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Mitigating Food Waste and Greenhous Gas Emissions During Refrigerated Distribution in Westernized Food Chains 

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The harsh reality that haunts the planet… 1/3 of all food produced across the Earth never even reaches the mouths of consumers (Gustavsson, et al., 2011 pp 431).


Please view the following video: Food Wastage Footprint



With ⅓ of all food produced being wasted, this catastrophic level of waste must be addressed. Food loss not only exacerbates world hunger and creates financial loss, but can also have detrimental impacts to the environment in the form of greenhouse gas pollution. Both food companies and consumers hold great power to make decisions that impact food waste. Within the food chain, from farm to fork, there lies many opportunities for food waste generation. However, there also lies many opportunities for improvement within the food chain. In an effort to be able to provide large corporations who contribute significant food waste with recommendations to reduce their food waste and the subsequent harmful impact they have on the environment, we conducted some further investigation into the matter of food waste that occurs during distribution. More specifically, we investigated two different food waste systems and their resulting effects on overall effectiveness and greenhouse gas emissions: the MultiTemperature Joint Distribution system and the Traditional Multi-Vehicle Distribution system. These findings led us to conclude that the MultiTemperature Joint Distribution system was more efficient and reduced GHG more in terms of food waste.


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Assuming our role as consultants for a large, westernized food production company, we utilized the research we conducted to advise that these companies implement the MultiTemperature Joint Distribution system. We aim to inform board members of these companies on the issue of food waste and which system should be utilized in order to minimize the company's waste and accompanying greenhouse gas emissions. 



Birds Eye View of Food Waste in Its Entirety of the Food Chain: 

The impact of food waste on a global scale is quite large. As seen in figure 1 there are many avenues through which food waste can be generated throughout the food supply chain. When looking at the entire food chain there is 55 million metric tons per year of food waste, nearly 29% of annual production in the US. This waste produces life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of at least 113 million metric tonnes of CO2e annually, equivalent to 2% of national emissions, and costs $198 billion (Venkat, 2011 pp. 431–446). 

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Figure 1. Food supply chain overview and summary of food losses

Focusing in on mitigating waste at the distribution sector:

Why might the distribution sector of the food chain be an opportunity for food waste reduction? According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme in the UK there was only 7 grocery retailers that made up 87% of the UK grocery market. This indicates that a majority of environmental decisions regarding food waste are governed by just a few corporations. Thus it is up to the corporations to make decisions that minimize food waste and GHG production. This starts with selection of an adequate distribution system and looking at parameters such as transport efficiency, economic costs due to fuel and capacity, and environmental footprints. 

Types of Distribution Systems:

For simplicity only 2 refrigerated distribution systems will be looked at: the Traditional Multi-Vehicle Distribution (TMVD) and MultiTemperature Joint Distribution (MTJD) systems. TMVD uses one type of refrigerated vehicle to distribute products in a single temperature range around a set-point, and the refrigerated vehicles maintain the required temperature using a mechanical compression refrigeration unit and an engine. This is in contrast to MTJD systems which utilize replaceable cold accumulators (eutectic plates) of different temperatures and sizes in standardized cold insulated boxes to maintain precise temperatures. To put simply, the traditional system does not feature various temperature set points and has a wider range of temperature settings. By looking at the total GHG emissions produced by each system taking into account less waste generation due to more accurate temperature set points it will be possible to compare the environmental and economical efficiency of both systems. 


Research Questions

The questions this research will set out to answer are:

  1. Which distribution system, Traditional Multi-Vehicle Distribution (TMVD) or MultiTemperature Joint Distribution (MTJD), is more efficient in the context of transport efficiency, economic impact, and environmental footprints?
  2. What incentives do large food corporations have to prioritize mitigating environmental impacts of food waste in distribution systems?


Methods and Results


The aim for this comprehensive review is to provide insights to large food companies that receive and export specifically fresh foods such as vegetables or fruits and meat items that are perishable. The focus will be on refrigerated distribution systems and will refer to figure 1 as a model for food loss (FL) and food waste (FW) throughout the food chain. Traditional Multi-Vehicle Distribution (TMVD) and MultiTemperature Joint Distribution (MTJD) will be compared based on transport efficiency, economic impact, and environmental footprint. Methods of FL and FW treatment and resulting GHG impacts  will be briefly discussed as well.

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Figure 2. Photo example of MultiTemperature Joint Distribution system



Figure 3. Photo example of Traditional Multi-Vehicle Distribution system

Major Findings:

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Figure 4. Comparison of TMVD and MTJD refrigeration systems 


To delve into figure 4 which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of both types of distribution systems. Because traditional systems are so common in the food industry already the initial investment in these systems is cheaper and more widely available. Multi-temperature distribution trucks are heavier, more expensive, and less widely available. This sophisticated technology and the large initial investment would likely be a source of hesitation for large companies to adapt these systems. However; multi-temperature distribution systems have the capacity to transport multiple types of foods that require different storage temperatures during distribution such as meats and produce which increases efficiency. The temperature range that most meat including poultry, fish, beef, and pork needs to be transported at is -2-+2°C. Vegetables and fruits need to be transported from 0-7°C. The temperature range is quite small for each food type indicating that specificity of temperature is crucial in distribution systems. Shown by the 20-34% increase in distribution volumes this initial investment for multi-temperature distribution systems deems worthwhile in the long run. A model created by Hsu and others for the use of logistics efficiency of multi-temperature distribution systems showed that traditional distribution trucks have increased stopping locations which yield longer routing distances thus contributing to higher GHG emissions (Hsu et. al, 2013). Because multi-temperature systems alleviate the need for multiple other refrigeration systems the overall fuel cost is less. It should be noted that the cost of operation for each system heavily varies based on location, traffic volume, speed of travel, and fuel cost. It is also worth noting here that both transport refrigeration systems contribute to GHG emissions. A Simplified Material Balance Method, created by the EPA for corporate climate leadership, shows average transport refrigeration gives a 50% operating emission meaning the emissions resulting from equipment leaks and service losses. This method also shows that 50% of refrigerants remain at disposal of equipment indicating the contribution of refrigerants at the end of lifecycle is significant (EPA, 2014). As refrigerated distribution is necessary to mitigate food waste and losses it is crucial to understand the environmental impacts of such systems to the overall footprint left by the food industry and best find ways to improve distribution efficiency.


Discussion and Conclusions

To emphasize, it is important to note the main causes of food waste during distribution are lack of proper infrastructure, bruising or spoiling, and lack of cool storage (Papargyropoulou, 2014). Therefore, these points of loss must be kept in mind when designing a proper food waste and distribution system. Many argue that consumer diets, such as lacto-ovo vegetarianism can reduce food waste significantly, but this is outside of the scope of our focus, so we will not be suggesting alterations in the food product types already offered by our westernized companie  (Heller and Keoleian, 2014). It can also be said that a simple sense of awareness about food waste had positive impacts on GHG reduction from food waste from consumers/producers, which validates the goal and potential of our own project, which seeks to bring awareness about food waste to our own target audience, the large food company board members (Pappalardo, 2020). Based on the research collected from our sources, the Multi-temperature Joint Delivery system would decrease emissions most due to an overall significant reduction in gas (Chen et al, 2015). Some key minor changes to consider when designing a food waste system with the goal of minimizing GHG emissions include increasing carbon removal, optimizing fertilizer, crop and animal breeding for efficiency, composting, use of solar and wind power during production (Garnett, 2011).

These conclusions have several potential implications for our chosen audience. First, our company must be reminded of the fact that large food corporations contribute greatly to FW and FL and GHG emissions due to the distribution sector of the food supply chain. However, FL and FW have potential to be mitigated through changes in distribution systems. By switching from traditional refrigerated distribution systems to MultiTemperature Joint Distribution systems a higher distribution volume can be achieved as well as a reduction in refrigeration units needed for distribution. This mitigates GHG emissions through fuel reduction and less refrigerant production.  Our audience of the board members may be motivated to adapt their waste distribution systems for a variety of reasons. For example, food safety and quality regulations are becoming increasingly more strict and prioritizing FL and FW during distribution will increase consumer acceptance thus increasing demand for suppliers with less FL and FW. Furthermore, environmentally friendly business practices can often be rewarded by certain tax breaks which would also economically motivate our companies to heed our recommendation.



It is worth stating that changing the type of refrigerated distribution system would not solve all issues related to FL and FW, as there are many other contributing factors contributing to this issue of food waste. Improper operations, logistical constraints, lack of technology and skilled personnel, mismatch between supply and demand are also major contributors to FL and FW in the food supply chain (Yanhui et. al, 2021). Future research might explore alternative methods to optimizing distribution systems. Beyond the scope of this study also might include alternative methods of utilizing FL and FW from distribution. For example, looking into animal feed usage for specific areas of FL and FW would be beneficial for optimization and would mitigate environmental impacts. This would not only prevent loss, but also turn food products that are normally wasted into more usable calories which humans can utilize from animals in the long run. Moreover, although it was beyond the scope of focus for this specific study, it would be valuable to build upon this research and add considerations for the economic pillar. For instance, not only is it vital to choose a food waste system that minimizes undesirable environmental effects, but also minimizes economic loss. This would further entice large companies to employ these systems if they too are benefiting economically.


Summary Quiz

Please use the following link to take a brief summary quiz about what you have learned surrounding food waste and the various systems that can be used to minimize undesirable environmental effects.


About the Authors

Elizabeth D’Auria and Brenna Grych are fourth year undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Food Science and Animal Science respectively. D’Auria and Grych became interested in the topic of food waste when it came up in their studies during their undergraduate education. Furthermore, they both were interested in this research to better understand the sources of food waste and how to be conscientious consumers.

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Keywordsstudent project template page   Doc ID111073
OwnerDelaney G.GroupFood Production Systems &
Created2021-05-27 09:42:02Updated2021-06-04 12:43:58
SitesDS 471 Food Production Systems and Sustainability
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