Dirty Money: Monetizing Food Waste

Transforming the world’s food systems isn’t just about transforming the way we produce, send, and consume. It’s also about transforming how we deal with the part of the plate that's thrown away. As it stands, roughly one-third of the world’s food gets tossed in the garbage each year, according to a 2011 study by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization.

It's not just restaurants, either. Food waste affects all areas of the industry, from a bakery’s unsold pastries being chucked in the trash to the myriad of still-edible foodstuffs ending up thrown away due to slightly-misleading expiration dates. The staggering scale of lost food presents a sizable problem to food activists seeking to fix hunger, reduce excess waste, and limit harmful methane emissions caused by rotting food.

But, at the same time, food waste offers entrepreneurs an opportunity to harness technology in order to build businesses that turn potential waste into fuel, food, or fertilizer. At a time when the USDA estimates that annual food waste corresponds to a loss of $161 billion dollars, innovation is our best chance to harness the potential of food waste for social justice.

For example, at Dorchester’s Daily Table supermarket, former Trader Joe’s president, Doug Rauch, has tackled the problem of waste by partnering with growers, other supermarkets, and manufacturers. The Daily Table either buys unused food at a discount or receives donations of foodstuffs slated to be disposed. As a result of their inexpensive sourcing model, they are able to keep prices low and offer the surrounding community nutritionally balanced ready-to-go meals at reasonable prices, giving people an opportunity to ditch the fast food in favor of cheap meals that don’t take hours to make, freeing up time, energy, and money.

On the other side of the exchange, however, is Spoiler Alert, a Boston-based startup that serves the New England area by connecting food producers and sellers with companies and non-profits like the Daily Table looking to acquire food that, for one reason or another, will end up in a black garbage bag. The start-up offers a platform with collaboration opportunities, a marketplace, and accounting tools that help companies catalog waste, research tax benefits, and harness data to reduce their waste.

But reusing food isn’t the only opportunity to harness the potential of waste. Tons of food scraps pile up in trash bins everywhere, and unless the world collectively starts making homemade veggie stock, nutrient-rich vegetable peels and other inedible but usable resources will go unused.

This is where services that allow consumers and businesses to compost their food scraps come in. Boston’s own Bootstrap Compost, which has been around since 2011, has monetized their operation by charging eco-conscious customers a fee to pickup compostable food scraps that are then turned into valuable compost and used by local farms.

Some things, such as meats, cannot be composted. For those, the best chance is to reduce the amount of waste being created in the first place. If that proves difficult, there is biogas, a fuel source produced by the methane gases that derive from rotting organic material, which can include meats, manure, and sewage.

It’s not the best food waste fix -- reducing it is better -- but the potential of biogas to utilize waste as fuel source is there, and some places are already beginning to explore it. In Maine, the municipality-owned waste management nonprofit, Ecomaine, has recently partnered with Exeter Agri-Energy in order to divert some of the estimated 40% of organic materials found in Maine’s waste stream for use in the production of biogas, which could power an estimated 800 homes. 

Whatever the solution, innovation is taking on food waste -- and winning. The gate has swung wide open for budding food entrepreneurs interested in capitalizing on the growing business of turning waste into value while helping communities by providing affordable products, helping restaurants conserve food, and turning trash into power.