Climate Action & Environment · · 7 min read

Food Waste and the Circular Economy with Justin Kamine

Xander Schultz speaks to Justin Kamine of KDC Earth about the importance of a circular economy, the state of our ongoing food waste issues, and the environmental consequences of continuing down this current path.

Food Waste and the Circular Economy with Justin Kamine

This story is a part of the Radical Ones Podcast series on social impact, a conversation with leading Changemakers.

An old proverbial saying states, “waste not, want not,” which means if you use a commodity or resource carefully and without extravagance, you will never be in need. Likewise, if we don’t waste what we have, we’ll still have it in the future and will not require it. The problem here is that we as a society are exceedingly careless with the amount of food waste around the globe, and these actions will have extreme repercussions down the line economically and environmentally.

Food waste can occur in many different ways. Whether it is the leftover food we throw away after a meal, food lost down the line from manufacturing to transportation to storage, or the groceries that are discarded regularly from supermarkets when it reaches its sell-by date, these processes can impact our future. But fear not, there are practical, lasting changes that corporations can make to improve the circumstances that surround us and create a circular economy.

One person who is looking to help reform the current situation is entrepreneur Justin Kamine. Justin’s father and brother cofounded a family business, Kamine Development Corporation, and Justin founded KDC Earth to create a food infrastructure that reduces food waste while creating more sustainable jobs to promote a circular economy. He is working on how we can continue to produce the things that we need without exhausting our natural resources by renewing or recycling what we are currently using.

I recently spoke to Justin on my podcast, Radical Ones, about the importance of a circular economy, the state of our ongoing food waste issues, and the environmental consequences of continuing down this current path.

I’ve heard a lot about the circular economy. I know a lot of people creating a lot of different solutions in the circular economy. Let’s talk a bit about the various issues you’re going after because they’re all part of the same problem.

You’ve said that we’re producing too much, the population is going up, and we’re not going to be able to continually tap into new resources for an ever-growing population if we keep doing things the way we’re doing them.

Justin: About five years ago, we started to focus on the whole notion of a circular economy. We came up with this thesis as a family recognizing what we do that we’re all screwed as a society if we don’t get there. Resources are going down, populations are going up, and there’s tremendous inefficiency in the middle. And so, we started to focus on the largest waste streams across the United States.

We first focused on food waste. 40% of all the food that gets grown gets thrown away. And if food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter. That’s insane. And that’s just calculating the actual food going to landfills where it creates methane gases. It does not figure all of the energy, time, and resources put into creating that food. You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars wasted and the farmers just losing out on all of this, let alone the destruction of our soil and our soil health.

Food Waste and the Circular Economy with Justin Kamine

So we sat there and said, okay, great. We genuinely believe in biomimicry, that nature has all of the answers. It’s just up to us as engineers and entrepreneurs to figure that out, leverage that, and utilize it to its maximum benefit. So from a food waste perspective, we started to work with the largest supermarkets in the country.

They’re throwing away tens of millions of dollars of food every single day. They, of course, try to donate as much as they can to local food banks. But we, as KDC Earth, are picking up 200 tons of food every single day. No local food bank can take that much.

Who are the greatest perpetrators of this food waste? Where is it coming from at this time? Are these big grocery chains?

Justin: It’s the processors, it’s on the farm, and great companies like Imperfect Foods are helping to utilize and make the farmers more money and upcycle those materials as quickly as possible in the local area. It then goes to the processors, and they’re losing a large amount of food waste, but then it also goes mainly to the supermarkets, and they throw about 40% of the food that they consume, or they have on their shelf, 40% of that goes away.

Think about that. Two out of five grocery bags get thrown away. What’s the reality of the situation you and I as a consumer, no matter what supermarket we walk into anywhere throughout the country at any time, we want all of the options, right? If we walked in there and they didn’t have blueberries, didn’t have avocados, and they didn’t have plant-based protein and chicken, you would walk away.

It’s just the reality of the food system now that we as consumers desire everything at all times, no matter the season. The supermarkets throw away many products every day, about a ton per day for each supermarket, and 2000 pounds of food gets thrown away. So what do we do? If you look at the FDA and EPA food hierarchy, the best maximum usage should be fed to humans.

Then, of course, the next best maximum use of that food is upcycled into an animal feed. And so that’s what we’re doing. Composting and land and waste to energy are at the bottom of the bottom. Composting is letting all those nutrients degrade, and then you sprinkle it on the soil and hope.

So each store is generating 2,000 pounds of waste a day. What does currently happen to that waste? Is it presently sent to a compost landfill?

Justin: Either a compost or a waste-to-energy plant. But if you think about it, food is 75% water, and it doesn’t convert well to good fuel. It doesn’t burn well because you’re boiling water.

Compost is excellent for your farm or your house, but on a large scale, when you look at the food that the supermarkets are throwing away, it’s food that you and I would still eat. It’s still very fresh, but it’s just reached its sell-by date. When it reaches its sell-by date, you and I would keep it in our fridge for another five days and eat it. But they have to, by law, get rid of it.

So what we do is we keep that in the cold chain, so it’s still fresh. We use these big, Yeti coolers that maintain the cold chain for both the meats and the produce. We bring back 200 tons every single day to each one of our processing facilities.

We are building 40 of these nationwide to solve food waste over the next five years, and each one consumes about 200 tons. We put it through a grinder; we digest it within three hours, we pasteurize it, it’s blended for nutrient consistency, and then we dry that product to look and feel exactly like an animal feed that can go right back into the feed mill infrastructure.

There it will grow a better, healthier, more sustainably-grown animal production protein process and create a completely closed system.

We have 30 or 40 more years left of soil nutrients to continue to grow our crops, and all of the time, energy, and resources that those farmers put into developing those crops and 40% of it goes to waste. When we do throw away that food, it’s the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter outside the US and China. As a country, those are two massive problems.

We have 30 to 40 years of healthy soil?

Justin: So we have 30 to 40 more years left of soil health to continue to grow our crops the way we are because we are trying to mass-produce crops. What are we doing now? We’re putting a lot of fertilizer on it, chemicals. In a cup of soil, there are more nutrients and microbial activity than people in the world.

That microbial activity and those microbes rely upon good food, just like our human body. Everyone’s talking about probiotics and prebiotics in gut health. So with soil health, think of it as the gut health that grows the crop. Well, we’re just dumping a bunch of chemical fertilizers on it and killing the microbes, just like if we just took a bunch of synthetic chemicals, we destroy our bodies. Well, the soil is having that same reaction sitting there saying, I can’t produce any more food for you.

Economically speaking, is your innovation cheaper than the pillaging of our planet and the exhaustion of our resources? How does that work? Is it about getting to a particular scale where economics tip in your favor?

Justin: I think it’s twofold. One, yes, we’ve got it to where it’s an economically viable situation for both the supermarkets that throw away the food and for the farmers that grow the food. We’re sitting inside as a profitable business because the only way to have the greatest impact in the world is to have the most significant profitability, which then enables you, if you’re a good person, to continue to funnel and fuel better ideas.

But when you look at the reality of the magnitude of the situation, a couple of the largest food companies slaughter 40 million chickens per week, 125,000 cattle per week, 455,000 pigs per week. If we all want, as a society, the capability to have affordable and accessible food, we have to have all of it.

I look at it as if we can change the system of the largest four or five food companies and make them amazingly more environmentally progressive. That’s a massive shift in society because we can’t just build from the ground up.

We’ve got to get the top guys to say consumers care, and that’s the biggest thing consumers care about now, everyone wants to contribute and be favorable for plate and planet and at the same time find that harmony between, “I want to eat healthily, I want to eat deliciously and I also want my food or my products to do good, give back programs to the right people or give back programs to the environment,” that can create that ecosystem that’s all-encompassing. That’s where we all have to get to at this point.

To hear more from Justin Kamine, listen to the full episode, Food Waste and the Circular Economy with Justin Kamine here

Listen to our Causeartist podcasts here.

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