Research shows that anywhere between a third and a half of all food items produced end up wasted. The loss of food products can occur throughout the food chain.
In less economically developed countries, about 40% of food waste happens at the post-harvest and processing stages. In contrast, around 40% of the loss occurs in developed countries at the retail and consumption stages.
While it is hard to agree upon one comprehensive definition of food waste, the United Nations defines it as “any removal of food from the food supply chain which is, or was, at some point fit for human consumption, or which has spoiled or expired.”
In the UK specifically, about 6.7 million tonnes of food get wasted every year, worth about 10.2 million pounds overall and about 250-400 pounds per household per year. Let us look at the reasons why this happens:
Causes of food waste
Food waste can occur at all four stages of the supply chain — production, processing, retail, and consumption.
There is no surprise that pests and unpredictable weather can damage crops well before the harvesting period begins.
Farming equipment can also squash crops while harvesting them or pick crops at the wrong time due to not distinguishing between ripe and immature specimens. Culling of inferior or diseased specimens may also lead to waste, as healthy plants could get destroyed as well by mistake.
Significant amount of waste occurs when the harvested crops are stored improperly, and insects or microorganisms eat away at them. This is especially prevalent in hotter and more humid climates where insects thrive. Unhygienic and inefficient food handling can also contribute to waste.
While packaged food tends to be less prone to spoilage, confusion over food expiry dates leads to many edible items being thrown out.
Uncertainty over the difference between ‘best before’, ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ causes both retailers and end consumers to discard more than is necessary.
Another cause of food waste is retail standards on how food should look. Produce that is misshapen or discoloured often gets discarded even if it is safe to eat.
Households waste food for a multitude of reasons. They may have bought it and then forgotten about it, causing it to go rotten; they may have thrown it out believing it to be inedible; they may have peeled or cut it inefficiently and thus accumulated scrap; or they may have stored or cooked it improperly, making it unfit for consumption.
Food waste has far bigger impacts than just people going hungry. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), food waste is responsible for around 8% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Nearly 30% of all available agricultural land is used on food that is left uneaten or wasted. Moreover, the amount of water used to cultivate this wasted food adds up to 250 cubic kilometres every year.
Of course, this requires both businesses and consumers to do their bit for eliminating unnecessary food waste.
Ways to reduce food waste
1. Consumer marketing
2. Individual effort
There are several simple ways in which individuals, households and small businesses with kitchens can reduce their food waste:
a. Making a plan
By planning out a menu and grocery list for each week, they only buy exactly what they need—nothing more, nothing less.
b. Repurposing food
Not all wilted vegetables need to be thrown away. Many can be turned into soups or stocks or sauteed with spices.
c. Freezing food
The freezer can be used to store most food items safely for an extended period. A good practice is to bag each food item and note the date on which it was frozen.
d. Not blindly following the sell-by date
Very often, the sell-by date on a package of food does not necessarily affect its fitness for consumption. If it looks and smells fresh, it can quickly be eaten. Grocers and supermarkets should make a conscious effort to guide them by the “best before” dates on food packets.
Discarding food scraps at a compost site or making one’s compost heap at home is a much more sustainable way to dispose of food waste than sending it to a landfill or incinerating it.
3. Food waste collection
Waste collection is typically a municipal effort handled by the local governing bodies for each neighbourhood.
In the UK, food waste is collected by the local council, and each household is automatically entitled to have its waste picked up on the council’s collection route. Businesses, however, cannot avail of the same government-provided waste management service.
They can instead opt for a private company’s services to pick up and dispose of their waste. In this regard, segregating waste is extremely important for suitable processing, disposal and recycling to happen.
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Food waste disposal methods
Food waste collection is just the first step. It still needs to be disposed of, and there are several ways in which that can happen, including the following.
1. Energy production
Very often, food waste is tossed onto landfill. However, this not only releases unpleasant and often offensive odours but also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Methane is released when food waste degrades and causes even more harm than carbon dioxide (up to 25x greater impact on climate change) owing to its greater efficiency in trapping radiation. However, that is not the most environmentally-friendly way to deal with it.
Fortunately, food waste can also be processed anaerobically to produce biogas, an eco-friendly form of energy. This can be converted into energy via CHP and the residual digestate material used as a high-quality natural fertiliser.
2. Animal feed
Fruit and vegetable scraps and grains and seeds can be used to feed chickens in one’s backyard or on a farm. Meat and fish scraps can be fed to maggots, which can be fed to other animals.
Biological waste can be disposed of efficiently through composting, an aerobic process wherein bacteria break down food waste into organic materials that can be used as a soil fertiliser.
Wrapping it up
Managing food waste successfully requires individuals and businesses to be conscious of what they are producing in the first place. Sure, there are many government initiatives and charity organisations that help alleviate this problem.
However, a long-term solution would be to pay more attention to what we are producing in the first place and deploying the right technologies and methods to dispose or reuse them in the most environmentally-friendly way.