You’re about to be embarrassed. According to the World Resources Institute, Oceania – that’s us – and the USA are the most wasteful countries in the world. We throw out more than 1500 calories of food for each of us every day. In Australia, that has the supermarket checkout ka-chinging at $8-10 billion, or four million tonnes of perfectly good food a year – one in every five bags brought home from the store, or $1036 for each household, according to surveys commissioned for the Department of the Environment. One third of it is fresh fruit and vegetables, 27 per cent leftovers, 15 per cent packaged and long-life products, 9 per cent drinks, 9 per cent frozen foods and 7 per cent takeaways.
In New Zealand, an audit of rubbish bins in 2015 found that households were wasting $563 of food each, a total of $872 million a year. For Kiwis, bread was the most wasted food, 10 per cent of food rubbish; 7 per cent leftovers, 5 per cent potatoes, and for apples, chicken, bananas and lettuces, 3 per cent each.
But wait, there’s more. This doesn’t include food ground down in waste disposals, composted or fed to animals. And a staggering 20-40 per cent of fruit and veggies don’t even reach the shelves – they’re thrown away because they don’t match consumer or supermarket “cosmetic” standards.
Worldwide, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or is wasted, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
It’s not just the food: that means resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital are squandered; greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change, are produced needlessly.
When food is wasted, all the resources and inputs used in its production are lost, too. For example, it takes about 1000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk; about 16,000 litres goes into a cow’s food to make a hamburger. The resulting greenhouse gas emissions from the cows, and throughout the food supply chain, are just so much hot air.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, though we’re behind many countries – yes, let’s be honest, many other first-world countries – we in Australia are beginning to address the issue. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had their consciences pricked by activist groups, church organisations and charities that have set up canned and fresh food recovery, dumpster diving and community garden projects. Perhaps it’s pragmatic: pressed to house ever-growing populations, land is needed (and more valuable) as real estate than landfill; and it costs more and more to process those growing populations’ rubbish.
Waste not, want not
In both nations, all levels of government and corporates are promoting projects to minimise food waste in particular.
The NSW government’s Love Food Hate Waste project estimates 37 per cent of rubbish sent to landfill by food retailers is food waste; for large supermarkets, it’s 25 per cent of trash. The campaign is a British idea that’s spread to Vancouver, New South Wales and Victoria (South Australia has a similar scheme).
Woolworths has committed to sending zero food waste to landfill by 2020 (it missed the original target of 2015). Last year the supermarket giant partnered with the perishable food rescue group OzHarvest to collect edible food that would otherwise go to waste, such as food with damaged packaging, and distribute it to homeless and vulnerable people.
There has been some progress in tackling unavoidable food waste, such as egg shells, vegetable skins and fruit peels with major supermarkets, markets and some councils sending scraps for energy recovery at the EarthPower anaerobic digestion plant in west Sydney. Australia’s first food waste-to-energy plant breaks down about 45,000 tonnes of organic waste a year to produce biogas to power the site, with any excess going to the electricity grid, as well as producing fertiliser.
Critics such as Jenni Downes, research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, argue that there’s not enough leadership in this area. “It’s such a complicated problem and there are good examples of work being done, but they’re fairly small-scale and no one is drawing them together,” she says.
“The Australian government has not taken the lead in trying to pull it all together at a federal level across the entire supply chain in the way that some countries, such as the US, have done, and that Europe has been trying to do for a while.”
Across the ditch
In New Zealand, the three-year Love Food Hate Waste campaign launched on June 1. It’s a partnership between 60 local councils and WasteMINZ – that’s the umbrella body for the waste and resource recovery industry, which carried out the rubbish bin audit and pilot study quoted earlier.
One of its first initiatives is a community fridge in a central Auckland park. Businesses and individuals are encouraged to leave excess food in the fridge; anyone who needs it can it take for free.
Championed by zero waste blogger Amanda Chapman and supporters, it follows similar schemes in Spain, England, Belgium, Argentina and United Arab Emirates. There are rules about what can be donated. A tick for mould-free fruit and vegetables; unopened tinned and dried goods; sandwiches, biscuits and baked goods, labelled less than two days old.
Cooked food is only accepted from registered kitchens with a current food safety certificate, labelled less than two days old.
The fridge has instructions explaining what can and can’t be donated. Volunteers are rostered to clean the fridge, check the temperature and remove unsuitable donations. Any food that’s deemed not suitable is taken for composting in the surrounding community garden.
The scheme is intended for people who want to make small donations of food such as a loaf of bread, a bag of lemons from the garden or unsold sandwiches. Auckland has two food rescue groups –Fair Food (West Auckland) and KiwiHarvest (Central Auckland, North Shore) – which take surplus food from supermarkets and bakeries.
While supermarkets often get the blame for throwing away usable food, WasteMINZ estimates that households are responsible for 61 per cent and the big chains just 7 per cent.
Countdown, the largest chain and a subsidiary of Australia’s Woolworths, runs a Food Rescue programme in New Zealand that it says donated more than $3.5 million of food to charities last year, equating to approximately 509 tonnes of food to those in need. Foodstuffs, its opposition, says it monitors sell-by dates closely. It says most food waste is not fit for human consumption, and its stores work with a provider to divert waste to animal feed, rendering plants or composting sites.
Best practice? Milan. The Italian city’s food policy goes beyond shopkeepers and market traders giving unsold fruit to the homeless. Its trade, waste management, environment, agriculture and transport departments are working to eradicate food waste. A city-owned company that provides 80,000 meals a day to schools, hospitals and the elderly, gives out bags for pupils to take home leftover food.
The MyFoody app alerts locals to food in small supermarkets in danger of being wasted. It has 10,000 users and 23 stores signed up, aiming for 500 shops across northern Italy. Start doing your bit today: don’t throw that apple away. Just cut out the little brown bit and enjoy the rest. It’ll be fine.