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With 50 million homes in the US alone suffering from food insecurity—which is to say basic food needs are not met—it’s distressing to learn that food accounts for 50 million metric tonnes of waste annually (US Department of Agriculture, 2009). In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says food is by far the most abundant material (by weight) in landfills*. Food waste and food insecurity are not just problems in the US either. According to the risk analysis company Maplecroft, 60 countries in the world rank in the “Extreme” or “High Risk” categories for food insecurity and yet 1.3 billion tons of food, about one third of the global food production, is wasted annually (food waste, Wikipedia).
Food waste can occur at many different stages, including production, post-harvest (processing), and retail. However, for purposes of this post, we are focusing on food waste that occurs in retail.
Retail stores in particular throw away large quantities of food due to cosmetic signs of aging and strict policies on “best before” or “sell-by” dates listed on the packaging. Statistics from the UK suggest that food waste costs retailers millions of pounds each year** (www.businessgreen.com).
According to the USDA, fresh, perishable foods are the largest contributors to waste:
While packaging under normal circumstances is helpful in preserving freshness, it cannot help protect food from light sources that emit high levels of heat. The high heat causes food to sweat and deteriorate prematurely. “Package sweating” is not uncommon among food retailers, as stores prefer to use powerful light sources—often installed close to the object—to enhance product aesthetics and thus purchase appeal. Unlike other lighting sources such as incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent, LED light sources emit little to no heat and can be placed in close vicinity to food without danger of spoilage.
Furthermore, the UV or IR rays emitted by incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent lighting sources cause food to break down and spoil at a faster rate. LED lighting on the other hand, does not contain UV or IR so food remains fresh longer.
LED lighting can increase the shelf life of fresh, perishable food items. To whatever degree retailers can keep food out of landfills where it would otherwise release significant amounts of methane*** (greenhouse gas) and feed those whose basic food needs are not being met is worth it. According to the Department of Agriculture, ~10 million people a year could be fed if only one-fifth of food waste is recovered.
While LED lighting isn’t the only way to reduce food waste in retail—better stocking and storage strategies and converting food waste to energy are other options—the extreme energy-efficient operation and longevity of LED lighting also provides large cost savings, allowing retailers to focus on other areas of their business. It’s a win win.