This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Food Manufacturing.

The amount of food waste generated by manufacturing facilities continues to be a concern, but the industry has shown great initiative in diverting its waste from the landfills and putting it to better use.

A first-ever study of food waste data across the food manufacturing and retail sectors was recently issued by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), a cross-sector industry initiative led by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association. According to the report, 4.1 billion pounds of food waste were sent to landfills in 2011. While this seems like a large number, it represents only 8.5 percent of the 48.1 billion pounds of food waste generated across the manufacturing, retail and wholesale sectors.

The study found that food manufacturers have taken particular interest in finding higher uses for their food waste, including donation or recycling. In fact, 94.6 percent of food waste generated by food processors was kept out of landfills. Seventy-three percent of processors’ food waste was used in animal feed, while another 700 million pounds of safe food were donated.

A unique challenge faced by food companies is finding use for the large amount of waste that may not be suited for donation or recycling. But some manufacturers, such as LifeLine Foods in St. Joseph, Mo., are putting their waste to creative use. In our cover story on pg. 10, you can read about how LifeLine Foods harnesses the waste leftover from its corn milling process to make ethanol as a co-product, simultaneously eliminating its waste and increasing its profits.

Greek yogurt maker Fage also has taken the initiative to put its waste to good use. Greek yogurt production results in a large amount of the watery byproduct, whey, which is often shipped to farms for use in feed and fertilizer. But Fage pumps its leftover whey to a nearby wastewater plant, where the whey enters a 1.5 million-gallon tank filled with an anaerobic digester. The combination of digestive bacteria and whey results in methane gas, which becomes a combustible fuel that generates nearly enough electricity to power the Fage plant.

It is clear that food manufacturers are finding sustainable ways to dispose of their food waste, with many companies already experiencing success in this area. But there is always room for improvement. According to the FWRA report, “Food manufacturers have an opportunity to continue to reduce the amount of food waste they generate and to move up the food waste hierarchy to increase the percentage they donate.”

The industry must work continually to decrease the amount of food waste sent to landfills, in order to reduce the expenditures of waste disposal and help meet corporate sustainability expectations. And when companies are able to find innovative ways to put their waste to work, manufacturers also have the potential to increase profits and efficiencies.