Sustainability for Wholesalers: Addressing Food Waste

Originally printed in the September 2022 issue of Produce Business.

As produce wholesaler-distributors, we are the intermediaries between growers and consumers, and often the unintended source of much of the industry’s food waste. We must recognize the gravity — and opportunities — of unsold, unfit or damaged produce.

In decades past, unusable inventory inevitably became trash. More recently, however, innovative and environmentally conscious food waste diversion outlets have become more widely available. Your facility food waste can be part of a larger sustainability solution instead of one of the industry’s leading problems.

Wasted produce becomes a solution when looked at as an input, rather than an output. As an output: off-grade, misshapen, wrinkled, damaged or otherwise unsold fruits and vegetables go from wholesale facilities to their decaying demise in local landfills. Simply put, they become trash. As an input: the lifecycle of unsold produce extends beyond a landfill, becoming a nutritious meal for locals in need, animal feed, compost, or even a natural energy source.

When wholesalers become problem solvers, it’s possible to affect industry-wide change. Conducting a sustainability audit helps identify your waste footprint, totaling the amount of food waste your operations create. It also pinpoints one or more applicable resolutions to combat or divert this waste in-line with the framework of your business and locally available options. My experiences and the successes of Pete Pappas & Sons’ multi-faceted waste diversion practices have helped me understand the viability of the following four alternatives in the daily fight against wasted wholesale produce.

The first option to lessen food waste is donating to local non-profits. These organizations take unsold, but edible, fresh produce and facilitate access to cooked meals, fresh food boxes, or health education in locally underserved communities. Many make the logistics straightforward and organize their own pick-ups straight from your facility. Donating unsold produce provides a healthy and needed input to nourish the local community, instead of sending it to a landfill.

The next possibility is to find local farms to send product not eligible for donation to feed their livestock. Here, your wasted produce feeds local livestock used for meat and dairy purposes. These farm partnerships provide a landfill alternative where unfit fruit and vegetables are used as an animal feed input.

Another step is to partner with local composting companies that use our industry’s natural waste outputs as their own inputs in a process that creates compost. This extends the useful life of produce, even past the point of human and animal consumption. In addition to damaged or decaying produce, these facilities also accept natural paper, plain cardboard, and even employee meal scraps.

Switching to compostable paper products (plates, cups, napkins, paper towels) at your facility also reduces trash creation and allows even more day-to-day waste to enter the compost stream. Drop-offs to composting facilities replace trash pickups and enable food and other biodegradable waste inputs to become compost.

While compost can be used to enrich the soil and grow more crops, those same natural input materials can also be used to create energy. An up-and-coming fourth option, is partnering with a biogas or anerobic digestion facility (as available locally to you). They take biodegradable materials and process them to create electricity, heat, and/or natural gas. This is a prime example of unusable produce inputs being upcycled into locally usable outputs.

Employing one or more of these diversion practices can significantly reduce the volume of food-based trash produced and the costs of its disposal. At Pete Pappas & Sons, a zero food-waste goal set in 2018 has impressively diverted over 3 million pounds away from landfills each year since implementation. The company’s multi-step approach combines food donations with frequent drop-offs to both local farm partners and composting facilities to reach this goal.

The impacts are clear, the number of costly trash pickups has gone from over 20 per month down to only one. The company has successfully reduced landfill contributions and the associated costs by over 90% through diversion activities that have become engrained in company culture and are practiced daily.

For me, the goal is our unsold produce will never leave Pete Pappas & Sons as trash, because it simply isn’t. Instead, it is community nourishment, animal feed, compost or energy. Farmers didn’t grow their produce to have it rot in a landfill. Given so many viable alternatives, the stakes are too high, and results are too attainable to ignore.

Looking through the lens of sustainability, the largest waste output in our industry is simultaneously the key to the solution. My hope is we use fresh produce to build our businesses, further our industry, support our American farms, feed our communities, and fuel our sustainable programs. Our produce has no use in a landfill.

Helen Pappas is the director of marketing and sustainability at Pete Pappas and Sons, Jessup, MD, a fourth-generation fresh produce grower and distributor. In 2022, as the company celebrates its 80th year in business, Helen made the industry’s 40 Under 40 list and garnered the company an impressive Maryland Sustainability Leadership Award.