How we can stop wasting so much food

Food waste conference organised by EPA’s Stop Food Waste campaign hears of progress

Irish hospitals used to spend a mind-numbing €600,000 on unused salt and pepper sachets.

The sachets were supplied with every meal served to patients and binned afterwards regardless of whether they were used or not.

This continued until somebody decided patients should be asked whether they wanted them, thus helping to curb a needless waste.

This was just one of many examples of food waste aired at a conference in Dublin last week hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Stop Food Waste campaign.


To put this in perspective, €600,000 is what the State gave to west Africa to fight the recent Ebola outbreak.

Money wasted

According to Department of Education payroll data, the money could also pay the annual salaries of 10 teachers.

From farmers dumping cosmetically inferior vegetables to supermarkets binning unsold stock, waste leaks out of the system all over the place.

The EPA estimates that about one million tonnes of waste is generated each year in the Republic – about 30-40 per cent of what’s produced.

This is just a best guess, however, and most industry players believe the real figure is much higher.

The head of the EPA's Stop Food Waste programme Odile Le Bolloch says there is not enough knowledge of the issue.

Size of problem

One of the main talking points at the conference, she said, was the need to map the extent of the problem.

Agricultural waste, for example, isn’t included in the EPA’s estimate. “A lot of the time crops get ploughed back into the land as nutrient and as such is not viewed as waste.”

However, she says firms are slowly beginning to see waste as a commercial cost to their business that can be prevented or at least reduced.

Part of what is needed, says Ms Le Bolloch, is a mindset change. “We need to stop viewing the by-products of food production simply as waste with no commercial value,” she says.

A case in point is food group Glanbia. For many years, it discarded the whey by-product of its cheese-making activities.

This was before the company realised whey’s potential in the fast-growing sports nutritional market.

The company is now a world leader in producing whey protein products and its sports nutritional business dwarfs its other activities. What was once its waste is now its primary focus.

Also speaking at the conference was John Fagan from the seafood industry body, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, who talked about his work in the fish processing sector, where he specialises in making reformed products and increasing yield – essentially making value out of what was once waste.

“We don’t like to use the term waste. We see it as by-product from which other products can be formed.”

He said Bord Iascaigh Mhara has been conducting research with fish frames – the part that’s left after the fillets are removed – from white fish and salmon.

Until now, these frames were deemed unfit for human consumption and sent to pet food or fish meal manufacturers.

However, the board found that when the frames were put through a high-tech processing machine about 500kg of usable fish mince could be recovered per tonne of what was once regarded as waste.

This corresponds to an extra 12 per cent yield, which can be used to manufacture a range of products, including fish cakes and nuggets.

“It represents material you didn’t have before and, with something like white fish, where they are constraints in terms of supply and availability, 12 per cent of extra organic meat is valuable.”

Mr Fagan said three big Irish fish processors were about to adopt the technology to increase their yields.

Anne Cleary from Tesco Ireland gave an overview of Tesco Ireland's commitment to reducing food waste and a summary of the ways it was endeavouring to achieve a zero waste policy.

She said the company’s buyers were using satellites to pinpoint to farmers the growing trends of certain fields to maximise output.

This also helped growers to manage their output in accordance with Tesco’s requirements, she said. Ms Cleary said the retailer was “working hand in glove with the growers and producers on so many more occasions than people realise”.

Surplus food

Tesco is emerging as one of the industry leaders in terms of tackling waste. It recently donated €100,000 to the start-up costs of the

Bia Food Initiative

, a non-profit organisation, which has just opened the State’s first food surplus redistribution hub in Cork and has plans to open a second hub in Dublin next year.

The retailer is also working with one of the success stories of the food waste campaign, The latter is a social enterprise that connects retailers with short-life food surplus to community groups and charities.

Foodcloud is an app that food businesses can use to upload details of their excess food. The service then texts a local charity, which in turn picks up the donation.

Since their collaboration began in October 2013, Tesco and FoodCloud have redistributed 192 tonnes of food, which is equivalent to more than 400,000 meals, to a network of 250 charities in 24 counties.

One of its founders, Iseult Ward, told the conference that FoodCloud charged businesses an annual fee that was comparable with the projected savings in waste disposal.

“This model allows FoodCloud to be a financially sustainable organisation and to deliver measurable positive social and environmental returns,” she said.

Also in attendance was Andrew Mullins from Bord Bia, who spoke about its Origin Green sustainability programme, which ties food companies into reducing waste and operating on a more environmentally friendly basis in return for the agency's badge of approval.

Mr Mullins said the key to reducing waste was smarter data use at the production level, something the bord was working with its members to enhance.

He said Bord Bia had signed up 77 companies working here to its programme, which accounted for more than 75 per cent of the State’s food export and drink exports.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times