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What is Food Waste?

Food waste is food that is left uneaten, unused, or discarded. There are many reasons food becomes wasted and the loss of potentially useful food products can occur at the producing, processing, retailing, and consuming stages.

 

Food waste is a big issue. It is estimated that between a third and a half of all food produced ends up being wasted. Furthermore, in less economically developed nations, about 100kgs of food per person per year is wasted at the consumption stage alone.

 

This guide will discuss everything to do with food waste so skip to the section you want to read first.


 

Various food waste piled on the soil

Definitions

There is no precise and agreed-upon definition of food waste. That’s because factors such as what constitutes food in the first place are potentially difficult to define. Plus, there are issues with categorising agricultural waste as food waste for instance.

 

As such, there are a handful of definitions to draw from. The three most widely used are provided by the United Nations, United States, and European Union.

 

UN flag          US Flag         EU flag

 

United Nations Definition

The following definition of food waste is agreed upon under the Save Food initiative.

 

  • Food loss is the decrease in quantity or quality of food.”

 

  • Food waste is any removal of food from the food supply chain which is, or was, at some point fit for human consumption, or which has spoiled or expired” – This is mainly caused by economic behaviour, poor stock management or neglect.

 

  • Food redirected to non-food chains such as animal feed, recovery to bio-energy, or compost) counts as food waste.

 

United States Definition

The US allows individual states the freedom to define food waste differently for their purposes – but many just accept the national definition below:

 

Food waste is “Uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms” – The United States Environmental Protection Agency.

 

European Union Definition

In the EU, food waste was defined as “any food substance, cooked or raw, which is discarded, or intended or required to be discarded” from 1975 to 2000. Since then it has been replaced by a new Directive but the new Directive does not offer any distinctive changes to the previous definition.

 

Problems with the Definitions

Both the UN and EU’s definitions of food waste are arguably problematic. It is potentially unfair to suggest that food produced for non-human consumption such as fertilizer, biomass, or animal feed should be categorised as food waste. To some, only food that ends up in landfill should be regarded as being wasted.

 


 

 

Food Waste Causes

Food waste can occur at all 4 stages of the food supply chain – producers, processors, retailers, and consumers.

 

Production

Crops can be damaged by numerous things such as pests and severe weather which can cause food to be wasted before the harvesting period even begins. On average, US farms lose up to 6 billion lbs of crops annually due to unpredictable conditions.

 

Red combine harvester picking up crops

 

Crops can also be damaged by farming equipment and machinery. It is almost impossible to predict or measure how much food may be wasted by machines damaging crops but we can assume that it is fairly significant. The harvesting machines may not only squash or ruin the crops but they will also not be able to discern between ripe and immature crops and so may pick them too early or perhaps only pick up half the crop.

 

Factors such as regulations for quality and appearance also causes food waste at the production stage since certain crops won’t make the cut and so will be discarded. This is potentially a particularly wasteful factor since some crops will be discarded because they do not look appealing despite being perfectly safe to consume.

 

Culling is another factor at this stage which causes food waste. The USDA defines culling as “the individual removal of genetically undesirable, inferior, weak, diseased, or infested plants from planting in order to ensure the level of genetic purity or vigor of the crop” – in other words, getting rid of an infectious batch to save the rest of the crops.

 

 

Processing

After the food has been harvested, it continues to be difficult to accurately measure how much is wasted. But once again we can assume that waste at this stage is significant.

 

A lot of food produce is lost when it is stored. This is because pests and micro-organisms can fester and eat away at the food – leading to rotting. This is particularly prevalent in hotter and humid climates where insects and micro-organisms thrive.

 

Wooden barrels stacked up in a warehouse

Unhygienic or simply clumsy handling of food can cause waste at this stage too since not all the produce will make it past processing. Incorrect handling procedures can also cause shrinkage and inedibility. Food safety regulations are able to claim any food deemed not fit for human consumption at this stage and request its disposal too.

 

 

Retail

Packaging largely contributes more to reducing food waste rather than causing it since it protects the freshness of the food and protects it from damages. However, it can cause food waste since it may contaminate the unsold food which could have been used for animal feed.

 

The most significant factor causing food waste in this stage (and potentially the biggest cause of food waste in general) is due to the uncertainty over food expiration dates. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council there is confusion in deciphering ‘best before’, ‘sell-by’, or ‘use-by dates’. This uncertainty leads to consumers to toss food which could actually be safe for consumption because retailers have unclear labels.

 

Best before date for food label

 

Retail stores throw away large quantities of food too. Food which has reached its sell-by date cannot be sold to consumers and so is often disposed of. Some of it may be salvaged for other purposes such as animal feed or bio-energy, but the majority of it ends up in landfill.

 

Retail-Farmer contracts are also problematic causes for food waste. That’s because the majority of contracts require the farmers to supply the required quantity targets or risk being removed as suppliers in favour of a different farmer. This causes farmers to consistently produce more food than necessary in order to ensure that they keep their retail contracts. This surplus food is often just disposed of.

 

Retailers are also very strict on how they want their food to look and so a lot of food suppliers produce is not acceptable. Fish, for instance, are held to very high standards. Nearly 2.3 million tonnes of fish are discarded each year and approximately 40 to 60 percent of all fish caught in Europe are discarded.

 

Fish being tossed back into the sea gif

 

Consumption

Consumers are both indirectly and directly responsible for wasting masses of food. The main causes for food waste at the consumption stage is people throwing away edible food because they believed it to be spoilt; or because they believed it to be scrap (caused by inefficient cutting and peeling); or because it has actually spoilt but because the consumer never got round to using it on time they threw it away; or because they stored, prepared or cooked the food incorrectly.

 


 

 

The Amount of Food Waste

A study conducted by SIK in 2011 suggested that the total global food waste to be around one-third of all food produced for humans, amounting to about 1.3 billion tonnes.

 

The distribution of food waste between industrialised and developing countries differs significantly. In developed nations, it is estimated that 1,500 calories are wasted per person per day with 40% of the food loss occurring at the retail and consumer stages. Whereas, in developing nations it is much lower at 400-500 calories with 40% of loss occurring at the postharvest and processing stages.

Food waste per person per continent table

 

The British Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 2013 also estimated that around 30-50% of all food produce remains uneaten and, therefore, wasted (according to some definitions as discussed previously).

 

In the UK, 6.7 million tonnes of food is wasted per year which totals to costs of £10.2 billion each year. This represents costs of £250-£400 per household per year.

 


 

 

The Environmental Impact

The financial costs and the fact that individuals still ‘go hungry’ in the world despite the amount of food waste are not the only substantial problems with global food waste. There is a significant negative impact on the environment.

 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report that food waste is responsible for around 8 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions. The FAO also reported that nearly 30 percent of all available agricultural land on earth is used for food which is left uneaten or eventually wasted.

 

Furthermore, the amount of water used to treat this uneaten food is around 250 km³ every year – that’s 3x the size of Lake Geneva!

 

Overhead view of lake genevaSide view of lake geneva

 


 

 

Reducing the Waste

 

Consumer Marketing

Arguably the best way to reduce food waste is to reduce how much we produce in the first place. And the UK has started to recognise that educating the end-user (the consumer) is perhaps the best way to reduce the high demand.

 

After the British advertising campaign ‘Love Food, Hate Waste‘, the UK saw a 21 percent decrease in avoidable household and small business food waste over a 5 year period.

 

Individual Effort

We have made a handy infographic (inspired by NPR’s article) for you which outlines 5 simple points to reduce the amount of food you waste. Whilst these points are largely relevant to households and individuals, they can be applied to businesses which have office kitchens and cafeterias too.

The five points are:  (1) Make a plan   (2) Re-purpose food   (3) Use your freezer   (4) Challenge the sell-by date   (5) Compost

 

5 tips to reduce food waste infographic

Make sure you share this infographic so that we can all reduce our food waste together!

Share this infographic on your site by using this embed code

 

 


 

 

Food Waste Collection

In the UK, household food waste collection is a public function which is carried out by local councils and each household is entitled to waste collection and is automatically enrolled onto the council’s collection routes.

 

However, businesses are not automatically provided a waste management service by the government. Businesses in the UK must secure their own waste collection contracts and may pick a waste management company who can efficiently and inexpensively collect their food waste (amongst other waste) – much like CheaperWaste.

 

Man putting rubbish into a wheelie bin gif

 

Households are particularly poor at separating their food waste from their general waste and so much of it goes to landfill instead of being used to make into energy. That is why the UK and other European states introduced a bi-weekly collection for biological waste (one week for garden waste and one week for food waste).

 

But businesses are required to segregate their waste in a far more strict fashion with specific bins being provided for food waste. Businesses may be penalised for incorrect segregation and so it is particularly important to have a good waste management and plan and execution.

 


 

 

Food Waste Disposal

There are multiple ways food is disposed of. It’s not just landfill. Food can be composted to produce fertile soil, it can be fed to animals, or used to produce energy.

 

Landfill

Tossing food into landfill causes a myriad of problems. One of the core issues is that food rots and creates horrendous odours which attract vermin. But it can also directly cause greenhouse gas emissions. In the US and UK, food constitutes about 19 percent of the waste buried in landfill, where it then bio-degrades fairly quickly and causes methane gas.

 

Methane is arguably the most harmful greenhouse gas even though it is not the most prevalent (CO2 is) and spends less time (12 years) in the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s because it is more efficient at trapping radiation. It has a 25x greater impact on climate change than CO2 over a hundred year period.

 

Yellow tractor on landfill site

 

Animal Feed

A lot of food including meats, fish and crops are thrown to landfill when they can actually be used for animal consumption.

 

For instance, grains, bread, and cereals can be used for feeding chickens on farms but also household food scraps can be used for backyard chickens at home. And certain food waste such as meat can be used for feed in maggot farms which then the maggots can be fed to other animals.

 

Composting

Biological waste can be biodegraded by composting and reused to fertilise soil. Composting is an aerobic process completed by microorganisms where bacteria breaks down food waste into simple organic materials which can then be used in soil. Plus, it does not produce methane gas!

 

Person composting food waste

 

Energy

Food waste can be turned into energy through anaerobic digestion in composting rather than aerobic. Through this process, biogas is produced. There are potential safety issues with this method, however, since the gases can explode or be poisonous.

 

Commercial Liquid Food Waste

Businesses such as restaurants produce masses of conventional food waste. But they also produce food waste in the form of wastewater coming from sinks, dishwashers and floor drains. This wastewater is collected in holding tanks (aka grease interceptions) to minimise the amount of grease which makes it to the sewers.

 

This wastewater contains both organic and inorganic matter such as cleaning chemicals as well as fats, oils, and grease. It is referred to as ‘brown grease’ whereas ‘yellow grease’ is fryer oil which is easily collected and processed into biodiesel. This ‘brown grease’ is a significant problem for our sewer systems. The grease causes severe blockages and overflowing.

 

Man in a sewer picking up brown grease on spade

 

Agricultural Water Waste

Nearly all food produced globally, eaten or discarded, is grown/farmed using irrigated water. Irrigated water is accountable for almost 90 percent of all water withdrawals worldwide and almost all of it is used for agricultural purposes. Therefore, food which is lost and uneaten accounts for significant amounts of water waste

 


 

 

Latest News and Campaigns

The UK government announced a landmark Environmental Bill to parliament on the 30th January 2020. This calls for a ‘Food Waste Action Week’ alongside a £1.5M funding grant to help change people’s attitudes and behaviour regarding food. It promises to educate the public and to assist SMEs in coming up with and introducing creative ways to reduce their wasted food.

 

In September 2019 Asda trialled a new coating technology which keeps fresh fruits and vegetables from spoiling for longer. It is hoped that this technology would not only reduce the demand and waste of groceries but would also cut the amount of plastic packaging.

 

Front of asda store

 

These are the two recent changes in the food waste industry which stood out to us. But we will be sure to update this list. For the latest news, however, we recommend that you read the Independent’s Food Waste news page.

 


 

 

Managing Food Waste as a Small Business

 

What you need to do as a business

You have a legal responsibility to dispose of your commercial food waste responsibly. This is what you should do:

 

 

  • You should conduct a waste audit to see what kind of waste and how much waste you are producing on a weekly basis

 

 

  • They will advise on what kind of services and bin sizes would be best fitted to your company

 

  • You will then enter a contract with them and your waste will be removed accordingly with the information you provided to them

 

  • They will ensure that your waste is disposed of responsibly

 

  • But you have the responsibility to segregate your waste and separate your organic waste into different bins

 

Why CheaperWaste has got your back!

Here at CheaperWaste we are the UK’s fastest-growing waste management company and we are growing fast for a reason. We offer the best service, at inexpensive prices, and are focused on small businesses. We can handle your food waste because we understand your business’ needs and have a team catered to help you grow and succeed. Get a quote for free and see how much you can save today!

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