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Reducing & transforming organic food waste

Farmers, governments, food processing industries, restaurants and recyclers need to work together to tackle the millions of tonnes of food waste generated in India each year

The human race wastes more than 1.3 billion tonnes of food every year. Just a quarter of the food wasted in the US and Europe could feed all the hungry people on the planet. Daily, over 34% of the food produced globally goes waste. If you think it is only first-world countries that allow such criminal wastage of food, think again: the average South Asian wastes 100-150 kg of food per annum. According to UN estimates, a whopping 40% of the food produced in India is either lost or wasted.

Food wastage can occur at each stage of the food value chain, from agricultural production to final consumption, with the stages of storage and preparation in between. By far the biggest percentage of wastage is plate waste: what is left on the plate after the meal is over.

Why reduce food wastage?

Apart from the obvious reasons, we must remember that food production is linked to land conversion and biodiversity loss, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, water and pesticide use, all of which take a toll on the environment, climate and the air we breathe. The food industry is responsible for a major portion of greenhouse gas emissions. The more we waste, the more needs to be grown, and more is the ecological impact.

In a recent report, the World Economic Forum identified cutting food waste by up to 20 million tonnes as one of the twelve measures that could help transform global food systems by 2030. One of the targets for nations which have adopted the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is to halve the per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses, by 2030.

Food processing waste

In developed countries (which India is fast becoming), the major source of food waste is before food is cooked; that is, from harvesting, transportation, packing and storage.

India is the world’s biggest producer of fruits and vegetables, but has low per capita availability of the two. This is because of the lack of reliable cold storage facilities; the latest survey by the Central Institute of Post-Harvest Engineering and Technology reveals that up to 16% of the country’s vegetable and fruit produce is wasted. Up to 10% oilseeds, pulses and cereals grown in India are also completely wasted. Over 6% of poultry meat, and over 2.5% of meat spoils because of improper storage. It is pertinent to note that India ranks 109th out of 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index.

Simple, low-cost, but highly effective storage solutions can be applied even for small-scale farmers who usually lose food and produce to spoilage, pests, transportation, etc. By storing grain in three interlocking plastic bags to ward off pests, produce can be kept fresh for months on end. Another example is that of the metal storage silo that has been developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization. These small metal storage containers have been instrumental in cutting down food loss in the storage phase to nearly zero. Simple measures like substituting plastic bags and sacks with plastic crates can also help reduce food loss during transportation.

Consumers are often confused about the difference between labels on products like ‘best before’, ‘use by, ‘sell by’. Often, perfectly consumable food is thrown away because of a misinterpretation. An effective way to end this confusion is to do away with multiple labels and stick to just one that says ‘use by’.

Machine learning can help reduce the amount of food wastage. By studying previous data on how much food goes to waste and how much a product sells, machine learning can build forecast the demand for a product more accurately. This will help supermarket owners to order only as much inventory as necessary – neither more nor less.

Categories of post-processing food waste

• Edible: most food waste comes under this category.
• Inedible: such as vegetable peelings, bones, coffee grounds and other parts of food that separated and discarded during preparation.
• Avoidable waste: food that could have been eaten at some point prior to being thrown away, such as what is left in the dish after the meal is over.
• Possibly avoidable waste: Food that is eaten in some situations, but not in others. E.g potato skins, coriander stalks, apple peels.
• Unavoidable food waste: refers to the fraction of food that is not usually eaten e.g. onion peels, banana peels, chicken bones).

Reducing Food waste

The waste management chain in the food and beverages industry consists of five main steps: collection, sorting, storage, transport and disposal. Transport of waste that is not collected by a public or private third party has to be brought to a waste sorting/recycling center.

Understandably, restaurant owners/ managers and chefs look at the food waste from the cost perspective: how much precious working time needs to be spent on managing waste, and how much of the purchase cost of raw materials is lost through waste? They prioritise price and quality over sustainability when choosing suppliers and food products, but a majority do not know the quantity of food waste they generate, and how much it costs them.

The difference between waste generated by the front (dining area) and back (kitchen) of a restaurant is that restaurants have almost complete control over the food waste they generate during storing, packaging, cooking and testing, whereas the waste generated in the dining area depends on both customer and server behaviour. In the former category, kitchen staff can reuse parts of products that are traditionally considered waste, such as bones and seafood shells to make broth, peelings and trimmings to make soups, juices, compotes or purees. For the dining area, items can be offered in various portion sizes so that no food is wasted, and the customer too ends up saving money.

Some bakeries and cafes have started reducing the price of unsold products after a certain hour in the day, to encourage customers to buy them, failing which they would have to be thrown away.

Food rescue and food transformation can help redirect excess food from one place to areas where it is needed. For instance, the Spoiler Alert app is an online marketplace that offers real-time exchange information of excess, spoiled and expiring food. Another app called Love Food, Hate Waste spreads information on how to cook meals with leftovers.

Redistribution, Transformation and Composting

The MIT campus in the US has a food cam; whoever has some leftover edible food can just press the food cam button, and it shares the image of the food on internal social media channels; people who want it can come and get it.

Food waste can be transformed into non-food products: coffee grounds into hair care products, food waste into fertilizers (through means other than anaerobic digestion), fodder additive or biofuels. Leftover food waste can be composted by restaurants itself and used as fertiliser in their kitchen gardens, reducing their procurement costs.

In Madurai, KT Greens India is working with the municipal corporation to collect food waste from hotels, composting it another site, using this to grow fruits and vegetables which are then sent back to the same hotels, completing the food cycle.

Lessons from South Korea: A case study

Just as in Indian restaurants serve a variety of accompaniments which are often left unconsumed, a traditional South Korean meal is also often left unfinished, contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of food wastage. Much like Indians, South Koreans each generate more than 130 kg of food waste every year.

To curtail this figure, the government banned dumping food waste in landfills completely, and introduced compulsory food waste recycling using special biodegradable bags. An average four-person family pays $6 a month for the bags, which further encourages home composting, rather than sending the waste elsewhere. The bag charges also meet 60% of the cost of running the scheme, which has increased the amount of food waste recycled from 2% in 1995 to 95% today. The government has approved the use of recycled food waste as fertilizer; a part of it also becomes animal feed.

In the capital city of Seoul, 6,000 automated bins equipped with scales and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) weigh food waste as it is deposited and charge residents using an ID card. The pay-as-you-recycle machines have reduced food waste in the city by 47,000 tonnes in six years.

Residents are urged to reduce the weight of the waste they deposit by removing moisture first. Not only does this reduce the charges they pay – since food waste is around 80% moisture – but it also saved the city $8.4 million in collection charges over the same period.

Waste collected using the biodegradable bag scheme is squeezed at the processing plant to remove moisture, which is used to create biogas and bio oil. Dry waste is turned into fertiliser that is, in turn, driving the country’s growing urban farm movement.

The number of urban farms or community gardens in Seoul has increased six times in the past seven years. They now total 170 hectares – roughly the size of 240 football fields. Most are sandwiched between apartment blocks or on top of schools and municipal buildings. The city government provides between 80% and 100% of the startup costs. As well as providing food, urban farms bring people together as a community.

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