From uncovered fruit spoiling in the sun to excess purchases that go forgotten in our refrigerators, food waste is a serious global problem.
About one-third of the food produced for human consumption each year — some 1.3bn tonnes — is wasted or lost, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Growing public awareness is leading companies throughout the supply chain to tackle the problem, by ensuring as little food as possible is discarded in the journey from “farm to fork”.
In the developing world, most food waste is due to inefficiencies in the supply chain, from harvesting through to distribution, and often the result of poor logistics systems and transport infrastructure. In developed economies, however, more than half of food waste occurs at the household level.
Many large grocery retailers in Britain send food left over from warehouses and supermarkets to charities that make meals for homeless shelters, after-school clubs and other people in need.
“Food waste is an issue our customers, colleagues and suppliers really care about. We all feel guilty about throwing away food,” says Mark Little, head of food waste reduction at Tesco.
Tesco has stopped sending food to landfill and pledged that no food safe for human consumption will go to waste from its operations by the end of this year, by which it means that all waste will either be donated for human consumption or go into animal feed.
To tackle waste higher up its supply chain, the retailer last year joined rivals such as Asda and Morrisons by launching a line of “wonky” fruit and vegetables including misshapen apples, pears, potatoes, parsnips, cucumbers, courgettes and strawberries. The result is that items of food that were previously excluded from shelves for not matching aesthetic norms are now being sold to consumers.
“The range has been extremely popular with customers and another benefit is that the producer receives a better return,” adds Mr Little.
Far more waste occurs in UK food manufacturing than in retail, according to Wrap, the government’s waste advisory body. The restaurant and hospitality sector is another significant source of squandered food outside of the home.
Compass, the FTSE 100 group, which is Britain’s largest contract caterer, serving more than 1m meals a day, is installing “smart-scales” in its kitchens to combat the perennial problem of scraps and oversupply. The technology, developed by the start-up Winnow, consists of a weighing scale with a bin on top, connected to a tablet loaded with menus so that teams can record the type and amount of food being thrown away.
The data it collects can help kitchen managers judge whether it might be best to make fewer numbers of particular meals that fail to sell or reduce the portion size of meals that result in large amounts of leftovers. Data gathered through the system is saved and crunched at both the local level and centrally, giving chefs information to drive improvements in their production processes and better train staff. Compass says the system has helped kitchen staff at some sites reduce food waste by half.
“In a business like ours, being able to understand where overproduction is occurring is really important,” says Duncan Gray, head of corporate responsibility at Compass Group UK & Ireland.
Despite measures like these, progress on food and drink waste appears to have stalled in the UK. The total domestic amount rose by 300,000 tonnes to 7.3m tonnes between 2012 and 2015, according to Wrap. Of this, more than half was estimated to have been edible at some point before its disposal, costing the average UK household £470 a year.
Many campaigners say that supermarkets still need to do more to address a culture of overconsumption and wastefulness they accuse them of fostering. Criticisms over the wider environmental impact of increased packaging, designed to enhance the shelf life of goods, has also become a battleground between campaigners and retail businesses.
John Manners-Bell of Transport Intelligence, a logistics consultancy, says that some attacks on packaging are “short-sighted” as they fail to take into account the “full lifecycle” of a product.
“If more produce deteriorates and is thrown away because of a lack of packaging, then actually all the energy which has been invested in bringing it to the marketplace has been wasted,” he adds.