Why and How to Measure Food Loss and Waste

Making the Change - Why and How to Measure Food Loss and Waste

Measuring and reducing food loss and waste is a big adjustment for many businesses, institutions and other organizations. Achieving significant reductions means challenging key assumptions about how a system operates. To accomplish significant change, you must prepare for it.

Within an organization, individuals will find many reasons to resist taking action on FLW. These concerns are often legitimate and should not be disregarded. However, they generally fall into broad categories.

“We don’t waste any food.”

FLW occurs whenever food that could have otherwise been sold and safely eaten is discarded. Opportunities to prevent and reduce FLW exist in all organizations and all stages of the food supply chain (i.e., from food production to consumption). Causes of FLW at different stages of the supply chain are highlighted in Table 4 of this guide.

While some organizations may focus on directing wasted food to beneficial end uses, such as animal feed, bioproducts and composting, they can profit more by taking steps to minimize the amount of FLW generated in the first place.

Simply put, FLW represents an operational inefficiency to an organization—the costs of which compound over time. Minimizing the amount of FLW generated from the outset (i.e. before it needs to be managed as waste) is good for the long-term financial health of an organization. Measurement helps to identify where those money saving opportunities exist, by pinpointing where ongoing FLW is generated within a facility.

“We already have too much going on to measure something else.”

Many sustainability managers are already tasked with overseeing various measurements, such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or water use. Measurement of FLW can seem like an added burden. However, FLW represents an operational inefficiency that not only costs a business directly but also relates to many other environmental impacts, including land, water, and greenhouse gases. Profit margins for food businesses are often slim and addressing inefficiencies can cause significant benefits for a company’s bottom line. So although FLW may seem like “just another thing to measure,” it in fact can lead to significant benefits for the business.

Initial measurements may be aided by existing records to provide a cost-effective start. Inventory records and waste transfer receipts can provide an early estimate of FLW levels with minimal investment. These records can help to ease whatever time burden that FLW measurement may represent for a company or organization. The “Records” section in Appendix A provides more information about using such documents to estimate FLW levels.

“It’s not worth the cost to measure FLW.”

The cost of measuring and implementing changes to prevent and reduce FLW is small relative to the long-term economic upside. Measuring FLW helps to identify where operational and process inefficiencies may exist, and also helps to signal where corrective action is needed. Many approaches to measuring FLW can be achieved with minimal investment, while others may require higher levels of investment. The “Sector-Specific Guidance” module in this guide offers tables displaying a range of methods for measuring FLW along with the level of resources required.

The upfront costs associated with FLW measurement, prevention and reduction are frequently paid back within a relatively short time period, often within a period of less than one year. The module “The Business Case for FLW Measurement, Prevention and Reduction” provides more information about payback periods for investments.

“This is the way we’ve always done things.”

Generating FLW is often built into the assumptions of how a business or organization operates. For example, in a restaurant that operates a buffet, a certain amount of leftover food may be expected as “the cost of doing business.” However, measuring those leftovers might pinpoint opportunities to prevent and reduce FLW and save money (e.g. using smaller plate sizes, discontinuing unpopular dishes).

Different parts of a business or organization will also have different perspectives on FLW. A chef in a restaurant may think of “food waste” as food that gets thrown away from the refrigerators, but not consider waste from food preparation or plate waste. A server in that same restaurant may not think about food that’s getting thrown away from refrigerators, but may be very aware of the food that customers leave on their plates. By ensuring that everyone is using the same definition and considering all potential sources, you may be able to overcome some resistance to FLW measurement and reduction. The “Setting Your Scope” module of this guide can help you establish a common definition.

“This isn’t working.”

If a change is not going smoothly it is important to understand why this is the case. Each of the following elements can greatly improve the likelihood of success:

  • senior management commitment and support
  • sufficient resources (funding, time, expertise)
  • concrete plan that allocates responsibilities
  • employee awareness and training
  • internal “champions” to foster action

In one case, the Provision Coalition worked with Ippolito Fruit & Produce in Canada to prevent and reduce FLW in its operations. For the “reinforcement” stage in the change management process, they identified key steps to help keep the change in motion (Mereweather 2018):

  • Gathering feedback from employees
  • Developing accountability and performance management systems
  • Auditing and identifying compliance with the change
  • Finding root causes of FLW and taking corrective action
  • Recognizing, celebrating and rewarding successes

These steps can help keep people on board with the difficult process of making a change toward FLW measurement, prevention and reduction. Like any new change, there will be challenges along the way. But if a business has a strong case and rationale, these challenges can be overcome.