Behavioral Drivers Behind Food Wastes

food-waste-behaviorBy 2075, the United Nations estimates the global population will peak at 9.5 billion, an extra 3 billion mouths to feed by the end of the century. Meanwhile, while we produce about four billion tonnes of food annually, it is estimated that 30-50% of this never reaches our plates. Of the food that does reach us, some western societies throw away up to a third of all food purchased. This has enormous implications for the global environment, from wasting the water used to grow the food to adverse effects on climate, land and biodiversity.

The drivers behind these phenomenal levels of food waste are complex and include food pricing, logistical and storage issues. However, given the significant level of waste that happens within the households of societies like the UK and US, it is useful and informative to consider those behaviours that drive this level of waste.

The quality of data around food waste, as with much of waste data, has historically been poor. To this end, WRAP commissioned groundbreaking research in the UK in 2006/7 to act as a baseline to their Love Food Hate Waste campaign. This came up with the alarming statistic that 1/3 of food bought by a UK household was thrown away. Until this time, there had been no comprehensive research, either by food manufacturers, retailers or interest groups, suggesting the importance of government, or some other dis-interested party, taking a lead on the issue.

Back to Basics

There may be a link between the amount of time spent preparing food, and the skill and effort that goes into this, and the amount of food waste produced. This has led to a loss of confidence in the kitchen, with individuals losing basic skills that allow them to cook with leftovers, understand food labeling, including Best Before and Use By, even basic storing. WRAP had found little evidence of best practice storage advice so carried out the research themselves – leading the (surprising for many) conclusion that fruit such as apples and pears are best stored in the fridge wrapped in a plastic cover. However, this has masked a larger trend of less time spent in the kitchen, due to demographic changes. This of course begs the question – how should we use this when trying to reduce food waste? Should we encourage people to cook from scratch as a principle?

Although waste prevention and recycling are clearly separated within the waste hierarchy, there are apparent links between the two when considering food waste. There is an urgent need for legislation to enforce separate food waste collections, not only to ensure it was diverted to anaerobic digestion or composting, but also as it led to greater self awareness around food waste. WRAP research has clearly showed a fall in food waste when separate food waste collections were introduced.

Role of Packaging

Historically, packaging has always been a high priority to the public when asked about priorities for reducing waste. However, as awareness of food waste has grown, a more nuanced position has developed among waste managers. While excess packaging is clearly undesirable, and, within the UK for instance, the Courtauld Commitment  has helped reduced grocery packaging by 2.9 million tonnes of waste so far, there is a realization of the importance of food packaging in preserving food and hence reducing food waste.

Making food easily accessible and affordable by many, it could be argued, is one of the crowning achievements of our age. Over the last century, the proportion of household income that is spent on food has plummeted, and there is a direct link to malnutrition and food prices, particularly for children. But does cheap food mean that it is less valued and hence greater wastage? Is the answer expensive food? The evidence from WRAP in the UK is that food waste is still a serious economic issue for households, and underlining the economic case for reducing food waste a major incentive for households, especially as food prices are not entering an era of increase and instability, providing added economic urgency

Political Persuasions

Different political persuasions often differ in the approaches they take to changing behaviours and food waste is no different. In the UK, the Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement aimed at encouraging major retailers to take responsibility mainly for packaging, later growing to encompass food waste, voluntary and so far has seen a 21% reduction in food waste post-consumer.

Meanwhile Wales (in the UK) effectively banned food waste from landfill. Scotland has ensured that businesses make food waste available for separate collection – again it’s only once you see it, you can manage it. Campaigns like the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste have been successful but measuring food waste prevention, as with all waste prevention, is notoriously difficult. But, people are now widely aware of food waste as an issue – we even see celebrity chefs actively talking about food waste reduction and recipes involving leftovers or food that is about to go off.

There is clearly a balance between food waste and food safety, with a commitment to reducing food waste throughout the retail and catering world, not just at home. By engaging environmental health officers to help deliver this, a potentially conflicting message can be delivered in a nuanced and balanced way. Indeed, environmental health officers in Scotland will be responsible for ensuring that Scottish food businesses present their food waste for separate collection.

Role of Communication

It is worth considering how the message should be communicated, and by whom. The community sector are more trusted by the public than government and the private sector are more effective at imparting personal, deeply held beliefs – the sort of beliefs that need to change if we are to see long term changes in attitudes towards consumption and hence waste production.

Furthermore, communications can engage wider audiences that hold an interest in reducing food waste that is perhaps not primarily environmental. The health and economic benefits of issues and behaviours that also result in food waste prevention may be the prevalent message that fits with a particular audience. So whilst the main aim of a training session might be food waste prevention, this is may not be the external message. And this has wider implications for waste prevention, and how we engage audiences around it.

Municipal authorities tasked with waste prevention will need to engage with new groups, in new ways. They will have to consider approaches previously considered to be beyond their powers to engage new audiences – should they be partnering with public health authorities with an interest in nutrition, or social housing providers that are focused on financial inclusion.

Should waste prevention even be a discipline in itself? After all, across material streams it is a motley assortment of behaviours with different drivers. Furthermore, with the knots that one can tie oneself in trying to measure waste that doesn’t get generated, – therefore doesn’t exist – should we integrate waste prevention in to other socio-economic programmes and position it as an “added benefit” to them?

Note: The article is being republished with the permission of our collaborative partner be Waste Wise. The unabridged version can be found at this link. Special thanks to the author Mike Webster.

The Technology Revolutionizing Commercial Waste Management

Every single one of us can do something to improve our impact on the planet, but it is a given that businesses of all sizes have a bigger footprint than families – commercial accounts for 12% of total greenhouse gas emissions. A big factor of that is waste management. From the physical process of picking up garbage, to the methane-released process of decomposition, there are numerous factors that add up to create a large carbon footprint.

Between hiring green focused waste management solutions and recycling in a diligent fashion, there are a few technologies that are helping to break down the barrier between commercial waste management and an environmentally positive working environment.

Cleaning up commercial kitchens

A key form of commercial waste is food waste. Between the home and restaurant, it is estimated by the US Department of Agriculture that 133 billion pounds of food is wasted every year. Much will end up in the landfill. How is technology helping to tackle this huge source of environmental waste? Restaurants themselves are benefiting from lower priced and higher quality commercial kitchen cooking equipment, that helps to raise standards and reduce wastage.

Culinary appliances for varied cuisines also benefit from a new process being developed at the Netherland’s Wageningen University. A major driver of food waste is rejected wholesale delivery, much of which will be disposed of in landfill. The technology being developed in Holland aims to reduce wastage by analyzing food at the source, closer to where recycling will be achievable.

Route optimization

Have you ever received a parcel from an online retailer only to find the box greatly outsizes the contents? On the face of it, this is damaging to the environment. However, many retailers use complex box sorting algorithms. The result is that the best route is chosen on balance, considering the gas needed to make the journey, the amount of stock that can be delivered and the shortest route for the driver. This is an area of intense technological innovation.

The National Waste & Recycling Association reported in 2017 on how 2018 would see further advances, particularly with the integration of artificial intelligence and augmented reality into the route-finding process.

Balancing the landfill carbon footprint

It is well established that landfills are now being used to power wind turbines, geothermal style electricity and so on. They are being improved to minimize the leachate into groundwater systems and to prevent methane escaping into the atmosphere. However, further investigation is being pushed into the possibility of using landfill as a carbon sequester.

AI-based waste management systems can help in route optimization and waste disposal

Penn State University, Lawrence Berkeley and Texas University recently joined together to secure a $2.5m grant into looking into the function of carbon, post-sequestration. This will help to shed light on the carbon footprint and create a solid foundation on which future technology can thrive.

Businesses of all sizes have an impact on the carbon footprint of the world. The various processes that go into making a business profitable and have a positive impact on their local and wider communities need to be addressed. As with many walks of life, technology is helping to bridge the gap.

Food Waste Management and Anaerobic Digestion

Food waste is one of the single largest constituent of municipal solid waste stream. In a typical landfill, food waste is one of the largest incoming waste streams and responsible for the generation of high amounts of methane. Diversion of food waste from landfills can provide significant contribution towards climate change mitigation, apart from generating revenues and creating employment opportunities.

Of the different types of organic wastes available, food waste holds the highest potential in terms of economic exploitation as it contains high amount of carbon and can be efficiently converted into biogas and organic fertilizer. Food waste can either be utilized as a single substrate in a biogas plant, or can be co-digested with organic wastes like cow manure, poultry litter, sewage, crop residues, abattoir wastes etc or can be disposed in dedicated food waste disposers (FWDs). Rising energy prices and increasing environmental concerns makes it more important to harness clean energy from food wastes.

Anaerobic Digestion of Food Wastes

Anaerobic digestion is the most important method for the treatment of food waste because of its techno-economic viability and environmental sustainability. The use of anaerobic digestion technology generates biogas and preserves the nutrients which are recycled back to the agricultural land in the form of slurry or solid fertilizer. The relevance of biogas technology lies in the fact that it makes the best possible utilization of food wastes as a renewable source of clean energy.

A biogas plant is a decentralized energy system, which can lead to self-sufficiency in heat and power needs, and at the same time reduces environmental pollution. Thus, the benefits of anaerobic digestion of food waste includes climate change mitigation, economic benefits and landfill diversion opportunities.

Anaerobic digestion has been successfully used in several European and Asian countries to stabilize food wastes, and to provide beneficial end-products. Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Germany and England have led the way in developing new advanced biogas technologies and setting up new projects for conversion of food waste into energy.

Codigestion at Wastewater Treatment Facilities

Anaerobic digestion of sewage sludge is wastewater treatment facilities is a common practice worldwide. Food waste can be codigested with sewage sludge if there is excess capacity in the anaerobic digesters. An excess capacity at a wastewater treatment facility can occur when urban development is overestimated or when large industries leave the area.

By incorporating food waste, wastewater treatment facilities can have significant cost savings due to tipping fee for accepting the food waste and increasing energy production. Wastewater treatment plants are usually located in urban areas which make it cost-effective to transport food waste to the facility. This trend is catching up fast and such plants are already in operation in several Western countries.

The main wastewater treatment plant in East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), Oakland (California) was the first sewage treatment facility in the USA to convert post-consumer food scraps to energy via anaerobic digestion. EBMUD’s wastewater treatment plant has an excess capacity because canneries that previously resided in the Bay Area relocated resulting in the facility receiving less wastewater than estimated when it was constructed. Waste haulers collect post-consumer food waste from local restaurants and markets and take it to EBMUD where the captured methane is used as a renewable source of energy to power the treatment plant. After the digestion process, the leftover material is be composted and used as a natural fertilizer.

The first food waste anaerobic digestion plant in Britain to be built at a sewage treatment plant is the city of Bristol. The plant, located at a Wessex Water sewage works in Avonmouth, process 40,000 tonnes of food waste a year from homes, supermarkets and business across the southwest and generate enough energy to power around 3,000 homes.

Bioenergy Resources in MENA Countries

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region offers almost 45 percent of the world’s total energy potential from all renewable sources that can generate more than three times the world’s total power demand. Apart from solar and wind, MENA also has abundant biomass energy resources which have remained unexplored to a great extent.

According to conservative estimates, the potential of biomass energy in the Euro Mediterranean region is about 400TWh per year. Around the region, pollution of the air and water from municipal, industrial and agricultural operations continues to grow.  The technological advancements in the biomass energy industry, coupled with the tremendous regional potential, promises to usher in a new era of energy as well as environmental security for the region.

The major biomass producing countries are Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Jordan. Traditionally, biomass energy has been widely used in rural areas for domestic purposes in the MENA region, especially in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Since most of the region is arid or semi-arid, the biomass energy potential is mainly contributed by municipal solid wastes, agricultural residues and industrial wastes.

Municipal solid wastes represent the best source of biomass in Middle East countries. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Kuwait rank in the top-ten worldwide in terms of per capita solid waste generation. The gross urban waste generation quantity from Middle East countries is estimated at more than 150 million tons annually. Food waste is the third-largest component of generated waste by weight which mostly ends up rotting in landfill and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The mushrooming of hotels, restaurants, fast-food joints and cafeterias in the region has resulted in the generation of huge quantities of food wastes.

In Middle East countries, huge quantity of sewage sludge is produced on daily basis which presents a serious problem due to its high treatment costs and risk to environment and human health. On an average, the rate of wastewater generation is 80-200 litres per person each day and sewage output is rising by 25 percent every year. According to estimates from the Drainage and Irrigation Department of Dubai Municipality, sewage generation in the Dubai increased from 50,000 m3 per day in 1981 to 400,000 m3 per day in 2006.

The food processing industry in MENA produces a large number of organic residues and by-products that can be used as biomass energy sources. In recent decades, the fast-growing food and beverage processing industry has remarkably increased in importance in major countries of the region. Since the early 1990s, the increased agricultural output stimulated an increase in fruit and vegetable canning as well as juice, beverage, and oil processing in countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

The MENA countries have strong animal population. The livestock sector, in particular sheep, goats and camels, plays an important role in the national economy of respective countries. Many millions of live ruminants are imported each year from around the world. In addition, the region has witnessed very rapid growth in the poultry sector. The biogas potential of animal manure can be harnessed both at small- and community-scale.