Repurpose, reuse, recycle – cutting waste in food manufacturing

Posted on 17 Apr 2024 by The Manufacturer

Sarah Peck, Procurement Specialist at Nestlé UK & Ireland, outlines some of the steps manufacturers are taking to cut food waste from their operations – and some of the lessons the wider sector can learn.

There is a clear consensus – among policymakers, businesses and consumers – that more needs to be done to tackle food waste. UK households and businesses produce around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste a year, which has a value of more than £19bn. Of this a large quantity is edible waste, and it is estimated that more than 15 billion meals could have been made from it.

Get involved in Stop Food Waste Day on 24 April.

Supermarkets have come under scrutiny for their efforts in ensuring that products on their shelves don’t end up going in the bin. And consumers are regularly urged to avoid waste at home. But we know that tackling waste begins in the factory, and that food manufacturers have a big role to play too.

We all have an ethical responsibility to make sure we are not wasting food. With food insecurity at an all-time high, we’d be remiss not to be looking at what we can do to prevent quality food from going to waste.

So, where can businesses start? Whether you’re at the beginning of your journey to eradicate food waste from your operations, or looking for ways to elevate your existing efforts, below are some of the steps you can take to make your factory as efficient as possible and cut food waste. And for those not in the food industry, it’s worth thinking about how these tips can be applied in different settings.

Identifying efficiencies

About seven years ago we started a campaign at all of our UK factories called ‘Waste Not, Want Not’. To start with, we went to every factory and walked the lines to see where waste was being created.

It’s a simple first step but one that is so crucial to helping to map out where processes can be improved to prevent waste – whether that means changing the way we work to reduce surplus, or finding ways for that surplus to be recycled or redistributed.

We’ve been able to identify the main challenges when it comes to products that can’t go through our usual route to market, and put systems in place to divert them to more useful channels. That might be if the packaging is wrong or doesn’t cover the product properly, when chocolate bars have become stuck together, or when something isn’t the standard shape shoppers expect.

Products in all these scenarios are perfectly edible and we don’t want them going to waste, so we look at different ways of ensuring they can be used.

The most important thing to remember is that to make the biggest impact, we need to work together. While we should all be proud of our individual achievements, doing the right thing isn’t a competition. We’re all working towards the same goal. We’re going to be far more successful in reaching that goal if like-minded businesses collaborate to maximise the use of ‘waste’ produce.

Industry partnerships

At Nestlé, we’ve joined forces with the organisations like Company Shop, Wonki Collective, Sweet Dreams and SugaRich, all specialists in food surplus, to make sure all unused, quality produce from our factories can be put to good use. That might be raw ingredients that could go out of date before we can use them and would otherwise go to waste, or finished products that are of good quality but can’t be sold by our customers.

Working with this group of organisations, we are able to maximise our ability to redistribute all factory surplus. This helps increase commercial return, keep as much product as possible in the food chain and minimise food waste.

We’ve also started to identify where we can reuse the component parts of our final products. For example, praline needs to be used within a certain amount of time, but can’t be distributed to consumers in the same way as raw ingredients and finished products. In the past this would have gone to waste, but now if we know we’re not going to be able to use it, we send it to be used elsewhere by another manufacturer.

All businesses can think about how other complementary organisations might benefit from their waste produce, or find another way to put it to good use.

Innovative thinking

Not all waste products will be of sufficient quality to be reused for their originally-intended purpose. But that doesn’t mean that the product must be sent to landfill; businesses can get creative with finding alternative uses for some of the byproducts.

For example, our Nescafé factory in Tutbury is fuelled by the coffee beans that it makes. It uses 160,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds every year to produce steam energy, which is then used to power the factory.

We are also looking at whether we can use inedible products for spreading on land as fertiliser or anaerobic digestion. For example, in September 2023, we announced a two-year trial to assess whether cocoa shells from our confectionery site in York could be used to create a low carbon fertiliser.

It is important for Nestlé, as the world’s largest food manufacturer, to set an example on food waste. It is difficult, but it’s an area that I have so much passion about, and that passion is shared by so many of my colleagues.

We have sent zero waste from our factories to landfill since 2014 and we will achieve our target of a 25% reduction in food waste by 2025 from 2016 too, which is great news.

We’re going to keep looking for new ways to cut waste all the way across our operations, including our factories. But, more importantly, we want to bring the industry together and open conversations between different organisations, because that is how we’re going to make the biggest difference.

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