How does the rest of the world deal with food waste?

21 December 2020, 09:51 AM
  • What lessons can the UK’s food waste movement learn from abroad? Shannon Bergstrom, sustainability operations manager at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, investigates
How does the rest of the world deal with food waste?

With Christmas right around the corner, and despite the fact that this year will be significantly more subdued than usual, British consumers will still likely spend billions of pounds on festive food and drink. Unfortunately, however, all that indulgence will also mean plenty of waste.

Food waste is a growing issue across the world, with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimating that 1.3 billion tonnes goes to waste each year. To put that figure into context, that’s around one third of all food produced for human consumption.

Thankfully, many British businesses and consumers have at least some access to food recycling facilities, and while the recycling of food continues to rise, it is recognised that more can be done to reduce waste at the production, distribution, and consumption stages.

The question, of course, is how? We don’t have to look very far to find the answer. In fact, whether looking into Europe and further east into China or Korea, or across the pond to North America, there are many innovative and exciting approaches to dealing with food waste currently being developed. Here, we look a little deeper at what other countries are doing in the fight against food waste.

Waste is not always waste

Since the industrialisation and subsequent globalisation of the agricultural industry, our eating habits have changed significantly. Today, we largely shy away from meat offcuts and organs that would have been staples for our grandparents. The same is true for what we may now class as vegetable scraps—potato peelings, carrot tops, even stale bread or spent beer grain.

However, many small restaurants and producers are promoting the idea that we should be using every (edible) part of the food that we produce, with some even going so far as to recycle what may have been written off as “waste” into delicious and exciting new products.

In the EU, The Brussels Beer Project, for example, claims it has produced the first beer brewed with recycled bread, while in the US, there are multiple businesses taking scraps from juice bars, restaurants, and breweries to manufacture a host of unique products.

This concept can even be taken a step further by readdressing our commitment to locavorism and reclaiming wasteland in our cities. The GrowNYC movement is doing just that, taking unused lots and putting the production of seasonal food back into the hands of its citizens, reducing the wastage associated with shipping and ensuring the freshest vegetables are grown and distributed throughout the city from little more than scraps of unused land.

Donating and distributing more efficiently

The headline-grabbing ban on French supermarkets sending waste to landfill back in 2016 is probably among the most famous examples of how policy can combat food waste at the consumer level. However, it has not been without its problems, and while issues surrounding the inclusivity and extent of the law have come under scrutiny, perhaps the most significant challenges facing smaller businesses in particular, are the logistical complexities involved with the donation and distribution of edible food.

Certain foodbank organisations voiced concerns over becoming a glorified landfill for supermarkets, with non-quality products ending up being “donated”. Additionally, small-scale independent stores have faced difficulties donating food using approved organisations as it is simply not cost- or resource-effective to collect and distribute small quantities of food from various locations.

It is hoped that technology can help to bridge this gap, and many B2C apps are now connecting consumers with stores and even farms to donate and distribute surplus food. In fact, particularly in light of the various restrictions during the pandemic, organisations such as Farms to Feed Us in the UK and EU-based Too Good To Go, are connecting consumers with food at all stages of the chain. Additionally, C2C apps such as OLIO and Spanish Yo No Desperdicio, (“I do not waste”) also allow peers to share food that would otherwise go to waste.

B2B apps in this sector are also gaining popularity, and in the US, companies such as RTS are connecting supermarkets such as Whole Foods with on-demand haulers and regular food waste collection services to ensure perishable items can be donated before they become a waste problem. These services also go a step further by providing insightful data and diversion metrics to help promote transparency and increase logistical efficiency.

Decentralising compost production

Composting, or recycling for organics, is the last-best option we have for dealing with food waste. It remains a valuable tool in recovering energy and resources used within food production, however, as part of the waste management hierarchy, we must look towards other more valuable ways to keep resources in the loop.

Additionally, while kerbside organic collections are on the rise around the world, they are by no means comprehensive. This means that, not only is the energy and resources used to produce food never making it to our plates, but it also ends up in landfill where it releases methane and other greenhouse gasses when left to rot.

Of course, anyone with a garden can relatively easily set up a conventional compost heap to deal with most vegetable scraps. Unfortunately, as ever-increasing numbers of people now live in cities, composting at home poses a significant challenge.

One sustainable farming method from Korea is proving a surprising source of inspiration for city dwellers who want to fight back against food waste. Bokashi, a process involving the fermentation of all types of organics (including meat and dairy), relies on an airtight container to anaerobically break down waste in little more than a bucket.

As part of the Korean Natural Farming concept, bokashi is used extensively in South Korea, Mongolia, China, and even Hawaii, and today, even those in the smallest apartments can either create compost using a soil factory, or simply dispose of the fermented waste in the trash where, thanks to the fermentation process, it will not contribute to greenhouse gasses if left in landfill. 

The bottom line is that the fight against food waste must continue to gather steam if we are to protect the environment and reduce food poverty around the world. Rather than this being a burden for producers and consumers, it can actually open up exciting new business opportunities and delicious new flavours for everyone involved.

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