Convenience stores tackle food waste

In 2016, Japan produced about 6.4 million tons of food waste. That's nearly twice the annual amount of aid that the UN World Food Program delivers to developing nations.

Two of Japan's leading convenience store chains are starting a program to cut down on the amount of food they throw away.

On May 17, Lawson announced a new loyalty program that awards customers 5 points for every 100 yen they spend on items nearing their eat-by times. The three-month pilot program will start on June 11 at about 450 outlets in Ehime and Okinawa Prefectures. The company says it may expand the program nationwide, depending on its success.

Lawson stores produce as much as 44,000 tons of food waste a year, according to president Sadanobu Takemasu. He says it's imperative for the company to reduce this number.

Seven-Eleven is also planning to introduce a similar nationwide program in the fall.

Items that are within an hour of their eat-by times are taken off the shelves at Lawson stores.

Prepared meals from convenience stores are popular lunch items in Japan. Every day, office workers line up during their breaks to buy bento boxes, rice balls, and sandwiches. By the early afternoon, most of the shelves are empty. The unsold items that are within an hour of their eat-by times are thrown away.

The stores try to keep the amount that's thrown away at a low level by adjusting how much of each item they order, depending on factors like past sales records and weather. But a certain amount of waste seems difficult to avoid. Some stores say that despite their efforts, as much as 4 percent of the rice balls they order end up thrown away.

Government statistics show that of the estimated 6.43 million tons of food waste Japan produces a year, about 10 percent comes from food retailers, including convenience stores and supermarkets.

Lawson announced a new loyalty program aimed at reducing food waste.

But it's not just a sense of social responsibility that has convenience stores turning their attention to reducing waste.

Convenience store owners are currently facing two major business problems. The first is Japan's labor shortage and the subsequent jump in labor costs. The second is the losses caused by food waste.

Store owners order lunch boxes, rice balls, and other items from the franchiser. When these are thrown away, the owners shoulder most of the losses. For some, this amounts to more than 10,000 yen a day.

The new loyalty system could prove to be a massive boost for owners. If customers are enticed by points to buy older food, it would reduce the amount of waste and cut daily losses. And since the points are being covered by the companies themselves--Lawson and Seven-Eleven--it comes at no cost to the owners.

Prepared meals from convenience stores, such as bento boxes, rice balls, and sandwiches, are popular lunch items.

Journalist Rumi Ide is an expert on food waste. She says the program is a good first step, but that the problem will remain unless a larger issue is addressed.

She says there is no room for growth in the convenience store industry. But franchises continue to increase sales targets for store owners every year. These unrealistic demands have caused the owners to take drastic measures, like working longer hours and placing larger orders. And this, in turn, leads to more waste. Until this changes, Ide says, food waste is going nowhere.