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Food waste: a growing Australian problem

Up to 1.3 billion tonnes of perfectly edible food is wasted each year. We list three large-scale solutions, and give you four tips to implement in your own life.


21 September 2018

What’s the problem?

While much of the global population goes to bed hungry, developed nations including Australia have developed a shameful and totally unnecessary problem of our own: food waste. Globally, more than 870 million people are chronically undernourished yet 1.3 billion tonnes of perfectly edible food is wasted each year.

To put this in perspective, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, Jacques Diouf says: “Feeding the world’s hungry could be achieved with around US$30 billion, yet, in a single country, food wastage can amount to US$100 billion annually.”

A report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates approximately one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. According to statistics from FoodWise, Australians discard up to 20% of the food they purchase. That’s four million tonnes, or roughly 140kg per person of food going to landfill each year. To give you a visual picture, that’s enough waste to fill 450,000 rubbish trucks which, stretched end to end, would bridge the gap between Australia and New Zealand just over three times.

Why are we throwing food away?

A combination of consumer behaviour and lack of communication in the supply chain underlies the higher levels of food waste in affluent societies.

FoodWise estimates 20% to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach supermarket shelves. This is due stringent regulations on how food looks – a consequence of our unrealistic aesthetic expectations as consumers. Vegetables are frequently left to rot in the field then ploughed straight back into the ground.

The fishing industry also plays a significant role in wastage – despite the catastrophic over-fishing of the world’s oceans. Fish populations of some key seafood species have been reduced to only 10% of what they were in the 1950s. Despite this, up to 60% of all fish caught is discarded – either because they are the wrong size, species, or because of government quota systems. Across the seafood industry in southeastern Australia alone, it is estimated more than 20,000 tonnes of fish product waste is produced annually.

Food labelling is another issue contributing to waste. Confusion about sell-by dates and overzealous labelling by brands and supermarkets often means perfectly edible food is discarded long before it’s actually out of date.

World hunger aside, the environmental implications of mass food production and, consequently, food waste are devastating. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the carbon footprint from food produced and not eaten to be around 3.3 gigatonnes of CO₂ equivalent, making it the third highest emitter in countries like China and the US. In Australia alone, food waste is responsible for 15 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent emissions every year.

What’s the solution?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation outlines three general levels where action is needed on a global scale.

1. Reducing food wastage in the first place.

This includes developing better food harvest, storage, processing, transport and retailing processes. A key factor in this is the relaxation of legislation related to labelling and packaging.

The development of new technologies is slowly starting to aid the reduction of food waste. Improved rice-storage bags in the Philippines have helped cut losses by 15% and in West Africa, use of solar dryers to extend the shelf life of fruit is showing promise in reducing post-harvest losses.

2. Re-use surplus food within the human food chain.

In Australia, there are a number of initiatives dedicated to finding secondary markets for unwanted food. A good example is the donation of food to vulnerable members of society. OzHarvest is a perishable food rescue organisation in Australia, collecting quality excess food from commercial outlets and delivering it, direct and free of charge, to close to 500 charities across Australia. They deliver 480,000 meals or 160 tonnes of meals each month.

If food is not fit for human consumption, the next best option is to divert it for livestock feed, conserving resources that would otherwise be used to produce commercial feedstuff.

Gleaning, or the practice of gathering food straight from the field is another growing trend where organisations and, in some places, entrepreneurs are spotting opportunities to acquire produce at reduced rates.

3. Where re-use is not possible, recycling, and recovery should be pursued.

By-product recycling, anaerobic digestion, compositing, and incineration with energy recovery allows energy and nutrients to be recovered from food waste, representing a significant advantage over dumping it in landfills. Uneaten food that ends up rotting in landfills is a large producer of methane, a particularly harmful greenhouse gas. Again, technology is being developed in this space to turn food waste into green energy.

What can you do at home to reduce waste?

There are a number of simple actions we can all do as individuals to reduce the deplorable four million tonnes of food we send to landfill every year.

  • Write a shopping list based on a weekly meal plan.
  • Store food correctly. This useful guide will show you how to increase the shelf life of a huge number of products
  • Reuse left overs for lunch or as the basis for another meal.
  • Check out FoodWise’s Cheat sheets

Australian Ethical invests in a number of organisations dedicated to reducing or managing waste. Darling Ingredients is a US-based processor of food industry waste, producing useful goods from waste that is otherwise difficult to dispose of. Without these services, landfills would struggle to cope with the large volume of food industry waste.