As the global movement to reduce food waste enters a new phase, GEA looks at the success of a Swedish startup that is exploring new ways to bring unsalable fruit back to market.
Year after year, about a third of all food cultivated and produced for human consumption ends up in waste containers and landfills. In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30 and 40% of the supply, adding up to approximately USD 161 billion each year1. Across the Atlantic, the numbers are similar, and the EU has made it a key objective of its “Green Deal” policy to reduce food waste as part of its “Farm to Fork” strategy2.
The problem is not only that valuable food that could help hungry families instead goes to waste unconsumed. Abandoned food also comes at an imminent cost to the environment and to climate protection. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the effort invested in leftovers creates 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions as well as substantial loss of wildlife habitats and freshwater supply3. Around 28% of the world’s agricultural area is used to produce food that ends up lost or wasted4.
Among the different types of food, fruit and vegetables are particularly wholesome and nutritious resources, but they go to waste at an alarming rate. Reports by the WWF and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) state that 40% of fruit and vegetables are lost every year, which equals 3.7 trillion apples and 1 billion bags of potatoes5. This comes as no surprise that the UN and other organizations have long declared food waste to be a major obstacle on the road to a sustainable future for the world.
Why food waste is so hard to stop
In developing regions, food loss mostly takes place in the early stages of harvesting, storage, and transport. This is due to unfavorable environmental conditions coupled with a lack of appropriate technology and training. Changes are slow and take great effort6. In the developed world, the conditions seem better, but waste occurs at the same high rate, only at the retail and consumer level. This is an effect of competitive market economies creating a constant surplus of products. Consumers’ quality expectations also play a role in this, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetable: Perfectly edible apples or berries will nonetheless stay in the crate – or not go on sale at all – if they have blemishes or if more attractive varieties are available.
Making progress within the markets
Over the past two decades, organizations across the globe have made some strides in addressing the problem. In particular, programs have been successful in raising awareness of food waste and promoting a sense of accountability among producers, distributors and buyers. Children now tell their parents not to buy more food than needed and not to discard food when it is just slightly overdue. Social and political “container” initiatives in Germany and other countries are campaigning for anyone’s right to take home edible, discarded food from retail store premises.
Among the most visible examples of progress are the numerous success stories of food banks. These grass-roots initiatives in all parts of the world have made it their mission to re-channel unsalable food articles to the homeless and others in need. Food banks are typically charity-based, so they tend to operate in ways removed from the competitive market mechanisms.
A more recent phenomenon is the emergence of groups and startups that are exploring economically sustainable routes to save food from waste – without the need for charities and fundraising.
The Danish app “Too Good To Go” has become successful by digitally connecting consumers with unsold food from stores, hotels and restaurants at reduced prices. This business model is now expanding to other countries as well. Another startup, the Swedish RSCUED FRUIT company, applies modern processing technology to bring rejected fruit and vegetables back to the table.
Economically viable: the RSCUED concept
“When we founded our start-up seven years ago, we had the vision to stop the waste madness,” recalls Truls Christenson, one of the founders of RSCUED. “After a few trials we saw that we could save most fruit from waste if we convert it to premium juice!” Extracting the juice transforms fruit or vegetables that are deemed less attractive into salable products. RSCUED offers a wide range of juices and purees, fruit chips and special-purpose juice extractions. The products are sold via the company's online store as well as in selected grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants in Sweden. The team receives donations from wholesalers, supermarkets, farms, delivery services and owners of private gardens. Apples, berries and kiwi are particularly popular fruit for juicing – often locally cultivated, but the company also processes imported items.
Technology plays an important role in the success stories of RSCUED and similar endeavors. The acquisition of a GEA vaculiq Vacuum Spiral Filter 100 with an integrated milling system has made the whole operation at Helsingborg easier and more productive. The RSCUED team can now process a ton of fruit or vegetables in about twenty minutes and clean the system between different batches in just five minutes. “Speed, high quality and flexibility are equally important for us,” co-founder Christenson points out, “as we need to respond to seasonal supply just as quickly as to fluctuating incoming goods.”
During processing with the vacuum spiral filter, the product does not come into contact with oxygen, which helps preserve vitamins and nutrients for a fresher taste and a more appealing juice color in addition to the high yield achieved with this system. “Plus, as a green company, we are very happy that it saves so much freshwater,” says Marko Tukaric, Head of Production and Technology at RSCUED: "We need 55-60% less fresh water to keep the vacuum system clean, compared to traditional equipment that needs constant flushing."
The remaining dry pulp after juicing makes an ideal basis for the production of fertilizers and vegan flower soil, a promising secondary byproduct that RSCUED is selling via a local garden center.
Sustainable production and social progress
RSCUED's business model is paying off, as the team proudly asserts, with a maximum processing capacity now extended to 1,800 liters per hour and options in place for the team to accept raw goods from all over Northern Europe. But, as the company name says, the idea of rescuing food and furthering the agenda of global sustainability remains a strong driving force.
“We are confident that other companies with an ecological focus can achieve similar success,” notes Dr. Stefan Pecoroni, Vice President Process Technology & Innovation Separation at GEA, who keeps a close eye on current sustainable production trends. The technology and engineering at GEA are known for setting high ecological standards for its own operations and has been recognized by the CDP organization as one of Germany’s most sustainable businesses.
Current GEA projects and application concepts to fight food waste include solutions for a range of tasks – recovering ingredients from food processing remains, turning spent grain into pasta, minimizing wastewater and product loss during pipe cleaning or reducing chicken and meat waste through automated processing and quality checking.
Any endeavor to start a new operation and save more fruit or vegetables will not only return more valuable food to the table and validate the use of resources for cultivating, producing, and transporting it. Repurposing abandoned food also delivers multiple further benefits – environmental as well as social: The load on landfills and incinerators is reduced. Regional niche varieties of fruits and vegetables can be brought back to market, supporting local producers and helping to preserve biodiversity. Finally, turning unwanted food into in-demand products creates good local service jobs without the need for additional resources and supply chains.
Compelling savings potential for the food industry
And then there is the compelling sense of how much the food industry could benefit from recovered leftovers. Prices for agricultural goods are on the way up and are not likely to stop. One customer recently told the GEA team that a tank truck filled with raspberry juice is now worth the same as a car transporter loaded with sports cars. Given this long-term development and the global need for sustainability, who would doubt that tackling food waste and returning lost value to the market is worth the effort?
1U.S. Department Of Agriculture (USDA), Food Waste FAQs [https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs]. Cited figures are for the year 2010.
2European Commission, Farm To Fork Strategy (PDF)
3,5World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Food Waste
6Most organizations use the term “food loss” for these early-stage losses that are typical for less developed regions and “food waste” for losses at the retail and consumer level in more developed parts of the world.