As you sit down to your next meal, concerns about food waste are probably furthest from your mind.
But instead of just making you feel guilty about it – and heaven knows there are enough issues flying around at the moment to cover off on that emotion – lets look at what can be done about food waste.
For many environmental issues (climate change, habitat clearance) there is a sense of actionable paralysis – the feeling that it doesn’t really matter what an individual does, the problem is still going to get worse. But for food waste, the issues can be directly addressed by individuals across the entire food supply chain, and can help save you money too.
…the issues can be directly addressed by individuals across the entire food supply chain, and can help save you money too.
But before we get to the solutions lets just reflect on the scale of the food waste issue. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that a third of all food produced globally is wasted, equivalent to 1.3B tonnes of food. That’s a lot of wasted food and is the reason that one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to halve food waste by 2030. Australia alone wastes $20B of food a year, and the country performs worse than the global average, with up to 40% of the food produced lost at the point of production, manufacture, processing, wholesale or consumption.
So back to what we can do about it, and come with me on a journey back through your typical food supply chain – from home, or the restaurant, back through your supermarket or food supplier, back through the food processing plant, and finally to the farmers field – and see the range of practical and new and innovative ways that we can all help reduce food waste.
At home or in the restaurant
‘On average each Australian household wastes about $3,800 of food a year’, says Associate Professor David Pearson from Central Queensland University, and previous Head of Research at food rescue charity OzHarvest. ‘But there is a lot we can do to reduce food waste at home and which can also save on our grocery bills. There are simple things like meal planning and targeted shopping, to fridge layout that can help reduce food waste.’
‘The amount of food we currently waste is unforgivable especially when we consider that in Australia 65,000 people will go hungry for at least one meal despite the best efforts of food relief charities such as Ozharvest and Food Bank’.
Here are some simple ways to reduce food waste at home (there are more suggestions on the Ozharvest website):
- Before sitting down for dinner, the effort starts by planning meals and only buying the food that is on the list and then organising the fridge and staggering meals through the festive season so that more perishable products are eaten first;
- Using leftovers for future meals or sharing with friends and neighbours;
- Put food scraps into your green bin or better still home-compost them. In the US there are now several composting services who vie for your food waste and planet ark give some useful tips on the topic of home-compositing;
- If you eat out of at a restaurant and can’t finish your meal, insist on a doggy bag to take home unfinished food;
- Ask the restaurant or café you eat at what their food waste strategy is. There are many food waste pick up services available for such establishments, from meal provision for food rescue charities through to composting services. Encourage your local eatery to use these services.
At the supermarket, grocers or food wholesaler
‘Supermarkets handle large quantities of food and waste is a big problem’ says Valeria Torok of the South Australian Research and Development Institute. ‘Food waste is also the third most important issue that supermarket customers are concerned about – after provision of fresh food and supporting local farmers. Clearly food safety is a critical issue, but sell-by dates can be too conservative leading to good food being thrown out. In addition the exacting standards of supermarkets and their belief that customers require perfect fruit or veg can mean that perfectly good produce is rejected. Supermarkets can also help support food relief charities with products that are close to or beyond the sell by dates, but still fit for human consumption.‘
Novel products can also be produced directly from food waste. In the UK, surplus bread from supermarkets and bakeries is used to make beer and sold under the brand name ‘Toast’. The product has been very successful and boasts reusing nearly 1 million slices of surplus bread to brew more than 300,000 litres of beer, and will be available in Australia soon.
So here are some top tips to reduce food waste at the supermarket
- Support supermarkets or grocers who relax their standards of perfect fruit and vegetables (a major cause of food waste higher up the food supply chain), since we are all alot more tolerant of the way these products look as long as they’re fresh and taste good. Take for example the success of Woolies Odd Bunch that sells misshapen fruit and veg.
- Buy products which are on special offer because they are close to their sell-by date
- Ask the supermarkets what their food waste strategy is, and whether they contribute to food rescue charities or use composting services.
- Buy products made from recycled food products.
At the food processing or packaging centre
At the moment, the environmental impact of packaging is coming under increasing scrutiny, particularly around plastics and the bans on exporting materials for recycling overseas. ‘What is getting lost in the debates is the role that packaging plays in containing and protecting food from farm to fork, and ultimately reducing food waste’ says Associate Professor Karli Verghese, of RMIT University. ‘There are many ways in which we can ensure that the appropriate packaging materials are selected and that product quality and shelf life is maintained. These functions need to be designed and balanced in conjunction with the manufacture and waste management of packaging at end of life.’
We can shop fresh at farmers markets and use jars and other “old-fashioned” methods to keep food fresh (e.g. see this Conversation piece ‘How to have yourself a plastic free Christmas’), but in our convenience-orientated world the key priority will be to replace plastics in packaging with more biodegradable products. There are tremendous innovations occurring in this space with bioplastics and other biodegradable products being produced to replace plastic packaging, some of them made from food waste themselves, such as starch and cellulose. And we are seeing new companies popping up to take advantage of this new market opportunity and customer preferences, such as Tipa.
‘Other exciting new products can be produced directly from fruit and vegetables offcuts or those that don’t make it onto the supermarket shelf’, says Associate Professor Bronwyn Laycock, from the University of Queensland. ‘Instead of sending potato peelings, tomato skins, grape pips and almost any other by-product of food processing to landfill, we are able to refine these products to produce a range of vitamins, minerals and nutraceutical additives and cosmetics. We are trialling these biotransformation and chemical engineering processes at pilot scale to start with, but then working with major companies such as Swisse to go into large-scale manufacturing of such products. Even the water extracted from vegetables and fruit can go into soups, stocks, juices and even high-end healthy water products such as Aquabotanical.’
Here are some products to look out for that have incorporated what would otherwise would have been wasted food:
- Select products with biodegradable packaging that still keep products fresh. (This supermarket in the Netherlands is making plastic-free a priority)
- Look out for and support novel products produced from parts or whole fruit or vegetables that would have otherwise been wasted.
- Shop fresh at farmers markets and use jars and other “old-fashioned” methods to keep food fresh
At the farm
I expect many Australians have seen the ABC’s War on Waste program – do you remember the mountains of rotting bananas in the fields in Queensland rejected because they were the wrong size and shape? We hear a lot about the need to improve agricultural methods to increase the amount of food we produce and to breed new varieties of crops to cope with changing environmental conditions. But if we just reduced the amount of food lost and wasted, this would increase global food security in a much faster and more direct way, not to mention being cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
‘Most of our current food waste goes into land fill or is ploughed back into the ground where it emits huge amounts of greenhouse gases, mostly methane’ says Professor Vincent Bulone of University of Adelaide. ‘If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind only the US and China. A lot of water is also wasted in growing the food that ends up as waste. In fact over 1,460 GL of water is wasted each year in this way in Australia – almost the required savings under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.’
If agricultural food waste collection can be coordinated, even regionally or at a landscape scale, it makes it cost effect to turn agricultural waste into new products,…
There is a lot we can do to reduce waste from agricultural production. If agricultural food waste collection can be coordinated, even regionally or at a landscape scale, it makes it cost effect to turn agricultural waste into new products, for example:
- Fruit or vegetables that wouldn’t normally make the quality cut for supermarkets can be sold directly for processed food products, soup, stews, stocks etc
- A range of vegetables can be used directly as animal feed
- Offcuts of meat or fish can be broken down by soldier flies and other larvae to produce insect protein products
- Otherwise unused vegetable and fruit pieces can be used to produce fertiliser and compost
- And once every other useful product has been extracted from food waste the organic matter can be transformed into energy products such as biocoal and biodiesel through a range of chemical engineering procedures such as torrefaction, which can even be set up as generators run on individual farms
‘Solving these food waste issues would generate a new circular economy, making food waste into a valuable commodity in its own right, the by-product of which would be reduced food waste’ says Dr Steve Lapidge, Chief Executive of the Fight Food Waste Cooperative Research Centre.
‘Globally our collective conscience has been woken up to food waste, and we are now seeing major campaigns running in a number of countries to combat food waste, such as the Love Food Hate Waste campaign in the UK by the Waste & Resource Action Programme (WRAP). We are also increasingly seeing research being used to develop new and valuable by-products from food waste which can be the basis of new industries.’
‘The Australian Government recently approved our new Cooperative Research Centre to Fight Food Waste. The program matches $34M of industry and partner cash contributions with another $30M of federal funding and $57M of in-kind contributions from the partners. This program will be the biggest research & development program to combat food waste in the world, and has close to 60 partners including Swisse Wellness, Foodbank Australia, KPMG and Woolworths, and a range of nationally leading research partners, including the South Australian Research and Development Institute, Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Adelaide, Queensland, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Central Queensland.’
Together these partners are seeking to
- Reduce food waste by working with food relief charities to more efferently redistribute edible food to families in need of support. Other projects will look at how packaging can be made more sustainable and move away from plastic to more biodegradable materials.
- Transform food wasteby examining the conversion of food waste into other high value products, such as – animal feed, preserved or processed foods, refined additives and nutraceuticals, cosmetics, energy – biocoal and biodiesel, and fertiliser and compost
- Engage ina campaign to highlight the problem of and solutions to food waste with consumers and train the next generation of professionals to take the food waste economy forward.
So the future of food waste looks promising – or perhaps not that promising for the actual food waste – and through such initiatives we should see the United Nations sustainability goal, which aims to cut food waste in half by 2030, achieved and possibly even surpassed.