What Is Waste Food?

From terminology to changing household behaviors, a global discussion and specific actions are well underway to reduce the millions of tons of food discarded.

Maria Kelleher and Janet Robins
BioCycle August 2013, Vol. 54, No. 8, p. 36

The U.S. EPA rolled out its “Food: Too Good To Waste” program in 2012, which includes a toolkit with guidance on working with households to reduce wasted food.

Years ago, a frequent refrain when children didn’t finish the food on their plate was, “Think of all the starving children in the world.” Since then, we have evolved from a culture where no food was wasted, to a society where wasting food is not given a second thought, and producing food waste is accepted as a fact of life.

But this attitude to wasting food is changing.  This has happened over a relatively short time, precipitated by a report, “The Food We Waste,” released in the United Kingdom in 2008 by WRAP (Waste And Resources Action Programme). The study quantified the huge amount of food being discarded in the UK (about 27.5 million tons/ year) and brought attention to the shocking facts about the quantity of edible food wasted. Subsequent studies have quantified the impacts of this food wastage — U.S. households are estimated to spend up to $2,000/year on food that is thrown out; figures for other countries are similar.

Defining Food Wastage

Communities across Europe and North America are establishing food waste reduction programs to tackle the issue at hand. Measuring the impact of these programs is key to their success and effectiveness. Well-defined terms will facilitate the development of food wastage benchmarks to help measure the effectiveness of waste reduction policies and programs.

It is a communication challenge to convey different concepts of wasted food. Does “edible” or “useable” or  “avoidable” adequately convey the concept that perfectly good food has been allowed to go to waste?  Some would argue that rotten food is no longer “edible” and is, therefore, not wasted food (but still food waste in the broader sense).  To avoid the problem of different interpretations of wasted food, WRAP established the following set of definitions governing food waste (WRAP, 2008):

Avoidable: Food and drink thrown away that was, at some point prior to disposal, edible (e.g. slices of bread, apples, meat).

Possibly avoidable: Food and drink that some people eat and others do not (e.g. bread crusts), or that can be eaten when a food is prepared in one way but not in another (e.g. potato skins).

Unavoidable: Waste arising from food or drink preparation that is not, and has not been, edible under normal circumstances (e.g. meat bones, egg shells, tea bags).

There is growing acceptance of these definitions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many European countries (including Germany, and the Nordic countries) acknowledge and accept these definitions.

Measuring Food Wastage

Accurately measuring and calculating food wastage provides its own set of challenges. The best way is probably through waste audits. However the challenge is that by the time food waste samples are audited, the rate of decomposition and other factors (e.g. commingling of the food wastes) may interfere with the ability to identify what was avoidable from unavoidable when the food was originally discarded. In addition, some avoidable food waste may be discarded down the drain (e.g., unwanted yogurt) or composted on-site, and won’t show up in waste audits, thus impacting information and results.

To date, jurisdictions have relied on food waste compositional data developed by the UK’s WRAP to provide benchmark data for its Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. WRAP undertook an extensive study to quantify the amount of household food and drink waste in the UK. The quantification involved a combination of waste audits conducted during autumn of 2007 in numerous participating Local Authorities (municipalities) and surveys of householders about attitudes and behaviors relating to generation of food and drink waste. Two thousand households were involved in the study. The subsequent WRAP study, “Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK,” (November 2009) found that almost 20 percent of all food and drink purchased by the household was thrown out as an avoidable food waste. Furthermore, of the food waste discarded into the garbage bin or green bin, approximately 64 percent could be classified as avoidable (about 55 percent resulted from food not being used in time and having gone bad and 40 percent resulted from preparing/ serving too much food or overcooking the food).

Currently in North America, there is a dearth of quantified data on avoidable and unavoidable food waste originating in the home, although a few studies have begun to address the measurement of wasted food at the level of detail required to really tackle this issue and find solutions to reduce it. For example, the U.S. EPA developed the “Food: Too Good to Waste Pilot and Toolkit.”  In developing the background research report (USEPA, 2012), the EPA used food loss data and analysis conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Services (ERS).

The ERS maintains detailed databases to monitor diet and nutrition, which enables it to assess food loss by food groupings. Household food waste is classified as consumer-level per capita loss and is identified by food groups as shown in Figure 1. The chart shows that fruits and vegetables make up 41 percent of food loss and together represent the largest portion of wasted food in the U.S. household, followed by meat (12 percent) and dairy (10 percent). The study does not evaluate the portion of food loss considered avoidable, partially avoidable and unavoidable.

King County, Washington initiated a Food: Too Good To Waste campaign. The initiative involves a media campaign; creating short online videos that combine food shopping lessons with food waste prevention strategies, in partnership with a local grocery store; developing an advertising strategy to help launch the campaign and drive video views; and engaging with local bloggers/chefs that have strong following to promote campaign. The City of Seattle, located in King County, recently completed a Food: Too Good To Waste pilot that invited residents to measure and record their own food waste behaviors over a 3-month period. Household monitoring was further supported by a detailed food waste audit. Other U.S. communities involved in piloting the Food: Too Good to Waste Toolkit report preliminary findings that participating households have achieved an average of 25 percent reduction in avoidable food waste.

The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada recently conducted a food waste audit in a medium sized Ontario community. The audit examined different types and amounts of food discarded by the household but did not carry out a detailed analysis of avoidable and unavoidable food waste. Of the food discarded, 54 percent consisted of fruits and vegetables, 14 percent cereals, 10 percent meat, 4 percent dairy and the remaining 18 percent was miscellaneous (e.g. coffee grounds). The report found that packaging discarded in the garbage often contained food that had not been placed in the source separated organics Green Bin program. Focusing the food waste audit only on the Green Bin missed an important source of food waste in the garbage. Further research is planned to examine avoidable verses unavoidable food loss.

Reducing Residential Food Waste

An estimated 98 million tons of good edible food is currently wasted each year in the European Union (EU). This is equivalent to 395 lbs/year for every EU citizen. The EU forecasts that European food waste will increase by 42 percent over the next eight years — to a staggering 139 million tons/year.  In January 2012, the European Parliament adopted a resolution regarding food waste, with 2014 planned as the European Year Against Food Waste — and a target of reducing food waste in EU Member States by 50 percent by 2020.

FUSIONS (Food Use of Social Innovation by Optimizing Waste Prevention Strategies) is the first European alliance against food waste — a 4-year project with 21 partners from 13 countries. FUSIONS is funded by the European Commission’s FP7 and more than 80 European organizations have expressed their support. The initial objective of FUSIONS is to standardize the measurement of food waste. The next aim is to create a European platform of governmental and nongovernmental organizations and companies from the food chain, i.e. industry, retailers and consumer organizations. The platform aims to provide simplified data that can identify and evaluate new initiatives to reduce food waste. The results will be disseminated to the public, and technical and policy recommendations will be provided to the entire value chain and the EU. The platform will then activate, engage and support the main stakeholders in the European food value chain in order to deliver a reduction of 50 percent of food waste by 2020.

Since its launch in 2007, the UK’s Love Food, Hate Waste campaign has reported an estimated 18 percent nationwide reduction in avoidable food waste. This campaign focuses on avoidable food waste produced in the home and complements the Courtauld Commitment that focuses of avoidable food waste produced at the retail and manufacturer levels (see sidebar).  Advice on storage, portion sizes and leftovers reportedly helped reduce domestic food waste in the UK by 739,000 tons between 2005 and 2009. A similar program has been launched in New South Wales, Australia.

In January 2013, the global Eat, Think, Save campaign was launched by: the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and Messe Düsseldorf. The campaign aims to change the culture of food wasted by consumers and food retailers worldwide.

Closer to home (in addition to EPA’s initiative), FoodStar Partners launched an innovative app in January 2013 that links U.S. consumers with participating retailers selling aesthetically imperfect food as well as food that is about to reach its due date at significantly discounted prices. The group works with retailers to prevent food being wasted.

In 2012, California enacted Bill 152, which gives farmers a 10 percent tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of fresh fruits or fresh vegetables donated to a California food bank.  Other jurisdictions, such as Kentucky and Ontario, are investigating similar programs.

Maria Kelleher (maria@kellenv.com) is Principal of Kelleher Environmental, a Toronto-based consulting company focusing on waste diversion policy development and research, extended producer responsibility, green energy and climate change(www.kelleherenvironmental.com). Janet Robins (robins.environmental@sympatico.ca) is Principal of Robins Environmental Design based in Toronto. She specializes in waste diversion policy and program research and development, and is currently involved in developing a food waste reduction program for York Region in Ontario.

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