The average family in the United States wastes $1,800 a year on uneaten food. Systematic food waste affects us all, financially and emotionally.
The problem is global. At some point in the global supply chain, whether at the farm, in transit, on grocery shelves, or at home, approximately 30% of food goes to waste. Worldwide, food waste costs $2.6 trillion dollars annually.
In an effort to combat this crisis, in 2012 James Rogers won a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to bring together a team of scientists whose task was to create an edible barrier that keeps produce fresher for longer.
Using the building blocks of existing fruit and vegetable peels, Apeel Sciences’ technology has been able to create a proprietary thin, edible “peel” that delays water loss and oxidation in various forms of produce.
The product is fully compliant with U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. And since it’s made of widely used plant-derived materials — lipids and glycerolipids —it is designated FDA GRAS, or “Generally Recognized As Safe.”
Apeel’s mission, according to Director of Sustainability Jessica Vieira, is to reduce waste and to create an abundant future for the planet by working with nature. We recently spoke with Vieira, whose team works to ensure that every company decision, from operations to products to partners, factors in the environmental implications.
Apeel’s offices abide by the following waste hierarchy: prevention, re-use, recycling, recovery, and disposal. They send uneaten produce to a local food bank and compost what’s inedible. Sustainability is in the company’s lifeblood — and they’re hoping to set an example.
“There have been so many innovations to solve really important problems that haven’t always taken into consideration unintended consequences,” Vieira said. “New chemistries are being developed in labs without full understanding of how those chemistries are going to affect humans or the environment years from now.”
Here is where Apeel differs:
“The way that we focus on innovation is to look into the natural world and to understand how nature has already solved these problems. What are the molecules that exist? How does a plant protect itself? The components that are used to make Apeel are found in every bite of your produce already.”Jessica Vieira, Apeel Sciences
“We’re a science and technology company at our core. It’s one thing to develop the product. It’s another thing to understand, with a disruptive technology, where the value for that product actually exists in a given supply chain.”
Vieira’s team relies on life-cycle assessments to study the environmental impacts of products from cradle to grave. “We measure things like carbon footprint and water footprint, and we use that internally to identify where our hot spots are and how we can reduce our own impact.”
Apeel does this not only for its coatings, but for the produce it works with.
“For an average avocado, what are the environmental impacts? How much water across its entire life cycle is actually required? What are the contributions to climate change in avocado production? And then we’ll look at what happens when we add the Apeel product into that supply chain.”
Is the product actually reducing waste? And can the supply chain be made more efficient?
Apeel first began working with avocados — which Kroger has since taken nationwide — because everyone knows, and laments, their perishability. It’s our common ground.
“The joke is, ‘It’s not ready, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, it’s ready, it’s bad.’ Adding extra days for people to enjoy them is something that people can very easily relate to,” Vieira said.
A Santa Barbara, California based company, since launch Apeel has onboarded smaller retailers and, in 2018, signed on Kroger. Apeel has since expanded into limes and organic apples. Their 2020 goal? To “free the cucumber.”
Cucumbers are 95% water, so retaining moisture is key to keeping their freshness. Until now, plastic packaging has done the trick, albeit wastefully. Apeel’s plant-based alternative slows down the onset of mold, discoloration, and shriveling in cucumbers better than plastic, while producing no packaging waste.
A Tool for Farmers
Apeel was founded largely in response to astounding rates of food waste around the world. But Vieira thinks it goes beyond that. “The food system today is broken in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of food that’s produced that can’t make it into major trade lanes because perishability is such an issue, and because there’s the cold chain and refrigeration doesn’t exist in a lot of regions. We see Apeel as a tool to increase these market linkages.”
Take, for example, certain areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Farmers may not have access to refrigeration to get their produce to market, or, if there are many sellers of the same product, demand may not be high enough in the same region. Most food losses, then, happen because the food never actually makes it off the farm.
“Food loss and waste rates are cumulatively equivalent in places like the U.S., where most food is wasted as a consumer, and in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where most of the food loss in those regions occurs closer to the farm.”
Apeel could help increase farmers’ ability to reach markets and develop their economic opportunity without the introduction of large-scale infrastructure. It’s changing how we conceive of perishability.
“How we distribute food, how we package it, whether we actually put it in our refrigerator or on the counter when we get home… everything has been designed with fixed perishability in mind,” Vieira explained.
“Apeel is saying, well, maybe that’s actually not fixed. Maybe you do have more time. We’re still uncovering, even for our existing products, all of the potential value, both economic and environmental. Maybe you can shift a supply chain from air freight to sea freight. Maybe you can reduce the amount of packaging. Maybe you don’t have to store something in refrigeration all the time or you can lower the temperature.” That’s where the return-on-investment lies, in reducing waste and other inefficiencies.
Empowering the Rest of Us
All of Apeel’s produce in grocery stores is branded. At Kroger, the company does in-store marketing and uses QR codes to give customers more information. They also train retail staff to field questions on Apeel and communicate directly with the consumers coming into their stores.
If we understand the product — and the problem it’s addressing — we can feel empowered to use the extra time to reduce food waste at home. Consumers don’t pay more for Apeel produce.
“We want people to ask questions because there is mistrust that exists amongst consumers about putting things on your food. What we believe philosophically is that the only thing that belongs on food is food,” Vieira said.
We asked Vieira: what is the most wasteful fruit or vegetable to produce? It’s not the easiest question to answer, as there are different factors, including energy, water, and transportation. But, she said, “we have our eye on asparagus.”
Much of the asparagus sold in the U.S. is actually shipped from Peru, making its carbon footprint much higher than other produce categories sold in grocery stores. With Apeel delaying perishability, asparagus could be shipped by boat instead of by plane, cutting the carbon footprint down to one-eighth.
Facts like these could help not only improve efficiencies along the supply chain, but also make us more informed consumers.
“We’re starting to care a lot more about where our food comes from or what happened before it got to us,” Vieira said.
And this leads to actionable change. For some people, that means beginning to shop local. For others, it’s calling for greater accountability from food producers and asking the right questions.
“With data science and technologies like blockchain, I think we’re going to have a lot more information about our food, specifically produce. What went on it? Who grew my food and was that person paid fairly? Did it grow in a region that has tons of water? Did it grow in a region that is drought-stricken and is it pulling water from communities?”
Apeel’s vision of the future involves just that: greater transparency and sustainability. And it’s already working to get us there, one long-lasting avocado at a time.