Food Waste: How Retailers Can Make a Difference
When it comes to preventing food waste, retailers are a key link in the supply chain. Although only about 11% of food waste occurs in retail, retailers can play an important role in helping reduce the amount of edible food that goes to landfill.
Food waste is a significant problem. UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner stated that "Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain."
In the US, food scraps make up about 19 percent of the waste dumped in landfills, which all eventually decomposes and creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. In Canada, an estimated $27 billion worth of food annually ends up in landfills and composters.
Landfilled food also represents a waste of the resources needed to produce, transport and store it. For example, in the UK, more than six million cubic metres of water are used to produce food that is thrown out - nearly twice that of UK's total annual household water usage.
The proportion of food wasted throughout the various links in the food chain (field to home) in Canada is broken down as follows:
Packaging / Processing 18%
Transportation / Distribution 3%
Retail Stores 11%
Food Service / HRI 8%
Note: HRI = Hotel/Restaurant/Institutional food outlets
Cooperation Not Competition in the Food Chain
Reducing food waste requires cooperation among all players in the food supply chain. For example, studies by the Value Chain Management Centre (VCMC) showed that an absence of coordination in the chain resulted in at least 25% of Ontario peaches being squandered every year.
Other studies carried out by the VCMC showed preventable levels of waste in the red meat sector. "In all cases," said a report by VCMS, "the reasons for lack of coordination came down to members of the chain not possessing the desire or ability to communicate with each other effectively. This led to a tendency to play the blame game, rather than seek to solve problems together strategically."
Fresh Information to Consumers
One key function that retailers can help fulfill is educating their customers. The top reasons food gets trashed in homes include preparing more than needed, not using the food in a timely manner, and being overly cautious in using leftovers. In partnership with the Waste Reduction Action Programme (WRAP), most grocery retailers in the UK use in-store programs to overcome these behaviours. Below is a sampling of what a few UK retailers are doing.
Good Deal or Invitation to Waste?
The British Local Government Association (LGA) claims that supermarket multi-buy deals are adding to the food waste problem. "Buy-one-get-one free (BOGOF) deals, which give consumers a few days to munch through 16 clementines, are not about providing value for money." LGA Environment Board Vice Chairman Cllr Clyde Loakes asserted.
To address the concerns of the LGA, Tesco came up with another type of BOGOF. On select fresh fruit and salad goods, consumers were offered a coupon that let them get their 'free' product within two weeks of the first purchase. The program was targeted at smaller households that are not always able to eat the 'free' fresh products before they spoil.
Warburtons, a UK baker, developed a program designed to reduce food waste through offering smaller packs. They identified a need among smaller households for a small loaf of bread with full-sized slices. Introduced in 2008, the 600g loaves were so well received that the range has since been expanded.
The Co-operative is changing its emphasis of promotional offers, particularly on perishable foods, from BOGOFs to half price offers, so customers can buy what they need rather than doubling up on items.
Another way to tackle waste is to donate food to charities that retailers are unable to sell but is still edible. For example, Walmart's foundation donated 100 refrigerated trucks to food banks so that they have a way to transport food that Walmart can't use in their stores, but is still good food.
From Food to Fuel
Reducing waste is the first line of defence in preventing the ill effects of landfilled food. The next strategy is to divert any remaining waste to a composting facility, or better, yet, to an anaerobic digester, which turns organic waste into energy.
Although anaerobic digestion faces regulatory and financial hurtles in many jurisdictions, a number of retailers are pursuing its use. Asda sends the highest possible percentage of food to anaerobic digesters: 100% of their food waste is diverted using this process.
Waitrose is expanding its use of anaerobic digestion. Its goal is to send its food waste from 115 of its branches to an anaerobic digestion plant in Bedford where it is converted into energy that goes into the country's grid.
None of Sainsbury's food waste ends up in landfill, and anaerobic digestion is one way it is being diverted. A Sainsbury's spokesperson says: "We are now focused on making anaerobic digestion our sole way of generating energy from food waste by 2012."
Preventing and recycling food waste is an area ripe with opportunity. Through it the world can increase its food supply to feed the expanding human population. It will also help to use Earth's valuable resources more wisely and reduce pollution. Retailers have a vital role in finding food waste solutions, such as cooperating with other players in the food chain, informing their customers about preventing food waste, donating edible food they can't sell, and turning the organic waste into useful energy.
 Share the World's Resources Web Site. http://www.stwr.org/food-security-agriculture/the-environmental-food-crisis.html
 Statistics Canada, 2010; Macdonald, 2009; VCMC, 2010 in Gooch, Martin et al. November 2010. "Food Waste in Canada: Opportunities to increase the competitiveness of Canada's agri-food sector, while simultaneously improving the environment" Value Chain Management Centre. http://www.vcmtools.ca/pdf/Food%20Waste%20in%20Canada%20120910.pdf