ST. LOUIS, MO.  — Josh Allen, founder and owner of St. Louis-based Companion Baking, was named the 2021 “Sustainability Hero” at the TipTree World Bread Awards. Mr. Allen was also named Midwest runner-up in the Bread Heroes competition.

Founded in 2017, the World Bread Awards are supported by the International Baking Industry Exposition and recognize bakers making a difference in their community. Mr. Allen received the Sustainability Hero award for his efforts in reducing Companion’s waste production by more than 1 million lbs.

“At Companion Baking, we have focused on reducing food waste at our factory for the past 40 months,” Mr. Allen said. “When we first moved into our new facility in 2015, we didn’t anticipate the challenges we’d encounter with growing the business. Those challenges manifested themselves as mistakes in our production, which essentially means lots and lots of waste.”

Companion has grown significantly since its founding in 1993, when Mr. Allen leased a small corner of his family’s manufacturing facility to begin the bakery. He started with just six breads in Companion’s product portfolio, but gradually he began partnering with local and regional restaurants and grocery chains to build the customized bread programs Companion is known for today. Today, Companion’s breads are served in more than 400 restaurants, grocery stores and business across the country. But such large growth can also mean lots of new waste, which Mr. Allen said Companion wasn’t yet equipped to deal with.

“At our low point, we were generating nearly 1.6 million lbs of annual trash,” Mr. Allen said, a number that astounded him. “I think we were chasing our tails initially and didn’t have the time or inclination to get that granular about where our problems were coming from.”

But through a series of micro-innovations, Companion was able to dramatically reduce waste production. Mr. Allen said many small changes and adaptations to their process added up to lots of trash saved.

“If we found a problem in our ovens, we could trace it upstream to mixing, or if we found a problem in packing, we could trace it to dividing,” Mr. Allen said. “It was really looking at the whole process and understanding where we were running into small challenges.”

For example, Companion began reclaiming the dusting flour on one of the bread lines that keeps the dough from sticking to the belt on the machine.

“In the past, we simply emptied the catch trays into the trash,” Mr. Allen explained. “With the trash initiative, one of our bakers decided to calculate the amount of flour we were throwing away, since the line runs 16-18 hours a day. It was a total of 175 lbs, six days per week—nearly 55,000 thousand lbs per year.”

The waste reduction, coupled with a comprehensive composting and recycling program that evolved through the initiative, has resulted in a 76% reduction in Companion’s landfill contributions.  

Eliminating that much waste wasn’t without its difficulties, however. Mr. Allen said the bakery struggled at first in getting its arms around the mistakes it was making and producing a high-quality product on the first try.

“We certainly made sure we weren’t sending bad product out, but in an effort to do that we were taking way too much time and way too much effort,” Mr. Allen said. “The initiative to really find those issues made all the difference in the world.”

While Companion’s trash reduction helped it financially, Mr. Allen said the initiative’s biggest impact was on the bakery’s culture.

“I’ll candidly admit that for the first 25 years in business, [sustainability] wasn’t first and foremost in our minds when we were making decisions about what to make or who to sell to,” Mr. Allen said. “Now that we’ve been on this journey, it’s part of every decision. That cultural shift has been incredible to watch and be a part of.”

Mr. Allen’s advice to other businesses looking to reduce waste is to “measure what’s managed.” Companion landed on the concept of trash efficiency, or sales dollars divided by pounds of trash. Companion partners with its waste management companies to measure this trash at its landfill each month.

“In order to see improvement, you’ve got to be able to measure it,” Mr. Allen explained. “It could be volumetric; it could be the number of trash cans that get taken out to the dumpster, whatever you can do to measure and see you if you can improve it.”

While Companion has greatly reduced its trash production, Mr. Allen says it still has a long way to go. The bakery’s next big goal is to get to zero landfill contributions by 2022. To hit this target, Companion has partnered with a waste management consulting firm that is helping them find better partners, as well new ways to recycle and compost.

“I don’t know if we’ll get there [by 2022], but anything that we can do better than what we’re doing now will have a huge impact,” Mr. Allen said.

Just as important to Mr. Allen is getting his bakery’s sustainability story out there so that the entire planet can benefit.

“If all of us focus on the things we can do and the contributions we can make, that’s how we do this,” Mr. Allen said. “It is possible to move the needle a lot further than you think it is.”