Food waste is the next plastic in terms of its environmental impact
With food systems accounting for 30 per cent of carbon emissions in the EU, FoodCloud says that taking control of food waste is a powerful tool in the fight against climate change
As wasted food rots, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which, according to the UN, has a 100-year global warming potential 25 times that of CO2. Photograph: Getty Images
If we are to tackle climate change, it needs to be easier to prevent food waste and, if not, then to redistribute it to people who need it, than it is to send to landfill.
At the moment, that’s not the case, says Iseult Ward of FoodCloud.
FoodCloud is both a technology company and a social enterprise. Its app connects businesses that have too much food with charities working in communities that have too little.
Launched in 2013 by Ward and Aoibheann O'Brien, FoodCloud has created a food redistribution solution that tackles both food insecurity and food waste.
During the pandemic the organisation, which employs 70 people, has seen a 75 per cent increase in food volumes redistributed, up to a total of 3,000 tonnes of food a year.
Massive food surpluses arose as a result of the closure of the food service sector. “With people isolating, sick or losing jobs, there was a huge increase in people who needed it too,” she explains.
Balancing the two is vital because food waste is a major environmental hazard.
We need to acknowledge the role the food system plays in climate change
As wasted food rots, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which, according to the UN, has a 100-year global warming potential 25 times that of CO2.
Around 60 per cent of methane emissions are due to human activities. These include oil and gas industry activities, agriculture, landfills, wastewater treatment and emissions from coal mines.
The problem with food waste is that it occurs at each stage of its supply chain. At an agricultural level, a crop that doesn’t make the grade may not even get harvested, “but simply be ploughed back into the ground because it’s too expensive to move,” says Ward.
“A change in weather could mean extra-large new potatoes that don’t meet the criteria specified by the food company that ordered them six months previously.”
Waste can occur in processing too. “If something is accidentally mislabelled it can be too expensive to relabel, so it is dumped. That happens all the time,” she says.
At distribution centres a single broken unit can lead to a whole pallet being destroyed.
At store level, food waste occurs for a variety of reasons. Something as simple as weather can change consumer buying patterns. Supermarkets routinely overstock, because a well packed shelf encourages people to buy.
Consumers are the worst offenders with households generating more than half of the total food waste in the EU.
Food waste needs its Blue Planet moment
“In developed countries, food waste in the home is far greater than anywhere else in the industry,” explains Ward.
“The problem is that we associate the value of food with the price of it. We see one carrot rotting in the fridge and we think, four cents, big deal. We don’t think of all the resources and energy and water that went into growing and transporting it and getting it to us. We don’t think of the environmental impact of that.”
Estimates suggest that around one third of food is wasted. In monetary terms Irish households are thought to throw away €700 a year in uneaten food.
“Everybody eats and everybody has a role to play in climate change, yet at the moment people don’t seem to make that link between food waste and the environment,” she says.
Simple steps such as making a shopping list, not overbuying, getting creative with leftovers and using your compost bin are all easily taken.
To take them at scale however food waste needs to be the “next plastic”, she says. “Food waste needs its Blue Planet moment.”
There is a frighteningly huge surplus of food out there
International audiences were so shocked at naturalist David Attenborough’s TV show, which showed the damage plastics are having on the environment, that it led to legislation banning the use of single use plastics.
Consumers hold all the power, right the way back up the supply chain. “If consumers lead, companies will follow,” she stresses.
There are signs of change at a policy level. Food systems account for 30 per cent of carbon emissions across the EU, and Ward welcomes the fact that the Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to help mitigate climate change, is a core issue of the EU’s Green Deal Covid-19 recovery plan.
“We need to acknowledge the role the food system plays in climate change and the strategy reflects the need to tackle food waste to the benefit of redistribution,” she says.
The Government’s Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy, published last year, is positive too. It identifies food waste as a priority waste stream and commits to halving it by 2030.
Where previous policies considered food waste from the perspective of disposal, it prioritises prevention and feeding people.
“If you are a food company, it needs to be easier to prevent and redistribute food waste than it is to put it in landfill or anaerobic digestion. What we need now is to see that in action, not just in policy,” says Ward.
A lack of up-to-date data is a challenge, particularly at farm level. “Right now we don’t even understand how much food is going to waste,” she points out. “What we do know is that there is a frighteningly huge surplus of food out there.”
Many Irish companies have started to report their waste data and the success of the Government’s Retail Action Group in 2018, which saw retailers agree to measure and publish food waste metrics, shows what is possible.
If we want to make a positive environmental impact, food waste is an easy one
“This is a highly complex problem, so the solutions need to include everybody. To see huge progress, we need huge collaboration. There has to be willingness to do this at industry level,” says Ward.
She is hopeful. “We have seen this before through the Retail Action Group, so we know it can be done. We now need to do it again, with bigger ambition, and achieve our sustainable development goals.”
If she can do FoodCloud out of a job, its mission will have been successful, she points out.
Right now we are hearing all sorts of outlandish solutions to climate change, from solar geo-engineering to moving to Mars. Yet one of the most effective measures is under our noses.
“If we want to make a positive environmental impact,” says Ward, “food waste is an easy one.”
This campaign is kindly supported by Rethink Ireland’s Growth Fund and the Department of Rural and Community Development via The Dormant Accounts Fund.