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PCFWC & ReFED find ‘real food waste reductions at scale’ in a new study of West Coast US grocery retailers

April 11, 2024

  • West Coast US grocery retailers decreased their number of tons of unsold food by 25% from 2019 – 2022, according to a new report from the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment (PCFWC), a public-private partnership between food businesses and West Coast jurisdictions to cut food waste in the region.
  • The report was produced in partnership with nonprofit and food waste think-tank ReFED.
  • The study suggests more robust waste tracking and inventory systems along with identifying key areas for food waste reduction as potential solutions.

‘Real food waste reductions at scale’

PCFWC defines unsold food as “all food that went unsold in each grocery store food department, including edible food and inedible scraps (pits, peels, etc.).”

Unsold food rates in the West Coast region decreased by 28% from 2019 to 2022, according to PCFWC’s study. This three-year decline also led to an estimated 30% decrease in the carbon footprint of unsold food in the region, which equates to taking roughly 270,000 passenger vehicles off the road each year.

PCFWC notes a “slight increase” in unsold food rates from 2020 to 2021, likely due to supply chain upheaval and other changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The study also notes that “it is likely that the destinations of unsold food in this region skew towards rescue and recycling solutions due to the progressive organics management policies of the PCFWC states and jurisdictions.” PCFWC regions include California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

In 2022, the average rate of unsold food in grocery stores was 3.2% for the region, down from 3.8% in 2021.

“In the more than a decade I’ve spent focused on the issue, this is by far the largest proof point we’ve ever seen using actual data that’s pointing to real food waste reductions at scale,” noted ReFED executive director Dana Gunders.

“We’re not only seeing prevention numbers that far exceeded our expectations, but we’re also seeing increases in donations and composting.”

The unsold story of food waste

Produce remains the highest in terms of percentage of unsold food, with 37.2% left unsold in 2022. Dairy & Eggs followed, at 12.4%, along with Breads & Bakery (12.2%) and Prepared foods (10.5%).

For the latter two categories, the study notes that “The unpredictable demand and perishability of these departments could contribute to their high unsold food rates.”

PCFWC names a number of solutions to cutting waste in departments with higher percentages, including improved demand forecasting and inventory control as well as identifying “hotspots” for food waste reduction activities.

More accuracy a must for tracking food waste

ReFED estimates that 38% of the 235 million tons of food produced each year in the US goes unsold or uneaten. This “surplus food,” as it’s called, sometimes gets donated (to food banks or via food redistribution apps, for example); most of it becomes food waste and winds up in the landfill, incinerator or sewer.

PCFWC’s research also includes the category Unknown, which “quantifies the proportion of unsold food with a final destination that cannot be accounted for within a retailer’s tracking system.”

The organization’s calculator model assumes untracked food waste goes to the landfill, which could in turn mean that the negative impacts of food waste — financial and environmental — could be higher than actually reported.

The solution, says PCFWC, is more robust waste tracking systems in the grocery retail industry: “In the retail industry, reporting inaccuracies are often caused by a lack of standard procedures or employee training, outdated supply chain technology, or other operational gaps.

“Enhanced accuracy in tracking is not just a matter of operational efficiency but is crucial for environmental sustainability. By identifying and addressing the gaps in food waste reporting, retailers can take more effective steps toward reducing their environmental footprint.”

The good news is that this most recent study found some positive trends in terms of where unsold food ends up: PCFWC notes a decline in unsold food going to an unknown destination from 2019 to 2022. Over the same timeframe, the study notes a 28% increase in unsold food getting composted and a 20% increase in unsold food being donated.

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