Using Food Waste to make a difference – How to reduce and reuse Food Waste

Using Food Waste to make a difference – How to reduce and reuse Food Waste
Food waste

Jim Cornall

Multi award-winning editor-writer

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According to the NRDC, more than 40% of food grown in the U.S. is wasted. Globally, that figure is more than 33%.

And it’s a sobering thought to consider that all of the planet’s hungry million – in the region of 1 billion – could be fed on less than 25% of the food wasted in the U.S. and Europe alone.  

And it’s not just the fact the food is being wasted – rotting food and food that is thrown away – would be the third biggest creator of greenhouse gases if it were a country.

This waste is not just food that could be eaten; it extends to a waste of fertilisers, the cost of harvesting food that is never eaten, the storage of that food, and potentially other expenses such as transportation. And another sobering thought: More than 25% of the world’s freshwater is used on food that is wasted.

General figures for food waste are difficult to calculate. There are regional and national variations, and also differences between foods – for example, the percentage of waste of dairy products differs considerably from that of fruit and vegetables, and it differs greatly between countries.

However, according to a 2019 paper in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling by Carla Caldeira et al., 637.8Mt (megatonnes) of food was available in the EU in 2011. Of that, 129.2Mt (20.3%) was wasted. Of that total waste, 24.9% was at the primary production stage, 23.7% was in processing and manufacturing, 5.2% was at the retail and distribution level. In comparison, losses in the home amounted to 38.4%, with food service responsible for 8.0%.

In terms of the categories of food, vegetables led the way, with 24.2% of the food loss, fruit at 21.7%, cereals (12.1%), meat (11%) and oil crops (9.8%).

‘Imperfect’ food

Clearly, the best way to reduce food waste is to avoid creating it in the first place.

Some of the food lost is perfectly edible but is considered ‘imperfect’. That is, it does not aesthetically meet what are considered to be ‘standards’. This could be because it is slightly smaller than the norm or it is misshaped in some way. Much of this food is either recycled, fed to livestock, or used as fertiliser.

Uses for wasted food

Some supermarket chains, however, have started to sell ‘imperfect’ fruit and vegetables, generally at a lower price than uniform produce. Most U.K. supermarkets, for example, have a range of imperfect vegetables.

In the U.S., companies are taking advantage of imperfect food, which they purchase from producers and sell to the end consumer.

There are also plenty of other food products being created from imperfect fruit and vegetables. After all, the shape of a watermelon is not relevant if it is being processed into a fruit drink.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. has a Food Recovery Hierarchy graphic to explain ways to handle the excess food. Feeding the hungry is the top priority, with animal feed as the second tier. Below this is another potential destination for otherwise unusable vegetables and fruit, and that is for the industry.

Many crops are specifically grown for biofuel. However, this has proven to be controversial. There is an argument that land used to grow crops for biofuel could be utilised for food production. It has led to calls for biofuels to be created from food waste, albeit not exclusively.

Examples of food waste use

While using food waste to feed people is clearly the priority, other uses of waste have emerged, and it is also becoming attractive to startup businesses to turn waste into energy or other products.

For example, a Greek company is taking food waste and turning it into energy. Supported by the EU, the university spin-off uses food waste for small-scale and on-site energy production.

THE EU-funded LIGNOFLAG project was set up in 2020. The firm coordinating the program is working towards commercialising a technology to produce cellulosic ethanol from agricultural residues, such as cereal straw, corn stover, and sugar cane bagasse. Cellulosic ethanol can be used as an alternative to gasoline to power vehicles.

LIGNOFLAG’s main objective is to build and operate a first-of-its-kind, commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production plant in Podari, Romania.

Last year, a study in India showed that a bacterium, Bacillus sp. PM06, can saccharify and ferment all three types of lignocellulosic biomass – wheat bran, sago waste, and rice bran. The authors of the study say this makes bioconversions more economically viable.

In 2014, studies showed that the production of ethanol is possible from sugarcane bagasse, rice straw and wheat straw by using the yeast Saccharomyces cervisae.

Another multinational company can produce BioCNG from biogas from the food industry, farms or small dairy farms, as well as farms with less than 3,000 head of cattle. Alternatively, the company can produce BioLNG from waste from larger facilities, landfills and sewage systems.  

project in India not only creates energy from waste but also creates jobs – more than 400 of them. And there are other benefits. Not only is greenhouse gas reduced because crops are no longer being burned, but also clean energy is being created.

And in Australia, more than 130 landfill sites utilise the methane from rotting food to produce electricity.

It is not just energy that can be created from food waste. Products such as concrete, cement and bricks can utilise a variety of waste foodstuffs. Waste can also be turned into cosmetics, food additives, dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. A project in Australia – the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest producer of potatoes is utilising waste potatoes to create bioplastics. And 40% of Australian potatoes never make it into the food chain. This recycling effort is part of a circular economy, as this waste can be turned into products that help increase the shelf life of other foods, thereby reducing more waste.

There are countless other examples of companies trying to make a difference to reduce food waste at each step of the value chain.

And, for farmers, there may be better – and more lucrative – alternatives to discarding unwanted, unusable or excess crops in landfill or turning them into fertiliser or animal feed. This also applies to parts of plants that are not harvested. It is always worth exploring if there are other opportunities available.

So, while there will always be food waste, reducing it, and finding innovative ways to utilise what waste is created, means there is the hope of feeding the growing population, reducing greenhouse gases and water use, and providing green energy around the world.


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