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The 3 Primary Sources of Food and Packaging Waste

According to a recent study of American grocery shoppers, there is a growing concern about how much food is being wasted. People are reportedly more concerned about food waste than air pollution, water shortages, climate change and genetically modified foods.

Mnet 139133 Keith Yeater Lead

This article originally appeared in Food Manufacturing's October 2014 print edition.

Household trash disposal has changed radically in recent decades. From almost zero recycling in the 1970s to minimal recycling in the 1980s, some communities in the United States today are diverting 60 percent or more of their solid waste streams away from landfills. Driven in large part by economic factors β€” market demand for recycled material and rising disposal costs β€” in addition to environmental concerns, this has propelled a dramatic and widespread change in consumer awareness and behavior. This awareness has increased concerns about the amount of perfectly good food that goes to waste every day. 

Like a mid-stage improvement initiative that has already captured all of the easy wins, eliminating additional consumer waste becomes increasingly difficult. Food is one element of that waste stream. According to a recent study of American grocery shoppers by Sealed Air Corporation, there is a growing awareness and concern about how much food is being wasted. People are reportedly more concerned about food waste than air pollution, water shortages, climate change and genetically modified foods. 

Reducing that waste will require some changes that consumers recognize, but have little control over, such as packaging design. According to this study, as you’d expect, consumers regard minimal or no packaging as being more environmentally friendly. At the same time, 40 percent report that they have had to remove original packaging and repackage food, effectively doubling the amount of potential packaging waste. 

Such behavior reflects a clear disconnect between what consumers want and what manufacturers and retailers are giving them. More product packaging that enables flexible usage, and that is re-sealable, could eliminate this repackaging and inconvenience.  

Then there are the upstream opportunities to reduce food and packaging waste that most people don’t even know about. Just as consumer awareness and behavior changes improved recycling rates, a deeper awareness of operational excellence practices could change manufacturing behaviors and eliminate much of the waste. 

Over and again, having worked with numerous manufacturers in this specific area, we have found that there are three leading causes of excessive waste in food manufacturing processes:  

1. Wasteful setup procedures

2. Poor equipment condition and suboptimal production settings

3. Substandard cleanliness and sanitation practices

By addressing each of these areas, as well as the management system that connects them, food and beverage companies can dramatically improve yields and reduce food and packaging losses. 

1. Wasteful Setup Procedures

Poor setup practices increase costs and waste from product loss. In addition to adopting rapid changeover procedures, changes in production scheduling can significantly improve yields. 

For example, one manufacturer of frozen meals dumped food because its production planning cycle was not sophisticated enough to minimize waste when the line switched to a new product. Machines would dispense mashed potatoes and gravy through two separate pipes into each tray. When they switched the line over to another meal configuration, workers would dump any product remaining in the pipes into a trashcan before cleaning out the pipes for the next SKU. 

Working with production managers, it became clear that a scheduling change reduced food waste by aligning production so each pipe processed similar products in sequence. So if multiple meals call for mashed potatoes as a side dish, the plant processes those items consecutively, rather than moving to a dinner that calls for pudding, for instance, and then back to mashed potatoes. 

These types of changes can lead to improved yield β€” up to 0.50 percent per day β€” and also converts food that would have been scrapped at a fee into sellable product. 

2.  Poor Equipment Condition and Suboptimal Production Settings

Poorly maintained equipment and inconsistent production settings can lead to excessive scrap, unnecessary product give-away or quality control problems that render food unsellable. By understanding the sources of variation, site managers can find the optimal equipment settings to ensure product consistency. 

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) practices can also improve consistency and reliability by incorporating machine audits into operator standard work. This reduces quality problems and unexpected line disruptions. TPM practices can also help with implementation of inspection and replacement of equipment wear points before they can contribute to quality issues. 

Without these changes, one multinational food processing company found that its quality control was rejecting comparatively high margin food products, which were subsequently reprocessed into animal feed. In this instance, improved consistency ultimately reduced the need to reprocess food by 44 percent. 

3.  Substandard Cleanliness and Sanitation Practices

Concerns about low yields in highly competitive markets have made it difficult for some manufacturers to focus adequately on cleanliness and safety. In many cases, the cleaning crew is made up of the newest, least-trained and lowest-paid employees who work night shifts when supervision is minimal. Though this approach may suffice for many years, one contamination incident can cost companies millions of dollars in scrapped product or product recalls.  

Training and standardized sanitation practices can go a long way toward avoiding large amounts of rejected food resulting from food safety issues. In one organization, time spent working with the production team to improve and accelerate sanitation practices during line changeovers opened quite a few eyes. Despite their best efforts to improve the sanitation process, the team continued to identify trace amounts of bacteria in food products.  

A special Kaizen team determined that the corners of a food chute that were very difficult to clean were contributing to food contamination. They developed a simple equipment design change that straightened out the edges of the foot chutes. As a result, sanitation processes went more quickly and food was no longer becoming contaminated. The result was less food waste, better yield (lower costs) and improved productivity.  

Coupled with layered audits and uniform training across shifts, standard work helps ensure that employees follow designated procedures. When standard work is combined with Kaizen events, improved standard cleaning procedures can be introduced and sustained, increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of cleaning processes associated with product changeovers and line startups.

To address the causes of food and packaging waste at a systemic level, managers need a set of relevant and clearly aligned performance goals, such as scrap and yields, to ensure that improvements are prioritized and sustained. A lean-based management system can pull everything together by providing the management processes for developing a strategy, translating it into operational actions and monitoring progress. 

By taking some of these steps, food companies can move toward the sustainable ideal of doing well by doing good β€” reducing waste while improving yields and enlisting the creativity and pride of the workforce, and pointing toward a stronger future.

About the Author:

Keith Yeater, Vice President – Consumer Products, Food & Beverage at TBM Consulting, is an expert in business transformation. He has helped many companies achieve operations excellence through his ability to build teams and coach high-potential associates. Prior to joining TBM, Keith served as Vice President of Operations for STAHL/Scott Fetzer Company where he implemented lean manufacturing processes and built the foundation for a sustainable lean culture. He also served as Director of Operations for Ashland Operations, a Pentair Company. At TBM, Keith works with senior executives at client companies helping them to successfully execute their strategic objectives through the use of Strategy Deployment (Hoshin Kanri) and ensures that their continuous improvement initiatives are clearly aligned to strategic initiatives and key performance measures. He can be reached at [email protected].