‘There is much more to food waste than wasted food’
Food waste not only hits our pockets, it also hits the planet. What can we do to reduce it?
“People are starting to think about food waste in terms of the environmental message and not simply about what it costs them personally.” Photograph: iStock
Throwing out those leftover carrots you never got around to making soup with? What about those yoghurts long past their best-before date? Food waste is costing the average Irish household €700 each year but as well as hitting your pocket, it also hits the planet; the more than one million tonnes of food waste in Ireland decomposing in landfills is releasing the greenhouse gas methane, which is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As part of the Climate Action Plan, Ireland has committed to halving food waste by 2030. Can this be done?
Shane Colgan is a senior manager at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and he says the agency has been running its stopfoodwaste.ie programme for more than a decade, highlighting the significance of food waste as a pressing environmental and social issue.
In recent times, the message is beginning to hit home, says Colgan. “People are starting to think about food waste in terms of the environmental message and not simply about what it costs them personally. Our story is that there is much more to food waste than wasted food,” he explains.
For example, people have to consider the energy it took to get the food from farm to fork: “the energy used on the farm, the transport, the energy required to store it in the supermarket and the energy you used to cook it – all that for it to end up in landfill.” The EPA is now seeking to obtain carbon metrics for food waste in Ireland, Colgan adds. “We want to understand what our food waste footprint is.”
To date, the EPA is focused on social media campaigning and trying to spread the message about buying, cooking, and storing food more efficiently. “We are trying to educate people on planning what they are going to buy, shopping carefully, cooking it right, storing it right, and using the leftovers correctly. These are simple things people can do – just making a shopping list helps hugely.”
He advises those who can’t be bothered writing lists – or who are likely to lose them – to take a photo of the inside of their fridge before heading to the supermarket. “That way, you’ll know if you need milk, or if you have some you don’t have to buy anymore.”
The National Food Waste Forum, established by the EPA in 2017, has been a good starting point for discussion on food waste, says Séamus Clancy, chief executive of Repak.
“But what it shows is that there is an awful lot more work to be done. Ireland is producing three million tonnes of waste each year, and food waste is accounting for one million tonnes of that.”
While many people have the “brown bin”, not all do, and this is a persistent problem, as households account for one-third of food waste, says Clancy. “There is still a lack of infrastructure in terms of the collection and the segregation of food waste. The roll-out of the brown bin has been of huge benefit but it is not completely out there yet. Consumer pressure is driving this, however, and I believe it will be everywhere soon.”
Ireland has about 400,000 people living in apartment blocks and these are some of the worst culprits when it comes to the lack of segregation of food waste, he adds. “Part of the issue is that a lot of the material in the black bin base, there is still a lot of food in that, and the latest EPA food characterisation study has shown that as well.”
From a Repak perspective, much of this food inappropriately disposed of by households is still in its original packaging. “While Ireland has improved in terms of recycling packaging, this area is of real concern. If we could get everyone to reduce their food waste by just 10 per cent, this would have a huge knock-on effect on the amount of packaging ending up in landfill too.”
And while the householder could be more prudent when it comes to their shopping baskets, the reality is that retail businesses and restaurants are generating the vast majority of food waste, Clancy says.
“There is a totally inadequate segregation of food waste in the commercial sector and a lot of pressure has to come on them from Government, in my opinion. It costs money to do this, the collection and also the processing, in compost plants.” He notes there is a major deficit in infrastructure when it comes to the capacity of composting plants to deal with the overall tonnage of food waste.
The EPA has begun working with the major supermarkets, who Colgan says have committed to measuring and reporting their food waste. “That’s a big deal for them as they move a lot of food from site to site but those figures are now starting to come in. Most of the grocery market will soon be reporting what food they waste and this is important as it will encourage them to take action.”
Some supermarkets are more pro-active than others; Colgan says Tesco is a good example. “They work a lot with Food Cloud, the social enterprise that connects businesses with surplus food to charities, and were an early adopter. Now most retail supermarkets are involved in similar schemes.”
Of course, avoiding food waste in the first place is the best-case scenario but Colgan says ensuring it stays in the human nutrition chain is the “next best thing”.
Panda is another recycling provider committed to dealing properly with food waste, and is working to help businesses direct their food waste through the most appropriate channels. Suzanne Browne, Panda’s food surplus product manager, explains her role is to work with current customers and new potential customers by channelling their food waste/surplus to a new anaerobic digestion (AD) plant in Co Dublin.
“The new plant, the largest of its kind in Ireland, is due to open very soon and will provide an efficient and environmental waste solution for packaged food waste for food businesses all across Ireland. By generating renewable energy as part of the process, this food waste will now power Irish homes and businesses, making anaerobic digestion an attractive waste solution for businesses to meet their own sustainability goals,” Browne says, adding that the new project is being carried out in partnership with Energia.
Panda will provide every supplier using AD with an individual impact report stating the carbon emissions saved by using AD, as well as the number of homes and businesses powered with their food waste, she explains.
“In my experience, the retailers and supermarkets are leading on this. This is an exciting time for us as we want to fully support our customers to achieve their sustainability goals, and encourage businesses to speak positively about their waste.”
It’s certainly not all bad news. Clancy is positive about the future when it comes to eradicating food waste from landfill. “Twenty years ago, there were 123 landfills in this country, today there are only three. In those, there is now very good, very strong methane extraction, which is being put to good use. We have far greater visibility on where our waste is ending up and what we can do positively with it.”