In the previous two blog posts, we have provided a general summary of why waste occurs in homes, in transit, and in stores. We have mentioned “rescued” or “imperfect” produce several times throughout this series, and alluded to the definitions for each. Today, as we focus on food waste at the processing level, I will zoom in on each of these terms. I’ll outline the subtle difference between “rescued” and “imperfect” produce by sharing details about the specific produce we incorporate into the 2050 Smoothie. By the end of this article, you should have a better sense of exactly what you are drinking when you blend up a 2050 Smoothie!
What is “Rescued Produce” Anyway?
All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Similarly, when we talk about the produce used in our smoothies, all “imperfect produce” is rescued, but “rescued produce” includes more than just ugly apples and imperfect oranges. Through our work developing The 2050 Smoothie, we’ve identified 4 main categories of rescued produce. We’ll start with the category whose label you are probably most familiar with -- imperfect produce.
Imperfect Appearance: A Trip to the Blueberry Farm
A few weeks ago, Greg and I had the opportunity to road trip across Washington and visit the farm that supplies our delicious blueberries. After sampling some tasty berries right off the bush, we ventured inside a huge facility to observe the process that turns these fresh berries into the frozen berry packs you’d expect to find in massive pouches at Costco.
Austin and Greg "melting" as they tour an Easter Washington blueberry farm in 117º heat.
Before I created The 2050 Smoothie, I used these exact frozen berry pouches to make my daily smoothies. I had never considered how much labor and technology goes into simply freezing and packaging frozen berries. In the course of just 15 minutes, we watched a multi-million dollar machine loads tens of thousands of berries into a conveyor belt, rinse and de-stem them all, then pass them through a super-cooled (and super cool!) flash freezer.
The most interesting part to me was the sorting process. As the berries fell off of the conveyor belt, a camera would scan each and every berry and identify which ones were too big, too small, or too irregularly colored or shaped. In less time than it took an imperfect berry to fall 5 inches, it would be scanned and shot out of the production line by a targeted burst of compressed air. These imperfect berries would then roll down a track into a massive box of rejects. Our tour guide pointed to the box and said, “Those are the berries we send your way”.
This process was the most concrete example I had ever seen of what “imperfect produce” is. The only difference between this big box of imperfect blueberries and the perfect packs leaving the conveyor a few feet from me were some minor cosmetic flaws. These flaws may be enough to turn off a customer who opens a bag of frozen berries expecting to find beautiful uniformity. However, it was more obvious than ever that if we took a handful of berries from each box to turn into a smoothie powder, it would be nearly impossible to spot a difference!
Imperfect Size: Itty Bitty Broccoli
Often people don’t think of size as an imperfection, especially when it comes to something like broccoli. When making the initial label for The 2050 Smoothie, I didn’t even know what the correct unit for a little branch of broccoli
If it helps, the USDA says that “Broccoli crowns are the heads of stalks that have cut off or shortened stems. Broccoli florets are bud clusters or pieces of bud clusters closely trimmed from the head.”
As it turns out, the process to package frozen broccoli (think Jolly Green Giant) is very picky about the size of florets. Before being frozen, the chopped broccoli florets are passed over a giant sieve, similar to the tool used to pan for gold. However, in this process, instead of the gold remaining and the useless silt falling through the holes, broccoli florets larger than 0.75 inches are saved to sell in stores and anything else is discarded.
Fortunately for us (and the planet), it doesn’t matter how big a piece of broccoli was before it is turned into powder. Whether it’s 2 inches or 0.2 inches, we’ll take it. As far as we’re concerned, it’s all as good as gold!
Imperfect Yield: Surplus Strawberries
Sometimes the fruit we rescued has the perfect shape, size, and color, but too many brothers and sisters. The only constant rule of supply and demand is constant flux. It can be difficult to ensure that you grow enough berries to meet demand without overshooting into the realm of surplus. As climate change has a greater effect on growing seasons and crop yields, this balance will become even harder to maintain.
Many of the fruits we rescue are simply grown in surplus. They are perfectly good and ready to be eaten, but there is no buyer lined up to distribute them to customers. Since fresh produce goes bad so quickly, even a few days of waiting can spell the difference between ending up on a plate or in a landfill.
One unique benefit of The 2050 Smoothie is that it allows us to purchase surplus produce during this narrow (and fateful) window. We can buy unclaimed produce right as it hits peak freshness, and preserve it before it begins to spoil. Once scaled up, this preservation model could realistically allow us to divert nearly all surplus produce that currently ends up in landfills.
According to the EPA, reducing surplus produce at the source is the most preferred tactic to reduce food waste.
The Final Imperfection: … Mortality?
The last category of rescued produce acts as a catch-all for anything not accounted for by one of the categories listed above. Sometimes we need bananas for our 2050 Smoothie powders and there are no “imperfect” bananas available on the market. This is actually a good thing! Hopefully, as The 2050 Co. and like minded companies succeed in reducing waste and relabeling “imperfect” as “unique”, the supply of produce in need of rescue will continuously decrease. At that point, we would be happy to claim that our smoothies are just made from “normal produce”!
Did we just discover the fountain of youth for rescued produce? I guess we'll leave that to you to decide!
At the end of the day, imperfections and surplus are not the only dangers posed to produce. At some point in life, we’ve all had to throw away perfectly beautiful bananas and apples that sat on our counter for a bit too long. The 2050 Smoothie allows us to go one step farther and rescue even conventionally perfect produce. Every fruit and vegetable, no matter its size, shape, or color has a set expiration date at which it will eventually join the imperfect ranks. The only way to eliminate this final imperfection is to eliminate the expiration date entirely…
So yeah, I guess we made immortal fruit. Spooky!
This has been the third installation of The 2050 Company’s “Zero Waste by 2050” blog series. Each week, we'll dive into a new area where food is currently wasted and explore novel solutions to eliminate this waste. To follow along with us on this exploration, please subscribe to The 2050 Newsletter by entering your email address in the footer below!