way.

Important questions a sustainability partner should ask include:

• Where is the organization in its sustainability endeavors?

• Is it on pace with—or has it already met—the USDA and EPA goal?

• Is the focus right now primarily on the packaging piece?

• What are the things that cannot be controlled in the entire food and beverage journey?

One of the obstacles standing in the way of achieving some of these goals has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Research from Ernst & Young LLP indicated the supply chain was largely affected throughout the pandemic and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, creating many challenges for the food and beverage industry, including high volumes of excess waste. Logistics and supply chain obstacles have resulted in increased food and beverage spoilage and more of these products ending up in landfills. Brands must look beyond just dollar figures as there are many environmental issues to address as well.

An appropriate partner works alongside the organization to determine the best sustainability solutions for the company’s specific needs and does not have a one-size-fits-all approach. A sustainability partner can work with the distribution network to build, develop or evaluate solutions to cut back on product waste, as well as find solutions for packaging.

Solutions for the waste

Food and beverage manufacturers must be assured they have the brand protection, proper management technique and sustainability solution for nonviable products, whether it be spoiled, overage, damaged or other. This may come with a process to look at product packaging as a component of the overarching journey.

Wastes come in many forms—liquids and solids products, as well as a variety of packaging. This leads to complex management in building a variety of solutions—based on volumes, mix, separation, pre-processing, packaging and material—that fit various recycling solutions. Such solutions may be composting, ethanol and sugar recovery, anaerobic digestion, substitutes for fossil fuels, and/or recycling. Most importantly, the manufacturer can ensure it is not landfilled. For example: Every day, millions of filled (or unfilled) cans and bottles do not make it to store shelves. Thinking beyond cans and bottles, drink dispensers in fast-food restaurants and gas stations often require use of refill cups and bags of concentrate or other substances that may not be able to be utilized for various reasons. While these materials may not be as visible to the consumer, improper management of these materials does ultimately impact the consumer.

Vetting a sustainability partner

Initially, vetting an ideal sustainability partner includes looking at the organization’s long-term goals and projections. To minimize or achieve zero waste, food and beverage brands should not be forced to choose services from a preset menu. Rather, the partner’s solution should be tailored to a specific organization’s waste journey and develop unique sustainable solutions aligned with its waste generation, sustainability goals and growth plans. Enhanced tracking, reporting and data analysis of waste streams to monitor performance and measure against financial and corporate sustainability goals should also be a priority.

The partnership should be a long-term program, not simply a line-item pricing procurement model. It takes time to develop solutions that will bring a company to zero waste—no uniform, standardized approach exists. From one food and beverage manufacturer to the next, different needs are at play and different products and materials generated. Additionally, almost every organization is at a different place on its sustainability path. Some are just trying to get out of landfill before they can begin to think about reducing materials, while others are challenged with accurate data and risk or taking final steps toward achieving zero waste. A sustainability partner should have the experience to assist at any stage and move the organization forward.

The chosen third-party sustainability partner must take many considerations into account and look at all pieces of the puzzle. Finding a partner who can solve the very difficult challenge of making it easy to properly manage food, beverage and packaging waste is an easy thing to say, but a hard thing to do.

A partner should have no limitations on the type of waste problem an organization needs to solve. The two organizations should work together to find ways to make it easier to recycle, repurpose and/or reuse—or in some cases, safely destroy—spoiled products or unsalable components of a product. Food and beverage manufacturers need a partner who will take a hands-on, dedicated approach to recycling and beneficially reusing waste that would otherwise go into landfills, providing customized waste disposal and recycling solutions.

At the base of every sustainability program should be strong compliance. A partner should offer the core benefit of compliance and risk avoidance. This includes not only ensuring programs are developed to uphold compliance with all environmental regulations, but also focusing on the future, keeping brands from risk and expensive costs down the line, and putting the organization’s best interest first. A partner should not only be able to build a sustainability program, but also have a team of compliance experts to support it.

Finding a true long-term partner instead of a vendor is key. Because the journey to zero waste can be long, the partnership should be as well. Organizations should seek a vendor who is willing to look at and be a partner for all the products, instead of piecemeal. If only looking at packaging waste but not spoiled products or other materials, or vice versa, food and beverage manufacturers could potentially be missing the bigger picture. Companies should want (and they deserve) a partner who has expertise in all areas.

Benefits of reducing waste streams

From a brand perspective, eliminating waste streams offers many advantages. While protecting the environment and consumers is the priority, brand protection should also be top of mind. Major risks and negative outcomes can result when organizations handle materials and products in a manner that does not ensure brand protection.

Consumers today want more than just quality from the companies they buy from and often look for products and brands that align with their personal values. Sustainability is a big factor when it comes to influencing business decisions.

According to a 2019 Global Web Index (GWI) packaging report, “Sustainable Packaging Unwrapped, 60% of consumers indicated they are likely to switch to a brand that is more environmentally friendly than their current brand. On top of that, nearly a third of consumers did not feel they had enough information about what packaging can be recycled, and of those, 41% said it is because brand campaigns do not give them enough information. In addition, 71% of consumers are willing to pay an added premium—37% more—for companies offering full transparency and traceability, according to an IBM study in partnership with the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Food and beverage manufacturers can and do take advantage of their messaging to consumers regarding the strides being made toward sustainability. For example, sharing steps like moving to 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), reducing use of virgin plastics and sourcing milk from grass-fed cows, or increasing the percent of waste byproducts being either reduced or recycled can be suitable for external marketing.

Consumers and businesses want to know where the manufacturer is on its sustainability journey and how it is producing less waste and increasing product reuse. A waste solutions partner that builds a comprehensive long-term, compliant program to address sustainability goals can help achieve this.

Holly Gamage is the senior director of Clean Earth’s Fullcircle business, an Advanced Waste Lifecycle Program. This program strategically analyzes waste and all related byproducts at each source of generation, including upstream, then builds and offers solutions for recycling and beneficial reuse alternatives for the material. Gamage is responsible for the overall operations, client services, innovation, continuous improvement, development and implementation of Fullcircle. Her leadership has led to teams providing creative innovative solutions for recycling, minimizing waste and building sustainable client partnerships and superior customer-centric programs exceeding client key performance indicators (KPIs).

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