The battle against food waste

Tonnes of perfectly edible food – worth about €700m – ends up in Irish bins every year

 

Food waste is a moral issue. But it is also an economic issue for big retailers. If they can, cutting food waste cuts costs – a concern that partly, but only partly, explains Tesco Ireland’s determination to keep its waste to a minimum.

“We have no time for waste, we’ve set ourselves two ambitious targets to tackle food waste in our business,” says the company’s chief operating officer, Geoff Byrne.

The United Nations’ goal to halve food waste globally is “ambitious”, he says, but it can be met “by working closely with our colleagues and suppliers”, laying down rules to cut waste from farm to fridge and fork.

By 2020, Tesco intends to ensure that “no good food” will go to waste from its Irish stores: “We’ll work hard to ensure that this food goes to those who need it in the communities we serve, and not into the bin.

“No matter how well controlled our processes are, we will inevitably have surplus food at the end of the day in our stores that has not been sold to customers and that’s nearing its best-before or use-by date,” Byrne adds.

Because of its work with local charities, Tesco realised many are unable to take donations because they do not have enough fridges, or because they do not have enough transport to pick food up from stores and distribute it.

“Last year we launched the Community Chill, an initiative to provide free fridges and freezers to help causes take and safely store more surplus food. So far, we have donated 80 fridges and freezers to over 60 local groups,” Byrne says.

Many more are due to be delivered in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, 40 of the company’s decommissioned grocery home shopping vans will be used to fill the transport gaps to help local causes with their transport challenge.

So far, vans have gone to the Dublin Simon Community, Feed Cork, Daisyhouse, Main Street Food Bank in Naas, FoodCloud, and more are to delivered in the coming months.

The challenge to be met by all Irish supermarkets and stores is gargantuan. More than one million tonnes of perfectly edible, nutritious food – worth about €700 million – ends up in Irish rubbish bins every year.

Widen the lens across the European Union and the amount of binned food climbs to 100 million tonnes. In all, a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes globally is thrown away uneaten annually.

Three hundred million barrels of oil are used each year to generate power needed to cultivate food which will never be consumed. Shockingly, 550 trillion litres of water are wasted growing food that will end up in dumps.

Food poverty

A 12th of all of the climate-altering greenhouse gases are being created to produce food that never gets eaten. Meanwhile, one-in-10 Irish people suffer from some degree of food poverty. More than a billion people globally go hungry .

Every type of food gets thrown away: meat and fish, dairy products, bread, and fruit and vegetables. However, the reasons for food waste, the scale and complexity of it make it a difficult problem to tackle. There are few easy solutions.

Waste occurs at different stages, for different reasons. For example, crops may be grown by farmers which are never harvested, or they may be harvested but wasted due to damage or fluctuations in demand.

Retailers may throw away out-of-date or imperfect stock. Restaurants may throw away food left on plates by their customers. Householders often throw away food because they buy too much, or do not use it in time.

Often, businesses and householders may not be aware of the waste they produce. Indeed, the public’s lack of awareness has prompted public information campaigns across the EU.

In Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency last year launched its campaign under the umbrella title Stop Food Waste – stopfoodwaste.ie – putting considerable resources behind it.

All major Irish retailers signed up to the Government’s Food Waste Charter and agreed a common methodology for the reporting of food waste within their businesses

“It’s often easier to waste food than to give it away, which is simply absurd and unacceptable,” said the EU commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

Speaking during a visit to Ireland last summer, the commissioner said the EU was at a tipping point where “unethical and anti-economic food waste” must stop.

Last November, the Citizen’s Assembly called on the State to introduce standard reporting rules to require accurate reporting of food waste from every level of the food distribution and supply chain.

Recently, all major Irish retailers signed up to the Government’s Food Waste Charter and agreed a common methodology for the reporting of food waste within their businesses.

Under the charter, the retailers, who are part of the Retail Action Group established by Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten, committed to long-term action to deal with the crisis.

“If every day each of us tries to reduce the amount of waste we dispose of, this has the potential to have a real impact,” the EPA’s Odile Le Bolloch said in an interview with The Irish Times. “Reducing food waste offers simple and no-cost actions that anyone can take.

“You don’t need to invest in expensive equipment before you start reaping the benefits. Remember, when it comes to reducing food waste you can stop throwing your money away,” she said.

So far, retailers have started to play their part. Besides the work it is doing, Tesco Ireland has started working with long-term supplier Country Crest to produce a new range of fruit and vegetables called Perfectly Imperfect.

Householders often throw away food because they buy too much, or do not use it in time. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Householders often throw away food because they buy too much, or do not use it in time. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Customers are picky about the vegetables they will buy. The first product to counters were Irish onions that had grown unusually large because of last autumn’s rains. Three hundred tonnes of onions went to the plate, not the compost heap.

FoodCloud

Meanwhile, there is the work of FoodCloud, a not-for-profit social enterprise that links businesses likely to generate surplus food with charities in their local community that are likely to need food.

Using an app, retailers and restaurants can upload details of surplus food and local charities are notified (via text) of the available food. The charity then collects the food donation and redistributes it to people who need it.

Last year, FoodCloud donations grew by 60 per cent. So far, it has distributed 27 million meals

Tesco has been significantly involved since the beginning and Aldi was also early to FoodCloud, making surplus food available. Aldi has donated 1.25 million meals to FoodCloud, saving charities €1.7 million.

Last year, FoodCloud donations grew by 60 per cent. So far, it has distributed 27 million meals to hundreds of charities, local community centres, breakfast clubs and women’s refuges, diverting 12,000 tonnes of food from dumps.

Other retailers are currently trialling its systems. “Despite all that FoodCloud has done there is still a lot more that can be done,” says Darragh Doyle, head of community with the not-for-profit organisation.

“We are getting less than 10 per cent of the food that is going to waste. What we need is to get the message out to more businesses that it costs less to feed people who need the food than it does to otherwise dispose of it. “

What goes in your brown bin and how to keep it clean

Raw or cooked food

Meat, poultry and fish, including bones

Leftover food from your plate

Fruit and vegetables

Tea bags, coffee grounds and paper filters

Breads, cakes and biscuits

Rice, pasta and cereals

Dairy products

Eggs and egg shells

Food-soiled paper napkins, paper towels and pizza boxes

Out-of-date food with packaging removed

Grass clippings and small twigs

To keep flies and vermin away, always make sure lids are fully closed. Place the bin in a shady part of the garden. If it is left in the sun it will effectively cook your rotting rubbish on warm days.

Compostable bin liners can help keep smells and gunk at bay.

There is also a company called Obeo. You put an Obeo box on your kitchen counter and when it fills up within two to three days, you transfer it to your brown bin. Unlike traditional bags, the box is water-resistant and doesn’t drip when it comes to emptying the whole affair. It is compostable so breaks down along with the food waste.

Four food types you should never put down your drain

Pasta and rice will swell in your drains and could block them

Egg shells are a food magnet and will readily attach themselves to other things to make blockages easier

Coffee grounds are one of the serial offenders for causing blockages.

Cooking oils and meat grease mix easily with other waste and can solidify in your pipes

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