Why one company wants to end food waste to tackle climate change
We are in the midst of a climate crisis, where overpopulation, urban sprawl, and carbon emissions are pushing our planet to the brink of ecological collapse. According to the Sixth Assessment Report (AP6) recently released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the key to averting disaster is to reduce excess carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to zero before mid-century.
The net effect of this, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will be an average global temperature increase to 2.7 °F (1.5 °C) between now and 2100. This will still lead to a significant disruption to the world's ecological systems and several humanitarian crises. However, the changes predicted in this scenario will at least be sustainable.
The second scenario, where carbon emissions remain unchanged between now and mid-century, will result in an average temperature increase of 3.6 °F (2 °C). The level of disruption experienced in this case will be such that life will become untenable in some parts of the world, leading to far greater ecological, humanitarian, and geopolitical crises.
For many, this sounds like an impossible task, and the guilt associated with "not doing enough" can be stifling. But in truth, there are countless things people, as individuals and communities, can do that will make a monumental difference.
Many organizations have mobilized to combat this feeling of "eco-shaming" and offer solutions - even if they are "imperfect." One of these is Imperfect Foods, whose mission is to help eliminate food waste, one of the greatest drivers of excess greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
By delivering healthy and sustainable food to your door that would otherwise have been thrown away by farmers and producers for not being "perfect" in its appearance.
Combined with eco-friendly procedures that reduce the level of vehicle emissions, reusing and recycling packing materials, and allowing for cooperation with local farmers, Imperfect Foods is part of a constellation of businesses that are hoping to trigger a revolution in how people perceive, buy, and treat their food.
The idea and purpose of Imperfect Foods arose from a relatively simple observation. Every year in North America, millions of tons of fruits, vegetables, and other foods are thrown away because they're deemed "imperfect." This extends beyond food that has past its conservatively-estimated "best before" expiry date and includes foods considered cosmetically flawed.
As Maddy Rotman, the Head of Sustainability at Imperfect Foods, explained to Interesting Engineering via Zoom:
"We really started Imperfect to save ugly fruits and veggies because it really felt wrong for fruits and vegetables to get tossed aside because they just look different. And from there, we were sourcing knobby carrots, oversized sweet potatoes, tiny lemons, tiny apples [etc.] that were basically deemed imperfect or not sellable by conventional retail. And these are items that would either get left in the field, composted, tilled under, or landfilled."
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the "Wasted Food Report," which estimated that 103 million tons of food waste were generated in 2018 alone by the industrial, residential, commercial, and institutional sectors. Subsequent figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture painted an even starker picture.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), roughly 30% of all food in the U.S. (worth about $48.3 billion) is thrown away every year. This figure is staggering from a humanitarian standpoint, especially when one considers the number of people worldwide facing chronic food deprivation and undernourishment (around 820 million).
Even worse, there's the number of lives lost every year from starvation, which accounted for around 9 million deaths in 2018 and claimed the lives of around 3.1 million children each year. However, these figures become even more appalling when considering how this wasted food contributes to climate change.
On the one hand, this is the result of agriculture, which is energy-intensive and requires a considerable amount of resources. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which is overseen by the UN World Food Programme (WFP), agriculture worldwide generated the equivalent of 10.25 billion tons (9.3 billion metric tons) of CO2 emissions in 2018 alone.
This includes burning fossil fuels, methane emissions from livestock, and the associated deforestation and land use. On the other hand, landfills are notorious for methane emissions resulting from decaying food and organic waste.
According to the EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), landfill emissions account for almost 17% of anthropogenic methane produced annually in the U.S. In 2020, they accounted for the equivalent of 120.5 million tons (109.3 million metric tons) of CO2 emissions.
*Project Drawdown is a San Fransisco-based nonprofit that seeks to help the world achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and then reduce them to pre-industrial levels (aka. "drawdown").
A significant contribution
Fortunately, the nature of this problem also points the way toward solutions. According to Project Drawdown*, about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste. If food waste were eliminated, Drawdown estimates that 90.70 gigatons (Gt) of excess CO2 would not be added to the atmosphere between now and 2050.
This is consistent with the strategies identified in the latest IPCC Working Group II Report: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. As the report summarizes, ensuring that average global temperatures do not exceed 1.5°C would entail that anthropogenic CO2 emissions be reduced to 25 to 30 Gt by 2030, reaching net-zero by 2050.
In short, the single greatest thing people in the developed world can do is reduce the amount of food they throw away. While this may seem like a monumental task (and which can sometimes lead to a sense of shame), there are simple things that people can do that will collectively add up to major changes. As Rotman explained:
"When we source food, and it was going to be wasted, we actually avoid greenhouse gases of growing more food and of the end of life of landfilling that food... All of the food we saved actually avoids the emissions, the energy, the land use, the soil, the water, and the labor of having to grow more food. And that's the connector. If all of our customers are collectively able to buy food that would have been wasted, that's how they can save more food and reduce greenhouse gases."
In this respect, their work is consistent with carbon prevention strategies complementary to carbon capture and carbon removal. These and other strategies are the subject of the Working Group III Report of the IPCC AR6 - titled "Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change" - released in April of this year.
In 2015, Imperfect Foods began by delivering fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste. Between 2019 and 2021, they expanded their product line to include meats, roots, tubers, legumes, and other pantry staples to customers' doorsteps. As of 2022, their fulfillment centers and services are also available in thirty states across the U.S.
"The groceries are delicious, fresh, and sometimes imperfect, but they're a fair value for customers, farmers, and the environment," said Rotman. "In doing that, our vein of existence is to eliminate food waste because it's the most sustainable choice and the most sustainable thing you can do. But we're also conscious of the entire fabric of sustainability."
How it works
To break it down, prospective customers go online and create an account with Imperfect Foods, which includes indicating their food preferences and any nutritional or special considerations they have (like allergies, weight loss goals, etc.). Foods are then recommended based on a list of local, sustainably sourced, seasonal, and affordable products that meet the customer's requirements.
The customer then selects which ones they would like delivered to their door every week, which are dropped off by a single vehicle that makes deliveries to multiple locations in a community. This delivery method prevents excess CO2 emissions by reducing the number of people making multiple trips to the grocery store - similar to how carpooling works.
The food is also delivered in 100% recycled boxes. The delivery truck also makes return runs to collect packaging, hard-to-recycle plastic insulation, and gel cooler packs from their consumers. The ultimate goal is not just the prevention of waste, said Maddy, but correcting for the systemic problems that allow for it:
"When we started, we definitely thought it was the food that was imperfect. We talked about imperfect carrots. We showed the scars on the oranges. But what we found is it's not the food that's imperfect; it's the system. The system makes it too easy to waste perfectly good food. And people really want to prevent waste, but the system makes building new habits and behaviors really challenging. So we want to make it easy for you to save food."
In addition, those who sign up for deliveries also have access to several resources on their website. One particularly interesting feature is the Storage Guide which offers tips on how to organize food (i.e., where to place it in the fridge, how to organize counter space). They also send recipes via their blog - The Whole Carrot - that provides customers with tips on making groceries go further.
This is something users can contribute to as a way of "crowdsourcing" solutions and creating a community of food-saving individuals. As Rotman explained, this is in keeping with their philosophy of "using the whole [food]," including the greens. For example, he points out that for carrots, "You can either put them into [a] broth if you make veggie broth at home, but you can also make pesto, chimichurri, or different sauces. So, fun, creative ways that our team will help you along the way to reduce your food waste at home."
This is consistent with the company's goal of becoming a net-zero carbon company by 2030. It's also consistent with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, a series of 17 global goals designed to be implemented by mid-century. Specifically, Imperfect Foods is helping to fulfill Goal #2: End World Hunger, which states:
"After decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.
"The world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger [will] surpass 840 million by 2030... With more than a quarter of a billion people potentially at the brink of starvation, swift action needs to be taken to provide food and humanitarian relief to the most at-risk regions."
Not only are global levels of malnutrition and starvation on the rise, but they are expected to increase as the global population continues to grow. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) projections, an additional 2 billion people will be added by 2050, bringing the global population to about 10 billion.
To meet these demands, the UN Sustainable Development Goals stress that a profound change is needed in the global food and agriculture system and that "[i]ncreasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger."
Because of their efforts, Imperfect customers saved 44 million lbs (20 million kg) of food in 2021 alone. Since the company launched in 2015, they have managed to save a total of 145,823,731 lbs (66 million kg) of food from going to waste. This is all the more impressive when one considers how their service has also reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
By purchasing and selling food that would otherwise go to waste, combined with their unique delivery method, Imperfect Foods prevented the equivalent of 20,663 tons of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere in 2020 and 25,620 tons in 2021. These accomplishments have earned the company its BCorp accreditation, a privilege reserved for industry leaders that promote "an inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy."
Another issue in eliminating food waste is the feelings of guilt and shame often associated with it. Like other environmental efforts, there is the pervasive idea that simple solutions are "not enough," leading to feelings of helplessness and a lack of committed action. For this reason, one of the purposes of Imperfect Foods, said Rotman, is to shift the focus away from "eco-shaming" and onto simple solutions that everyone can participate in:
"All of our farmers want a place for the food they have grown, and all of these customers want to participate in eliminating food waste. [They] want to know what they can do to be sustainable, and this is what they can do. This is a really easy way to participate and not feel bad, not feel guilty, and not feel all the pressure about all the things the world tells you to do. You can just shop, and you can consume, and we'll help you eliminate your food waste at home as well."
In honor of Earth Month, Imperfect Foods conducted a national survey of more than 1,000 individuals, most of whom stressed that the issue of sustainable living was very important to them. Of the people surveyed, 74% admitted that they struggled with feelings of guilt and shame over the amount of food waste generated in their households.
In addition, 35% of those surveyed indicated there was a breaking point where they felt too much pressure to be "perfect." The key to overcoming these feelings, says Rotman, is to help individuals see that there are simple and effective solutions that do not require that individuals be perfect:
"We all want to do better, and philosophically it feels really easy. But when you get down to it, it's actually really challenging. This shame and this pressure aren't going to help us eliminate food waste. We have to learn new habits, new skills, and new ways to store sweet potatoes or cook the leftover greens in the back corner of your fridge."
"We have to be honest and accepting of all the challenges and be 'perfectly imperfect.' And that's what we're going after with consumers, community, and all the imperfectionists that are part of it (or will be). [The question is] how can we not shame anyone and meet you where you are and build a community of 'perfectly imperfect' people who can collectively help us eliminate food waste?"
A growing movement
In recent years, many companies have emerged that have made sustainability their business model. Whereas some are general in their approach, others are more targeted and specific. For example, there's Wtrmln Wtr, a cold-pressed juice company created after the founders learned that hundreds of millions of pounds of watermelon are regularly left in the fields after being judged "too unattractive for sale."
After launching in 2013, this company has since expanded to include other fruits and produce that also experience significant waste, such as cherries, ginger, and strawberries. Then there's Renewal Mill, a "climate-friendly baking" company that makes nutritious flour and snacks out of tofu and soymilk by-products (which are typically thrown away).
Also, the brewing company Regained takes the by-products of beer-making (protein, fiber, and micronutrients) and turns them into flour, baking mixes, pasta, and snacks like their "SuperGrain+" bars. Similarly, the international brewing company Toast Ale uses surplus bread (one of the highest food waste categories) to create its line of ales.
Some companies are looking to leverage developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence to eliminate food waste. A good example is Winnow Solutions, a company that seeks to make the food industry (one of the greatest sources of food waste) more efficient through its analytics platform, which pinpoints waste and recommends improvements.
Last but not least, advocacy groups are working to educate the public and offer solutions on the local (and global) level. These include the Food Recovery Network, an organization that creates recovery programs on college campuses to help eliminate food waste in dining halls, and Forgotten Harvest, which redistributes surplus foods from grocery stores, markets, restaurants, caterers, farmers, and wholesalers to emergency food providers in Detroit.
These and countless other businesses are living proof that Climate Change solutions can be simple, effective, and undaunting, but also profitable. More to the point, they demonstrate how "imperfect" people (which applies to all of us) have the power to make changes that can add up to something groundbreaking.
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According to a 23-country survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, Climate Change awareness is on the rise. In most developed nations, the number of people who believe that the climate is not changing or that it is not anthropogenic (human-made) in nature is less than 10% (except for the U.S., where it's 13%).
Beyond combatting climate change denial, there's the equally-important issue of promoting action on climate change. When it comes to a pervasive existential threat like Climate Change, many people today feel that they can't make a difference. In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center indicated that these feelings are rather common.
After surveying residents from 17 developed nations spanning North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, this poll found that while 80% of respondents were willing to make changes to their lifestyle, only 56% believed that society was doing a good job addressing Climate Change, while even less (46%) expressed confidence in international efforts.
By letting people know that they don't need to be "perfect" to live sustainably with the environment, groups like Imperfect Food are pointing the way toward some game-changing solutions. By making simple changes, individuals can collectively make significant changes.
To learn more about food waste and changes you can make to eliminate it, Imperfect Foods will be hosting Food Waste Week events in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle from May 16th to 22nd. For more information, check out Imperfect Foods' website, Project Drawdown, and "15 Quick Tips for Reducing Waste" by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO).