The Economic and Environmental Costs of Wasted Food

LONDON — Chinese diners are posting pictures of empty plates online, urging friends not to order more than they can eat. South Korea is charging for garbage removal by weight in hopes of persuading families to discard less food. Massachusetts is barring large businesses from sending kitchen waste to landfills, and British supermarkets are improving labels and packaging so that customers throw out less of what they buy.

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A Cambodian vendor, right, prepares food near a pile of trash on the street in Phnom Penh.
Credit Tang Chhin Sothy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Around the world, food waste is increasingly seen as a serious environmental and economic issue. With many families on tight budgets and the global population growing every year, there is increasing awareness of the resources squandered to produce food that is never eaten. Businesses, governments and activists are working to get more of what is grown onto tables, and less into garbage cans.

The United Nations estimates that a third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, making for a total of about 1.3 billion tons of waste a year. In the United States alone, about 40 percent of all food, worth an estimated $165 billion, is wasted, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported in 2012.

In the developed world, the food discarded by retailers and consumers alone would be more than enough to feed the world’s 870 million hungry people, José Graziano da Silva, the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, said last year in introducing Think, Eat, Save, an anti-waste campaign that the organization runs with the United Nations Environment Program.

In Britain, which has some of the most comprehensive data on food waste available, each family discards, on average, 700 pounds, or $1,170, worth of food a year.

“If you look at human history, other than the very affluent, families would always make the most of food,” said Richard Swannell, director of sustainable food systems at the Waste and Resources Action Program, or Wrap, an anti-waste organization in Britain that compiled the figure. “As affluence came through, we took our eye off it.”

The environmental consequences of waste are enormous, experts say, with vast quantities of water, fertilizer and land used to produce food that is never eaten, and with fuel burned to process, refrigerate and transport it.

Food waste that decays in landfill, with no oxygen present, emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

All told, that waste creates 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. If food waste were a country, the agency points out, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the United States.

In developing nations, food waste often happens soon after harvesting, when crops are being stored or transported, because a shortage of refrigeration and good roads makes it difficult to get food to market before it spoils. In wealthier countries, waste often begins with retailers’ rejecting items that they think will not appeal to customers. But the single biggest source of waste is in homes, Wrap estimates, where about half of all uneaten food is discarded.

The organization has sought to draw attention to the issue with its Love Food, Hate Waste campaign, which urges shoppers to plan before shopping and to freeze more food. People should also trust their eyes and noses, the campaign advises, rather than relying on sell-by dates to decide whether food is spoiled.

The organization is working with supermarket chains to reduce waste by clarifying expiration dates, selling smaller portions and using resealable packaging for perishables like cheese or frozen vegetables.

Such efforts have helped Britain cut food waste by 21 percent since 2007. It is the only country in Europe to have achieved such a reduction, said Clementine O’Connor, a senior consultant at Bio Intelligence Service, a French sustainability consulting and audit firm owned by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Tesco, the first British supermarket chain to publish its waste figures, reported that 28,500 tons of food went to waste in its stores and distribution centers in the first half of 2013 — 0.87 percent of its sales volume. That is only a small fraction of total waste in the country, however. The most frequently wasted items are fresh produce and baked goods, said George Gordon, a spokesman for Tesco. Bags of lettuce top the list, he said, with 68 percent of total production discarded.

The chain is looking at such “waste hot spots” and has introduced lettuce in bags with two compartments, so that consumers can use one half while the other stays fresh, Mr. Gordon said. Tesco is also overhauling some supply processes so that grapes, for example, arrive in stores five to 10 days sooner, giving consumers more time to eat them, he said.

“If you look at that value chain, from farm to fork, we do sit in the middle of it,” Mr. Gordon said, acknowledging that retailers could influence suppliers as well as customers. “We’re in a useful position.”

In South Korea, a major effort to reduce food waste has come at the government level. In the hope of reducing food waste by 20 percent, the country has introduced a system that charges for garbage disposal by weight.

In China, a campaign called Operation Clean Plate has become a hit on social media networks, with diners at restaurants posting photos of their empty plates. The campaign reportedly has the backing of President Xi Jinping and, along with “half portion, half-price” discounts and other anti-waste measures, has received extensive coverage in the state-run People’s Daily.

Last month, Chinese leaders issued a memo urging officials to scale back on lavish banquets, instructing government-run cafeterias to serve smaller portions and asking caterers and restaurants to make it easier for customers to order less, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported. The government is also drafting a law on food waste, the agency reported.

Famine killed tens of millions of people in China in the 1960s, but Pan Wenjing, a campaigner in the Beijing office of Greenpeace, said that much of the country was too young to remember those times. “The younger generation does not really know what hungry means,” she said.

Ms. Pan said that Chinese leaders realized that cutting waste would be crucial to the country’s ability to feed itself, a task that is expected to grow more difficult if climate change reduces agricultural output, as experts expect.

Doug Rauch, the former president of the American grocery chain Trader Joe’s, is building on research that shows that food past its sell-by date is often still safe to eat. Mr. Rauch plans to open Daily Table in Boston next month, a nonprofit that will stock food that is past its sell-by date or that is physically blemished, for sale to those in need.

The state of Massachusetts is requiring any institution that throws out more than a ton of food waste each week to compost it instead. A similar rule will take effect next year in New York City. Unlike in landfills, food that decays in compost does not produce methane because oxygen is present.

In Greece, the economic crisis has also driven a new focus on waste. One group in the country started an online hub to help small shops with excess food connect with people in need nearby, said Ms. O’Connor of Bio Intelligence, which is working on Fusions, an effort to reduce food waste that is financed by the European Union. The union aims to halve food waste by 2020.

Britain, where more than half of the local authorities collect food waste for composting, is also investing in anaerobic digesters, which use organic waste to generate energy.

One of the greatest challenges today is that food is inextricably linked to culture and thus touches on emotional issues that can be difficult to change. “Working on food waste is very sensitive,” said Fanny Demassieux, head of the responsible consumption unit at the United Nations Environmental Program.

“The idea is not to be intrusive and tell people what to do.” she said. “It’s only to explain to them that, probably, they are wasting more food than they think.”

Original article: New York Times

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