Unilever outlines ambitious plans to curb food waste

By Rod Addy contact

- Last updated on GMT

Bauer-Plank: 'Food waste is a growing humanitarian and environmental crisis'
Bauer-Plank: 'Food waste is a growing humanitarian and environmental crisis'

Related tags: Ambient, Supply chain, frozen

Unilever has outlined ambitious plans to halve food waste by 2025 as part of wider social and environmental ambitions. Food Manufacture caught up with Unilever/Hellmann’s global vice-president Christina Bauer-Plank to explain more.

Unilever’s recently announced Future Foods​ ambition aims to offer access to plant-based food options and provide positive nutrition and lower fat, salt and sugar options. However, the reduction of food waste from factory to shelf is a also a core part of it, and one that Bauer-Plank is passionate about.

"Food waste is a growing humanitarian and environmental crisis. One third of all food produced is lost and wasted - 1.3bn tonnes. 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions originate from food waste. Food waste also consumes gigantic natural resources from land use, water use, contribution to biodiversity loss ... All that with the backdrop of close to 1bn people going hungry."

Current wastage contributes directly to emissions in all kinds of ways, from the labour and energy used to produce food that is not consumed to the various ways in which it is disposed. If food waste was a country, says Bauer-Plank, it would be the third biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after the US and China.

So where does Unilever fit into that picture?

Whole food chain

"Tackling food waste in our own operations by halving that is where it all starts, but as a company we aim to have a bigger impact across the chain, because food waste is not occurring in a silo - it's happening across the whole food chain. So we also work with our key suppliers to enrol them on the agenda, follow our lead and also commit to halving food waste. We work equally with our foodservice customers to tackle food waste by supporting them with education, but also partnership and services.

"Tackling food waste is really a triple win - it's a win for people, for the planet and it's also good for business."

Unilever is a 'proud and active founding member' of Champions 12.3, a global coalition of governments, non-governmental organisations, business and other groups, says Bauer-Plank. This international force for change has launched the 10-20-30 initiative, which requires the ten biggest food producers work with the 20 biggest suppliers to halve food waste by 2030. Unilever has brought the same goal closer and spread it across all its operations to help lead the way.

Plastic packaging

In tandem with that target, Unilever aims to ensure all its plastic packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable and has also committed to halving the use of virgin plastic and collecting as much plastic as it sells.

Noble ideals, but in practise that means companies need to measure and track their waste in order to quantify their reduction programme, which is easier said than done.

In Unilever's case this has led to adopting the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard​. "We believe knowing your footprint, having that visibility, tracking progress, transparency and awareness in the industry is really critical and right now that is not there."

Hellmanns

Having got a handle on the metrics, Unilever can be in a position to assess progress on projects and, hence, to launch those projects. The number of those projects is constantly growing, because food waste occurs at a variety of points in the production cycle, but Bauer-Plank provides a flavour. In North America, for example, all Hellmann's jars and bottles to 100% recyclable and recycled post consumer resin (PCR) polyethylene terephthalate (PET) material. "We're now in the process of doing something similar in Europe."

Hellmann's and Easy-out technology

Sticking with Hellmann's, when the mayonnaise in squeezy bottles gets down to the last dregs, it becomes hard to get out and is often wasted. "We have developed a proprietary Easy-out technology that lightly coats the inside of that squeezy bottle with pure vegetable oil and that helps the mayonnaise to flow down so that nearly everything comes out. Overall we prevent more than 5,000t from being left behind in the bottle."

Technologies such as artificial intelligence and predictive analytics can also offer some solutions. "We apply that in our own operation to really measure, analyse and track stock, including the age of the stock, the residual shelf-life, to trigger timely intervention to act on that stock before it ever expires.

"Another area where we also employ AI and predictive analytics is in our foodservice business. We partner with smart tech provider Orbisk in the Netherlands and Belgium together with our foodservice customers. It's a smart camera that's put under a bin and every time food is put in the organic bin, it scans and recognises that food through picture recognition, it weighs what is being put in the bin. Through the AI technology, because it's doing that all the time in real time, it develops insights around waste patterns in terms of what is being wasted at what time, how much of it and that ... informs reduction strategies such as over-preparation, menu changes."

One hotel where the technology has been trialled has achieved a 25% reduction in waste, says Bauer-Plank. This offers a considerable cost reduction benefit for the restaurant sector, which is especially vital as it struggles with pandemic-related lockdowns.

There are a range of other projects too and the pace will not let up, says Bauer-Plank. And that doesn't even cover the range of consumer focused work Unilever is undertaking around, for example, tips and recipes to help shoppers use leftovers.

Case study: Cressimo

Cremissimo3
Cremissimo Chocolate Hero

During any ice cream production process some ice cream becomes residue for technical reasons. This unused ice cream is often lost to the process. 

Unilever's Cremissimo team has developed a process in which it ‘rescues’ unused ice cream from various productions and products. The excess is then melted down into a rich creamy blend that can be combined with high quality ingredients before flowing back into the production process.

The result is Cremissimo Chocolate Hero. The new product is made from up to 40% ‘would-be-wasted’, delicious ice cream, gives sustainably-minded customers a guilt-free hit of rich chocolate ice cream, blended with chocolate sauce and white chocolate chips.

Chocolate Hero sold out over the summer of 2020, the year of its launch, and became an instant top five flavour for Cremissimo. More than 1.2m Cressimo Chocolate Hero Tubs have been sold to date, a waste reduction of 160t of ice cream or 300,000 tubs of ice cream a year.

Additionally, each tub of Cremissimo Chocolate Hero is made from 100% recyclable plastic. It also features food waste group Too Good To Go’s ‘Past my date – don’t waste’ label – making Cremissimo the first ice cream brand in Germany to feature this type of food waste combatting guidance.

"This type of repurposing ice cream is a very good way of reusing food waste that cannot be avoided in the first place,"​ says Bauer-Plank.

Too Good To Go foodservice partnership

Food waste is a significant and growing problem in the foodservice sector.

Unilever Food Solutions has teamed up with Too Good To Go's food waste combat app - used by more than 31 million people worldwide – to help customers in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium to slash food waste.

The principle of Too Good To Go couldn't be simpler. Whenever you have surplus food in your operation, you offer it directly to customers at a significantly reduced price via the app. The product appears on a map and customers collect it within minutes or hours from a specified location. Everyone benefits, with less food wasted less money spent, and a positive environmental impact.

Unilever’s partnership with Too Good To Go is proving how rewarding selling ‘would-be-wasted’ food can be for all parties: combatting food loss and waste, turning revenue loss into income and offering quality products at a fraction of the price. 

In recent pilots in Belgium and France, through the app consumers have been able to buy Unilever products under brands including Ben & Jerry’s and Miko ice cream, Lipton ice tea and Knorr soups at 70% of the recommended retail price. They collect their goods direct from Unilever’s offices or factories at allocated time slots using their own bags and boxes to save on packaging.

Each of Unilever’s Too Good To Go initiatives – their own and their Food Solutions customers’. To date Too Good To Go has saved the equivalent of more than 60 million meals. With the new partnership with Unilever, the hope is to massively boost this figure.

Related topics: Environment

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