Food and drinks companies are seeing worth from their waste

There’s a growing recognition that waste can be a resource in its own right. Companies must step back and look at the bigger picture

For many years, waste has been a fact of life for companies in all sectors of the economy. Dealing with it was all about producing as little as possible and complying with rules such as the European Union’s landfill tax.

But increasingly businesses are starting to see waste as more than just an inconvenience – there is a growing recognition that it can be a resource in its own right, potentially a very valuable one.

Some sectors have been doing this for centuries – abattoirs famously manage to make use of almost every part of the animals they slaughter. Even the blood is now being used as a source for biomaterials such as peptides.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

According to the Dutch bank Rabobank, every year “well over one billion tonnes of waste is generated along food and agribusiness supply chains around the world”.

A growing focus by regulators on cutting the amount that goes to landfill, increasing evidence of resource scarcities and the fact that almost one billion people still suffer from hunger or malnourishment are focusing the minds of the sector on how best to deal with their by-products.

Many companies still deal with waste in the most convenient way, for example by selling it as animal feed or compost even if this does not fetch a particularly good price. But some companies are looking beyond the traditional possibilities to create more valuable products.

One of the most promising options is to create energy. The Combination of Rothes Distillery in Rothesay, for example, produces enough energy to power 9,000 homes from a combined heat and power plant that runs on the by-products of the distillery.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s, through a programme called Fries to Fuel, recycles 4.5m litres of used cooking oil each year and turns it into enough biodiesel to fuel half its distribution fleet. “Running our fleet in this way is the equivalent, in terms of carbon emissions savings, of taking 2,500 cars off the roads each year” says Paul Pomroy, Macdonald’s senior vice-president finance.

At British Sugar, they take it even further. The company says “we aim to transform all of our raw materials into sustainable products.” These include topsoil, animal feed, lime, betaine (a chemical used in shampoos), bioethanol and electricity. Even the heat used in its Norfolk sugar factory is piped into the nearby greenhouses of its Cornerways Nursery unit to help produce tomatoes.

IWM (Integrated Waste Management) a unit of waste disposal company Biffa, is powering an entire rubbish truck fleet using biodiesel made from cooking oil it has collected from its food industry customers. “The companies get cheaper waste disposal, we get cheaper fuel and it cuts carbon emissions by 90%,” says Robin Chambers, general manager of IWM. “One man’s by-product is another man’s raw material.”

Consumer impact

However, it is not just in their own operations that companies are looking to make an impact – there is a growing recognition that consumers play an important role too, and that companies can do a lot to help them reduce waste.

McDonald’s, for example, has run litter patrols in many of the towns where it operates since 1982, picking up rubbish from all sources, not just from its own restaurants. It was also a founding partner in Keep Britain Tidy’s Love Where You Live campaign, along with chewing gum maker Wrigley’s and Imperial Tobacco.

Other businesses have focused on reducing the amount of resources consumers use and the amount of waste they produce. For example, brewer AB Inbev has introduced lighter glass bottles made from 75% recycled material, along with recycled cardboard for its multipack boxes. Asda has also introduced new packaging material that extends the shelf life of its vegetables. “About a fifth of all food coming into the home is wasted,” says Fiona Dobson, packaging development manager at the supermarket. “Fresh vegetables and salad make up about a quarter of this, with around 5m potatoes thrown away every day. By harnessing this unique film technology, we can offer the very best quality produce to our customers.”

Changing mindsets

It is not just the food and drinks sector that can benefit from changing its approach. “This applies to everyone, it is an obvious thing to do,” says Martin Barrow, head of footprinting at the Carbon Trust.

However, it can take a bit of lateral thinking for businesses to make the most of the opportunities available, he says. “Many companies are focused on lean manufacturing, which is all about producing as little waste as possible,” Barrow adds. “It requires a change of mindset to produce more waste.” It can also require a step back to look at the bigger picture, he says.

But this is not some temporary fad. The drivers for companies to tackle waste are not going away, particularly in the food and drinks sector. “The global food waste situation warrants more attention from the entire sector, and the need for action is only compounded by the water and energy losses associated with food waste,” says Rabobank analyst Paul Bosch.

While the use of waste as a resource is still in its early days, the benefits are clear and we are likely to see a lot more of this in future as businesses wake up to the potential.