“If food waste were a country, its CO2 emissions would be the third-largest in the world,” said Ryan Begin, co-founder and CEO of Divert, Inc., a Concord, Massachusetts-based company that’s using advanced technology to reduce wasted food. With the U.S. alone wasting fully a third of its food–about 40 million tons of it every year–it’s not a small problem to tackle.
Divert has a new win to celebrate in its efforts, a 10-year renewable natural gas (RNG) offtake agreement with bp announced earlier this month. Expected to be worth a total of about $175 million, the deal will have bp purchasing RNG from three of Divert’s anaerobic digestion facilities in development in Pennsylvania, Washington and California as part of bp’s efforts to be a net-zero company by 2050.
But that’s only the latest in a long line of advances for Divert. The company has been working on the wasted food problem since its founding in 2007. Scaling rapidly from an initial collaboration with Kroger in 2010, the company is now partnered with five Fortune 100 companies and working with over 5,200 retail locations to tackle the multiple causes of wasted food through the value chain.
“It’s been an evolution of the business plan,” said Begin. “We built our first digestion plant for Kroger and saw the scope of the problem.” The company began analyzing root causes of all aspects of wasted food for its retail customers, with an eye toward waste prevention. “We looked at all the places where food is being thrown away and asked, ‘Why?’ We talked to store managers. We can do that because we’re in stores every day.”
True understanding also required exhaustive data collection and analysis. “How to reduce? Build technology to solve the problem,” Begin explained. “That meant IoT solutions, aggregating data from our retail partners. At Ahold Delhaize, for example, to understand the problem we were looking at, ‘Are you closing your cooler doors? Does food sit out on the loading dock?’ Those aspects are all about people, and you solve the problems with data. There’s definitely been a data revolution happening in retail.” Divert developed its own proprietary IoT platform that uses internally-developed sensors, hardware and algorithms to tackle the data challenge.
Other solutions help with assessments of food quality to avoid unnecessary waste. “At one location we studied, an employee was throwing away one of every six heads of lettuce he inspected,” said Begin. “We asked why, and he said he’d been told to throw out the brown ones. But he was looking at the stems of the lettuce and all of them were brown. He knew he couldn’t throw them all away, so he decided on one out of six of them, not knowing that the brown on the stem can be a completely normal occurrence. We have the ability now to take a picture and train neural networks to look at the color of produce and help with those kinds of assessments.” Those efforts help eliminate waste at the store level.
The company also developed the first FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)-compliant reverse logistics process to aggregate unsold food, which helps prevent waste by getting high-quality edible food to food banks and other donation centers, eliminating another big source of waste.
Where prevention of wasted food isn’t possible, Divert has developed other technologies to prevent landfilling of waste, including a proprietary liquefaction process to handle packaged organics, and its anaerobic digestion facilities. “We’re already the largest processor of wasted food in the country,” Begin said. The company is now focused on its RNG production. “We have our first three sites in development that produce RNG, and we’re also working on sites four through ten.”
While Divert has largely been flying under the radar so far, Begin sees that coming to an end. “We’ve been in stealth mode for a very long time,” he said. “We’ve been very patient. That’s about to pay off. Folks have been surprised at how much we’ve scaled, and how fast we can scale. We’ve had to make all those innovations and automate things in our facilities. We’re into rapid scaling now.”
Their customers have taken notice. “"Ahold Delhaize USA companies have an unwavering commitment to driving sustainable change that leads to a healthier food system, nourishes local communities and contributes to creating a better world,” said Justin Lacroix, Director, Sustainable Operations for Ahold Delhaize USA. “As part of this, our companies have a longstanding commitment to hunger relief and food waste reduction, pioneering solutions like food rescue programs that recover unsold food from stores and donate it to local food banks to help eliminate hunger in local communities. As we look to the future, innovation is a key ingredient in working toward zero waste and eliminating hunger. Divert is an important partner in Ahold Delhaize USA companies’ efforts to recycle non-saleable, non-donatable food. Additionally, the partnership supports our bold climate ambitions by turning the waste into clean energy. Through the partnership with Divert alone, which will soon include recycling for nearly 1,000 stores across several of the U.S. brands, we are on track to recycle at least 137 million pounds of food waste this year.”
“We’re going to put over a billion dollars of capital to work to solve food waste,” Begin added. “We have really taken a thoughtful approach to building solutions, constantly asking ourselves, ‘Are we solving our customers’ problems?’”