A war on food waste
“Have you ever wondered what lies behind supermarkets’ deliciously crustless sandwiches?”
According to ‘Feeding the 5K’ organisation (2009a), 13,000 slices of crusts are thrown away every day by a single sandwich factory which is featured in the figure above. More recently, Tesco, one of the largest UK food retailers, has published its sustainability report admitting that the company generated 28,500 tonnes of food waste in the first six months of 2013 (TESCO 2013). TESCO’s report also state that 47% of the bakery produced is wasted. In terms of GHG emissions, DEFRA (2011) estimated that food waste is associated with 20 Mt-CO2 equivalent/year, which is equivalent to 3% of the total annual GHG emissions.
Globally, 1.2-2 billion tonnes (30%-50%) of food produced is thrown away before it reaches a human stomach (IMechE 2013). Food waste, if conceived as a state, is responsible for 3.3 Bt-CO2 equivalent/year, which would make it the third biggest carbon emitter after China and USA (FAO 2013). Regionally, numerous studies have also addressed food waste as one of the key solid waste issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (Salemdeeb 2012; Salemdeeb 2013). What makes food waste an even more significant issue is the substantially high demand for food which is estimated to grow 70% by 2050 due to the dramatic increase of population which is expected to reach 9.5 billion by 2075 (Kerbs 2013; IMechE 2010). Therefore, there is an urgent need to address food waste as a globally challenging issue which should be considered and tackled by sustainable initiatives.
A war on Food Waste
The overarching consensus to tackle the food waste issue has led to the implementation of various policies. For instance, the European Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC) set targets to reduce organic waste disposed to landfill in 2020 to 35% of that disposed in 1995 (EC 1999). More recently, the European Parliament discussed a proposal to “apply radical measures” to halve food waste by 2025 and to designate the 2014 year as “the European Year Against Food Waste” (EurActive, 2012). In the light of IMechE’s report (2013), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in cooperation with FAO has launched the Save Food Initiative in an attempt to reduce food waste generated in the global scale (UNEP, 2013).
In the UK, WRAP declared a war on food waste by expanding its organic waste programme in 2008 which was primarily designed to “establish the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable ways of diverting household food waste from landfill that leads to the production of a saleable product” (WRAP 2008). DEFRA has also identified food waste as a “priority waste stream” in order to achieve better waste management performance (DEFRA 2011). In addition to governmental policies, various voluntary schemes have been introduced by local authorities such as Nottingham Declaration which aims to cut local CO2 emissions 60% by 2050 (Hogg et al. 2007).
Engineering for Sustainable Food Waste Management
Engineering has introduced numerous technologies to deal with food waste. Many studies have been carried out to examine the environmental and socio-economic impacts of food waste management options (Bernstad & la Cour Jansen 2012). This article covers the two most preferable options; anaerobic digestion and composting.
In-vessel composting (IVC) is a well-established technology which is widely used to treat food waste aerobically and convert it into a valuable fertilizer (Salemdeeb 2011). IVC is considered a sustainable option because it helps by reducing the amount of food waste landfilled. Hence, complying with the EU regulations, and producing a saleable products avoiding the use of natural resources (WRAP 2009). IVC is considered an environmentally favourable technology compared with other conventional options (i.e. landfill and incineration) (Khoo et al. 2010). It contributes less than 0.06% to the national greenhouse gas inventories (Amlinger at al. 2008). However, considering its high energy-intensive collection activities, the overall environmental performance is “relatively poor” (Lundie, Peters 2005). Therefore, Bjorklund et al. (1999) considers IVC a “transitional technology” towards applying more sustainable solutions.
Anaerobic Digestion (AD) is a leading technology which has had a rapidly growing market over the last few years. AD is a biologically natural process in which micro-organisms anaerobically break down food waste and producing biogas which can be used for both Combined Heat & Power (CHP) and digestate that can be used as soil fertilizers or conditioners (Arsova 2010 and Salemdeeb 2010). AD has been considered as the “best option” for food waste treatment (Finnveden et al. 2005 and Minnini et al. 2008) Therefore, governmental and financial support has been given to expand AD in the UK (DEFRA 2009; DEFRA 2011). AD is not only a food waste treatment technology, but also a renewable source of energy. For instance, It is expected that AD would help the UK to meet the target of supplying 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 (EC 2009). Furthermore, AD technology has the potential to boost the UK economy by providing 35,000 new jobs if the technology is adopted nationally to process food waste (DEFRA 2011). This economic growth will significantly improve the quality of life among potential beneficiaries and thus all sustainability elements are considered (Dresner 2002).
Towards integrated sustainability
Engineering has provided us with advanced technologies in order to tackle the environmental and economic impacts of food waste. However, due to the lack of fund and technological expertises, the MENA region should look into this issue form a different perspective. Food Waste should be tackled based on changes in our social behaviours which would eventually lead to food waste reduction in the first place. One of the key justifications for my thoughts is our traditions and religion which encourage us to consume food and drinks wisely. Allah says in the holy Quran; “ ... eat and drink but do not be excessive for God does not love those who are excessive (in what they do).” Chapter (7) sūrat l-aʿrāf verse (7:31).
Inspired by the previous verse from the Quran, Zero Waste MENA, a regional initiative established in last year to promote sustainable waste management practices, took the initiative to deliver this message to Middle Easters via social media and other communication channels. We also invite all interested parties to take part in this noble goal and help us to spread the word and protect our environment.
About the author
Ramy Salemdeeb, BEng(Hons) MSC GradMCIWM ISWA, is a solid waste management consultant with a focus on post-conflict zones and developing countries. He is the founder of Zero Waste MENA. Mr. Salemdeeb is currently a PhD researcher at Cambridge University.
References are available upon request