It is a sad truth that food waste starts in the field and ends with the consumer, and there are multiple opportunities for further waste as it passes through the chain.
Some are avoidable; some are unavoidable. But however it is caused, food waste needs to be focused on now as it creates costs to manage it, both financially and environmentally. Understanding where the waste occurs is a first step to putting strategies to reduce or eliminate it.
This two-part article looks at the most up-to-date information available throughout the food chain to identify the issues, waste volumes, and costs that could be mitigated through ‘in-house’ food waste management.
1. Pre-farm gate
Quantifying food waste at the primary production state is inherently tricky. There are so many variables that it would have to be undertaken over many years with data drawn from busy farmers, many of whom have little time to complete forms and assessments.
Numbers speak volumes
WRAP, the British charity that has become a world leader in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency, updated their estimate for food waste and food surplus in primary production in 2020.
Their best estimate with the available data is that 3.6 million tonnes, 7.2% of total harvested food, is classified as waste. This has a value of £1.2 billion.
Using the terms ‘food surplus’ (food intended for human consumption that is redistributed for livestock food or used to produce bio-based materials) and ‘food waste’ (food that is not redistributed and is disposed of, ploughed in, composted or processed by anaerobic digestion) and excluding food that reaches secondary markets such as for juice, provides a clearer picture.
The larger portion, 2.0 million tonnes, is categorised as surplus and goes to non-waste destinations to be repurposed, leaving 1.6 million tonnes per annum, 3.2% of all food harvested, to be disposed of.
Supermarkets pose a problem.
Some analysis has been undertaken on the breakdown of products contained within this food waste category. WRAP has identified that the top ten products contribute 80% of the total, with sugar beet, potatoes and carrots making up more than 50%.
With this information, one would think that a solution could be easily identified. Sadly this is not the case, and this lost revenue is devastating for the farmers. According to Farmers Talk Food Waste, produced by Feedback, it is clear that supermarket policies drive food waste.
It is not only the rejection of food because of shape, size or colour; there are also the unfair trading practices of last-minute cancellations and overproduction to enable farmers to meet order quantities.
Food waste, of course, also occurs due to adverse weather conditions, such as crops ripening early or being damaged through drought, flood, or pests.
The impact of the pandemic has hit farms hard; with the shut down of the hospitality industry, schools, food outlets, many distribution routes closed, and the resultant crops were destroyed in their tonnes along with gallons of milk, beer and numerous other food items.
Even though the country has started to open after a prolonged lockdown, the cost across the industry is forecast to be massive. Moreover, the effect of labour shortages will compound the problems faced for years to come.
From the farm to the factory, further food waste is created during the processing stage; WRAP estimates around 11% of the total avoidable food waste from manufacturing (around 100,000 tonnes) comes from this stage.
Attention is already focused on reducing this amount. Supermarket giants like Tesco first looked in detail at their food waste, inviting their suppliers to participate in their analysis.
Fighting food waste through analysis enables remedial steps.
For example, Greenyard Frozen UK Ltd, which processes fruit and vegetables into frozen products, committed to reducing food waste by 50% by 2030. Their 2018-19 inventory showed what they are confronting.
Their UK frozen division processed 87,709 tonnes of fresh vegetables over that period, of which 13,134 tonnes of waste, almost 15%, were created from the vegetables’ inedible parts.
Further waste of 1,837 tonnes of edible food was created due to spillage and packaging failures. Knowing where the wastage occurs has enabled them to show a consistent decline, but it is still expensive to process this amount of food waste.
The food waste they produce does not go to the landfill. Instead, it is either sent to an Anaerobic Digester to generate energy or a composting plant to be turned into ‘fertiliser’; it will incur transportation and processing costs.
Research highlights an increase in food waste during processing.
Valuable data can be gleaned from a study entitled ‘Importance of sustainable operations in food loss: evidence from the Belgian food processing industry, which is one of the few to look at food processing and the associated food waste in a structured manner.
Research from 47 food processing companies across various food types, including bakery, drinks, and vegetable and fruit products, identified the vegetable and fruit sectors as those contributing the highest percentage of loss, with ready-meal companies coming close behind.
The research assessed food waste at three stages of food processing:
- Before production: planning/ordering storing, inventory management;
- Production: processing and packaging;
- After production: inventory management, transport and buyer contracts.
There were wide variations across the business types, but the production stage was considered the most critical hotspot for food waste.
Here, poor transportation, interrupted production, product changes, human error and product defects were reported as causes in at least one in five companies.
Whilst affecting a smaller proportion of the businesses researched, excessive losses were linked to product defects and buyer contracts, mirroring issues faced by the food producers.
Greater food waste was reported during processing than at the packaging stage. However, packaging errors, including incorrect filling, non-sealed and damaged packaging, and inaccurate labelling, cause significant food losses within the Belgian food industry.
Food businesses also facing new waste realities
COVID-19 has impacted those businesses processing food too. With the lockdown, the UK buying habits changed, and the demand for processed ready meals, sandwiches and convenience food declined.
Similarly, the closure of pubs, restaurants, cafes saw their demand for food cease in 2020. Now that they are back in business, they will have to face new realities of the food business, including:
- Social distancing will dramatically change customer interactions
- Food prep will undergo a revamp
- Supply chains will run inefficiently, at least to begin with
But this also allows them to deal with food waste in a much more efficient way. For instance, they should track waste, alter their menus to minimise wastage and become more environmentally conscious overall.
With the push throughout the food chain to reduce the volume of food waste per se, mainly going to landfill, the future appears to be positive.
What is apparent across all of the studies that have been undertaken, though, is the lack of awareness of all the alternatives for managing food waste. There are increases in opening up the routes for food going to charities, for example.
But the main alternatives appear to rely on centralised food waste processing in Anaerobic digesters for power production or energy capture in fertiliser output. Or the final alternative of the landfill, all of which rely heavily on road haulage logistics.
With careful planning and investment in food waste management solutions, the situation can be controlled. Speak to a Waste2ES team member to understand how. Contact us! Read the second part of the series here.