The label on a bottle of the cold-pressed juice Wtrmln Wtr doesn’t mention food waste. But the problem was the inspiration for the company, which launched six years ago. When the founders learned that hundreds of millions of pounds of watermelon stayed in fields to rot because the fruit was judged too unattractive for sale in supermarkets, they decided to create a product that could help avoid that waste. The juice is now available nationally, and the company is growing 30% year-over-year.
It’s one example of an increasingly crowded space. ReFed, an organization that tracks the food waste industry, counts at least 70 businesses and nonprofits that now transform food that otherwise would have been wasted into new products. “We’ve seen steady growth in the number of organizations developing upcycled products and the types of ingredients being used,” says Chris Cochran, the organization’s executive director. The majority of these companies launched within the last five years.
In the U.S.—where Americans now waste 70% more food than they did in the 1970s—food waste is responsible for roughly the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 37 million cars. Globally, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest polluting country in the world. When food rots in landfills, it releases the potent greenhouse gas methane. But the largest source of emissions comes from growing the food; even if it’s composted, food waste also wastes the fertilizer, fuel, and other resources that went into producing it. Agriculture uses nearly half of U.S. farmland and two-thirds of its freshwater. Waste happens at every stage of the process, from farm fields—where food may be abandoned if a farmer has a surplus or the food has imperfections—to distribution centers, supermarkets, restaurants, food processing plants, and homes. Consumers throw out the majority of the food wasted in the U.S., or roughly $450 of food each year. At the same time, more than 40 million Americans struggle with hunger. The problem is smaller in most other countries (Australians waste more, per capita) but still significant.