"I feel like a character in a movie," said Holly Elmore, a 53-year-old former caterer from Atlanta. She has in mind one of those Erin Brockovich whistleblowers, thrust into the spotlight for sounding a public alarm. A supercharged talker, with a blizzard of facts and blazing green eyes, Elmore is indeed waging a big-screen worthy crusade.
But it's not against toxins and corporate greed. It's against America's rising tide of food waste, which bloats its landfills and costs it the equivalent of $165 billion a year in wasted food. Elmore is helping food companies and communities reclaim those losses, while also helping give rise to new industries, from compost haulers to app makers.
In February 2009, Elmore's non-profit group, Elemental Impact, convinced Atlanta officials and its biggest food-service outfits to launch the nation's first-ever Zero Waste Zone around its downtown hotels, restaurants, convention and sports centers. The goal is to eliminate every scrap of food waste. Spent grease is turning into biofuel. Excess food is now donated to shelters and soup kitchens. Used food is diverted to feedstock. And food deemed inedible is now turned to compost for new urban gardens around the city.
Atlanta food companies are managing to save thousands of dollars a month in hauling and disposal fees, all while creating new revenue streams -- from selling compost and used grease to drawing in new customers who favor their social responsibility. The effort has also stimulated a micro-economy of biofuel makers, compost haulers, urban farmers and recycling outfits. "Food companies understand, and we make this our primary pitch to them, that this is not just about the environment," Elmore said. "This is about money."
Each year, Americans throw away 40 percent of our food, much of it perfectly edible. It's lost in every part of the food chain, from farms, where a surplus crop gets plowed under, to grocery chains that overstock and then throw out perfectly good food because it doesn't meet standards of perfect shape and colors that customers have come to expect. (Supermarkets throw out $15 billion in fruits and vegetables each year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.) Whether it's last week's home-cooked leftovers, forgotten fruit turning brown in a refrigerator or those end-of-shift fast food burgers and fries, it all winds up burdening our landfills.
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says food waste accounts for 13 percent of total trash nationally. In 1980, food waste by weight made up 9.5 percent of local landfills. Two years ago, that total had grown to 20.5 percent. The EPA puts the total amount at 33 million tons a year.
For a luxury catering outfit like Atlanta's Affairs to Remember, which plates 700-person weddings and corporate banquets, food waste has always been a cost of doing business. The $10 million outfit, among the largest in the United States, now trains its 250 workers to hold back good food until guests need it or ask for it; to cut produce and meat so that every usable piece of it goes onto a plate; and to separate out food scraps from other refuse for composting, which is no longer sent to a landfill but to a local composter.
"Since we started this with Holly in 2009, we've diverted 250 tons out of the landfill," said Patrick Cuccaro, the company's general manager. In addition to trimming 10 percent off its bottom line, Cuccaro said the company has taken in $250,000 in additional revenue. "It's a return on investment," he said. "It makes us different to brides or to corporate party planners. They look for this type of responsibility because the companies they work for are looking for it. We're walking the walk. And that is paying off for us in a big way."
The Georgia World Congress Authority, which runs the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, the 20-acre Centennial Olympic Park and the fourth-largest convention center in the United States, hired its own sustainability director two years ago for the same reason. "It's a competitive advantage and it sets us apart because we've made it a priority," said director Tim Trefzer.
In a city dominated by industries with huge recycling efforts (soft drink giant Coca-Cola, paper-maker Georgia Pacific and the world's largest aluminum maker and recycler, Novelis), it's a great business-to-business model. The Atlanta Falcons, who play at the Dome, agreed to a recycling sponsorship with Novelis, which provided them with 8-yard recycling containers that are used to encourage recycling at tailgate parties. "What we recycle on our campuses gets re-used by these major companies," Trefzer said.
A growth opportunity
Food waste happens along every part of our industrial food chain. In surplus years, farmers plow under perfectly edible crops because it costs less to do that than to bring them to a food bank. They also throw out edible produce because of blemishes. But Dana Gunders, a project scientist with the non-profit National Resources Defense Council, which put out a comprehensive issue paper on food waste in August, said there are many opportunities for new business to spring up along the food waste system.
Gunders pointed to one farmer who realized 70 percent of his carrots went to waste because they were too bent or curved to meet retail standards. So he cut them into "baby carrots" and sold them for 50 cents a pound compared to the 1.7 cents he got for regular carrots. She also noted that one of the nation's largest retail grocers, the $16 billion Stop & Shop chain, saved itself $100 million a year in food loss partly by realizing its approach of piling produce deep and high was leading to spoilage and unhappy customers coming across spoiled product.
"There can be real gains for the business world," Gunders said, "and real opportunity for producers to be speaking to retailers, for business-to business innovators, for real enterprising folks to scoop up surplus food occurring all along the food chain out there."
An estimated $47 billion annually year is lost at the retail and consumer levels each each year, according to researchers at the Dutch journal Food Policy. A big problem, Gunders said, is the amount of food being tossed by supermarkets out before its sell-by date, which is not regulated by law. The sell-by date is meant to help stores keep items fresh and to help with stocking. But stores often throw out products days before the sell-by date because they don't want shoppers thinking their products aren't fresh.
Gunders cited one expert who estimates that supermarkets lose $2,300 per store every day in food that is still edible but has no channel to find consumers. This is another place for business innovation, she said. "In France, they have a smartphone app that sends out alerts so stores can tell consumers when they have a surplus of something or want to sell something that they need to move off the shelf," she said.
Noting that household food waste is often the result of bad meal planning, poor sight lines in the refrigerator that lets food rot unseen and refrigerators running too cold, or not cold enough, she said there are numerous technological fixes: from apps that help with meal planning and keeping track of groceries to smart refrigerators that do this as well and maintain the appropriate temperature at all times. These fixes could save consumers collectively hundreds of millions of dollars a year, since we seem to waste as much as 25 percent of the food and drinks we bring home -- the equivalent of $2,275 annually for the average family of four, according to researcher Jonathan Bloom in his 2010 book on the topic, "American Wasteland."
Leaving nothing to waste
Of course, some food has to be wasted, from scraps left on our plates to the inedible bits and pieces of meat and produce remaining from meal preparation. And that should head into composting pile. But less than three percent of food waste is composted, according to the EPA. Some of that has to do with regulatory hurdles that composters face to open new facilities. They are regulated as landfills, which are harder to open, or they get closed once neighbors complain about food-rot odor. The industry, including some 3,500 independent composters, as well as haulers and equipment makers, is ripe for consolidation. The nation's biggest waste players, such as the $13.6 billion Waste Management, are buying up smaller players, both for composting and for using food waste in methane gas capture.
In Atlanta, the zero-waste zone downtown "has brought new players into the market, lots of entrepreneurs and energy," said Abbey Patterson, head of the non-profit Atlanta Recycles, which advocates businesses and government for better recycling practices. She praised Elmore for seeing the business sense in what is often viewed as a strictly environmental issue, which can be a stumbling block for both the private and public sector. "If you don't go into these companies and to these government leaders saying you're gonna create jobs and raise money for business," she said, "you're basically lost."
That's also a sentiment increasingly expressed on the other side of corporate desk. "When it comes to economic impact, the early adopters are going to be the ones to hit pay dirt," said Cuccaro, whose Affairs to Remember catering outfit has already seen a quarter-million-dollar boost to its bottom line.
"If you are not in this conversation in the next two or three years, you are going to be increasingly less relevant to the buying public. Because it's a mega-movement, not a trend, that is moving up the food chain and the age chain. The younger you are and the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to understand it. All types of corporations are going to figure it out or be left in the dust."
Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the color of Holly Elmore's eyes (they are green, not blue) and the date that the Atlanta Zero Waste Zone began (Feb. 2009, not last January). We regret the errors.