Zero food waste – possibility or pipedream?

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Courtesy of SugaRich

Many people would argue that the UK’s target to halve edible food waste by 2020 is difficult to achieve. Perhaps even more would deem the country’s ultimate zero food waste to landfill vision, simply a pipedream. But what factors contribute to food waste in the UK and to what extent is progress being made? Paul Featherstone, group director of specialist surplus food recycler SugaRich, investigates.

Food waste is certainly an important topic. In January 2013, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ report – Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not – shockingly revealed that an estimated 30-50% of food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach. On a more domestic level, further startling findings continued to unfold throughout the year. In November 2013 for instance, WRAP highlighted that food wastefulness in UK homes is costing the country a staggering £12.5 billion a year. The on-going food waste minimisation conundrum has rarely left the media spotlight.

Yet it is not just households that are to blame for the magnitude of this food waste problem – improvements need to be made by businesses too. Food manufacturers, eateries and retailers also have surplus food challenges to tackle, but difficulty lies in knowing where to begin.

The factors influencing the issue of residual food are numerous, and sometimes they cannot be avoided. When food is manufactured for example, there are inevitable by-products and a proportion of the finished items cannot be retailed for human consumption. Production errors, overcooking, wrong weights and sizes, trial runs and packaging defects, can all prevent produce from ever making it onto the supermarket shelves or into catering establishments.

Moving on to the retail environment, additional challenges arise. Over-ordering (to avoid stock outages), out of date stock and the condition of fresh goods, means some produce remains unsold. Delivery times and transit conditions add to the problem, as certain groceries have a limited shelf-life before they even reach a store. Then there is the issue of consumers’ discerning desire for unblemished fruit and vegetables, another possible reason why so many goods struggle to ‘make the cut’.

Even foods that are purchased by the consumer may still be wasted. Excess buying in the ‘money-saving’ era of BOGOFs, portion size over-estimations, restrictive ‘best before’ dates and inadequate labelling and storage instructions, all contribute to the problem of food waste in the home.

Thankfully, legislation, sustainability pressures, CSR obligations and a constant need to work smarter and cut costs, are collectively encouraging a revolution in the food industry. A growing number of manufacturers and retailers – large and small – are listening to their environmental consciences and taking action. Their collaborative efforts are tackling factors such as the logistical hindrances that contribute to products appearing undesirable or being unsellable. Greater dialogue with consumers is also helping to change perceptions, alter buying habits and encourage more efficient food consumption. Elsewhere, intelligent product labels are being introduced to prevent consumers from disposing of food they wrongly believe has ‘gone off’.

Waste prevention is being progressively communicated, and when it cannot be avoided, these organisations are increasingly saying no to landfill too. The ever-rising charges associated with this traditional disposal route, along with pressures to adopt a more ‘circular’ approach to business, mean a more intelligent solution is being sought. The target to halve edible food waste by 2020 is drawing closer after all.

Yet there is still more work to be done. Encouragingly, a growing number of companies now acknowledge the fact that surplus food is actually a resource from which future value can be harnessed. Yet not all understand the options that exist for this residual material.

Perhaps understandably, many producers of food ‘waste’ see anaerobic digestion (AD) as the only alternative to landfill. Not only is AD widely reported on in the media, but funding and subsidies also exist to support the creation of renewable energies using these technologies.

However it is important to remember that, under the principles of the waste hierarchy, energy recovery is only marginally better than traditional disposal. Where possible, valuable nutrients need to be retained in the food chain. So, following attempts to prevent and minimise the creation of food waste, efforts should then be focused on reusing and recycling surplus produce.

Thanks to innovations within the industry, starch-rich foodstuffs including biscuits, confectionery and breads which are unsuitable for human consumption, can in fact be recovered and converted into a high energy animal feed. Packaging materials can even be extracted for recycling.

Of course this process is subject to stringent regulations and checks. For example, produce destined for inclusion in animal feed must be kept entirely separate from other foods during transport, storage and dispatch to and from a supermarket returns depot or manufacturing plant. Segregation methodology is even more crucial in facilities handling permitted raw materials, and foods prohibited from use in animal feed, such as meat or fish.

However, with the right quality control checks in place – to ensure safety, traceability and suitability of the food – a variety of animal feeds can then be produced. Akin to a sophisticated manufacturing process, computer generated formulae within these specialist recycling facilities enable different types and rations of raw materials to be blended. Cattle, pig and chicken feed can therefore be produced to suit varied end user requirements.

The resulting benefits are multi-layered. From the food manufacturer or retailer’s perspective, this approach saves money, ensures waste hierarchy compliance and reduces the environmental damage that would otherwise be caused if the food was incinerated or left to biodegrade on a landfill site. The organisation’s CSR agenda is also strengthened, with the knowledge that the value of an important resource has been upheld.

On a more holistic level, the creation of a nutritious animal feed from products unsuitable for human consumption can boost the future quality of livestock produce that people will subsequently eat. Effectively turning the traditional linear food chain into a circular model, it is no wonder that this ‘closed loop’ approach is growing in popularity throughout the UK. In fact, such value-adding expertise is also sure to be increasingly ‘exported’ to neighbouring European nations over the coming years too.

To revert to the initial question, it is therefore clear that defined progress is being made, and the momentum of this progress seems to be gathering pace. So, whilst at first glance the UK’s zero waste to landfill vision may seem a little ambitious, upon closer inspection it is a very realistic goal to work towards.

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