Every year, people waste 2.5 billion tonnes of food - equivalent to 40% of all food produced. Food waste refers to produced food that is unharvested, unused, and uneaten across the supply chain and is a pressing and prevalent social and environmental issue. It is not only wasteful but is a large source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for about 10% of global emissions. Food waste can arise at every stage of the supply chain, which means there is room for improvement in every food handling industry, from farms to transportation to supermarkets and even consumers. To reduce waste and the emissions that come with it, there are three main strategies: prevent, rescue, and recycle.
The issue of food waste
Wasting almost half of all food produced on the planet is inefficient by anyone’s standards. Although this 40% includes by-products such as peels and bones, a lot of food ends up rotting on fields or being thrown away. Food waste is not just wasting the food itself; it is also a waste of valuable resources such as land, water, and nutrients, not to mention the energy and time it takes to grow, process, and deliver the food to consumers. Additionally, when food rots and decomposes either on farm or at landfill, it emits methane, a GHG that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Were food waste a country, it would be the third largest GHG emitter in the world.
Where does food waste come from?
Food waste occurs at all stages of supply chains. According to the World Wildlife Fund, out of the 2.5 billion tonnes of annual food waste, 48% comes from farms, meaning consumers don’t even see half of the waste created. 37% arises from retail, food service, and customer homes, and the rest comes from the transport, processing, and manufacturing stages.
During food production and processing, food gets wasted mainly due to labor shortages, improper food storage, and strict cosmetic standards. At the retail and food service level, lack of expertise in food handling and storage as well as difficulties in demand forecasting commonly result in food wastage. Additionally, stringent quality standards are in place at this stage of the supply chain, making “ugly” produce less likely to be picked. Meanwhile, restaurants and F&B businesses serving large portions or servicing events usually observe plate waste as the primary source of food waste.
How do we reduce food waste and its emissions?
There are three main strategies to reduce food waste: prevent, rescue, and recycle.
Food producers can implement several strategies to prevent food waste. They include updating and maintaining cultivation methods, harvesting equipment, and cold storage systems. Food can be damaged and spoiled due to dirty equipment and wasted due to inefficient cultivation. Therefore, food waste can be reduced through regular cleaning, maintenance, and efficiency standards. A high rate of food spoilage is a result of being exposed to hot weather and heat in general, so a consistently performing cold storage system can also significantly avoid food waste.
Retailers and food services can prevent food waste by training staff on food handling and storage. These trainings also increase food safety and improve the business workflow. Retailers can prevent food waste by employing demand forecasting. A demand forecasting system takes into account different factors, such as seasonality and market trends, to predict products that are preferred by local customers. With that, retailers can adjust their orders and avoid over-purchasing items.
Another solution for food retailers is replacing conventional First In, First Out (FIFO) with First Expired, First Out (FEFO) inventory management. The FEFO technique prioritizes the delivery of items closer to their expiration date regardless of when they arrive at the retailers. Tracking the expiration date in the operation makes this inventory management useful when dealing with perishable items. This not only helps prevent products from getting spoiled before reaching customers but when implemented by grocers and supermarkets, can also help prevent perfectly good produce from getting thrown away too early.
As mentioned, plate waste is a common source of food waste in the food service industry, and a promising strategy to prevent it is to install a food waste tracker. This system analyzes your waste input to identify the main sources of your food waste. This information allows you to take further suitable measures, such as adjusting your inventory or serving size to prevent waste in the future.
While prevention is easy to implement, it is not sufficient for reducing food waste completely. For the waste that cannot be avoided via prevention (such as by-products from food processing and cooking), stakeholders can rescue waste from the landfill through donation and processing into new products. Food is unused but still suitable for human consumption can be distributed to people in need via channels such as food banks and soup kitchens.
For example, Food from the Heart runs rescue projects for different types of food waste and delivers this food to groups of beneficiaries. Food from the Heart helped almost 60,000 people in Singapore in 2021 alone. In Malaysia, The Lost Food Project has distributed 4 million kilograms of food waste to the needy and avoided up to 9.8 million kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions. In many countries, you can also give away food to feed animals at local farms and wildlife sanctuaries. Interestingly, there are emerging farms in Asia that collect food waste to grow black soldier fly larvae, and the larvae are further processed into nutrient-rich and less carbon-intensive feed for animals.
In addition to donating food, you can partner with businesses to manufacture your food waste into new products for consumption. The 2050 Company collects unsellable and surplus vegetables and fruits to produce a plant-based powder that can be used in cooking, baking, and making smoothies. Another business, Confetti Snacks, a Singapore-based start-up, turns wasted vegetables into colorful veggie snacks.
The third solution is to recycle, which mostly focuses on two solutions: composting and anaerobic digestion. Food recycling is perceived to be difficult to implement because it requires a significant investment of time, money, and machinery. However, the end products of these processes have many benefits. The solid produced is a nutritious fertilizer that can be used in farming or landscaping. Compost has been shown to increase soil health, minimize nutrient run-off, and be safer for local waterways than commercial fertilizers. The biogas from the anaerobic digester is renewable and cleaner than many other types of fuel. When burned, it generates electricity on-site and can also be used to fuel vehicles, which in turn can help cut energy costs.
As the world focuses on emissions reporting and decarbonization, the fact that our inefficient food systems account for an estimated 10% of global emissions is an important cause for concern. And it’s not just due to consumer choices: in fact, almost half of this waste happens during production. Reducing food waste through prevention, food rescue, and food reuse can happen at every stage of the food supply chain. And by taking actions to reduce your food waste, you and your company can better manage overall emissions.
The first step is to understand your food waste, where it comes from, and how to measure it. Unravel Carbon’s sustainability experts can help you identify sources of food waste and suitable solutions to reduce the waste and its impacts. Let us help you improve your operations by reducing inefficiency, saving you money, and helping the planet, all at the same time.