This week I’m talking to Michelle Marks about how one part of the world is starving while another part is wasting food. Michelle is a sustainability consultant. She’s owner of Coral Mountain and co-founder of Speak Carbon, an organisation dedicated to raising Carbon Literacy through training.

 

Anthony:

Michelle, welcome to The Sustainable Futures Report.

Michelle:

Thank you, Anthony. And thank you for inviting me to join you today.

Anthony:

We're talking today about food, which is a key issue. It's one of the stables of life, like the water we drink and the air we breathe. It's an amazing topic. It's got all sorts of upsides and downsides, worries about whether we can feed the world's growing population and so on and so on. Today, we're specifically going to talk about food waste and apparently there's a lot more to that than just wasted food. Would you like to build on that, Michelle?

Michelle:

Oh yes. I'd very much like to Anthony. So food waste, it's as with all our food system, it is complex, but just in a nutshell around about a third of all food produced in the whole of the world goes to waste. Now, if you put that in context of about 800 million people going to bed hungry. And sadly, that number has actually increased since all our challenges with COVID, that's around about a ninth of the world's population. So there is enough food to go around, but somehow it's not being distributed correctly. And alongside that misdistribution is the fact that all that wasted food has massive environmental impacts, both to the climate and other areas as well, which I'm sure you'll be asking me about.

Anthony:

Well let's start, first of all, looking at the supply chain from producer to consumer. Where's this waste occurring, at what level, at what point?

Michelle:

Great question, Anthony. Well, the food waste is occurring all along the supply chain. All the way from farm gate, all the way to the domestic kitchen where it ends up in the bin and goes to landfill. So we drill down on a little bit further into it, we look at the farming. There's a lot of issues that you might have heard of, things like wonky veg, and so on, that's seen as not fit for going to market and so on. But there are organizations which now take that food and realize that just because a carrot isn't straight, that it is still fit for purpose. But then there's all sorts of other issues like distribution issues, so for example, food not being picked up early enough and stored correctly, so it goes to rot at that stage. And then there might be gluts, which drives down prices and also ends up in surpluses of certain food products, so that's just looking at the beginning of the food chain.

Anthony:

We can look at it at the producer level, and of course that will vary across the world. It's only the pampered West perhaps where we say, we won't put wonky vegetables into our supermarkets, but I'm sure there are places in the world where they'll eat it, whatever it looks like. And it's pretty irresponsible for us to reject it just because it doesn't look right. Incidentally, I have heard that crops that are not aesthetically pleasing have been plowed back into fields, is that still going on?

Michelle:

I believe that it is, yes.

Anthony:

And so that in itself is wasting food and also wasting energy and causing emissions as it gets plowed back in. But once we get beyond that, we've got the distribution. Now the distribution can be by lorry to the market, in some cases it's by air freight. Take us through how it goes from there and how it may get wasted in the process.

Michelle:

Well, if you think about, and we've all been listening to things like Brexit and so on and food trucks being held up, not enough drivers to distribute the food, that can be an issue as well, which means that food that's been harvested can just be going to rot at that stage as well, which is quite a tragedy. I mean, it's a tragedy really all along the system and of course this has financial impacts for people, as well as environmental impacts.

Anthony:

Yes, of course the Brexit issue is a very local issue as far as the UK is concerned.

Michelle:

But apparently there is a global shortage of truck drivers, not just in the UK, so that has impacts globally.

Anthony:

Yes. Okay. So there's a shortage of drivers, but fuel has gone up dramatically as well. So presumably that will mean some crops are not worth transporting.

Michelle:

I guess that might be the case and what you get there really is other issues, not necessarily so much around food waste, as food poverty, and especially with the people who are already challenged with their income and having to make that balance between food and fuel to warm their houses, their homes. So you can see already this whole food chain, there's so much complexity that's going along it.

Anthony:

Let's take the food now into the supermarkets. What causes waste at that point?

Michelle:

What causes waste in the supermarkets, is really around things like rejection, because it's not seen to be a good enough quality and some of the higher-end supermarkets reject it and then it does go to the more discounted supermarkets, so it doesn't always mean it gets lost. And then there's things that, what the supermarket does very often impact on the consumer activity. And that's where the waste is and the majority of food waste in the UK actually happens in the home setting, so 70% of our food waste takes place in the home. And then there's not to forget also the hospitality, catering and events sector as well, where food waste happens. But things in the supermarkets like BOGOF discounting, buy one, get one free and people sort of say, "Oh yeah, I'll have an extra bag of satsumas, or an extra bag of lettuce." It's that green leaf lettuce is the stuff that we've all seen it sort of getting mushy and horrible and brown in our fridge. But if we tempted buy those, buy one, get one free's, that's more likely to happen because we are over-buying.

Anthony:

And what about best-before and you use-by dates? Does the consumer really understand them or does it urge the consumer to throw things away while they could still be edible?

Michelle:

Definitely. Definitely. There's a lack of understanding of best-before and used-by. You're used-by is generally about perishable goods, like your meat, your fish, dairy goods. And I mean, even within that, there is an element of being conservative, because of course the supermarkets don't want to have a food safety issue. The use-by is generally to my personal mind, if it is not walking out of the fridge on its own, it's edible.

Anthony:

Right. Well, you say 70% of food waste occurs in the home. So the obvious question is what could, what should we be doing about it?

Michelle:

Well, the first thing is raising awareness, so having this understanding. But also the supermarket sector, the retail sector does have a responsibility really to rather than try to just encourage people to buy more and more is to raise that awareness as well. And so it's right from the understanding our own personal behaviors, right from the buying and that shopping list of, "Do I really need it? Am I really going to use it, or am I just tempted because it looks nice?" And if I'm not going to use it, then I shouldn't buy it. And of course there's a value in that, if you don't buy it and don't waste it, then it doesn't burn a hole in your pocket as well.

Anthony:

If you throw it away, you said it goes to landfill. And it does in many cases go to landfills. Some local authorities do provide separate containers for food waste, but I think they're in a minority. What's the point, what's the advantage of separating food waste from anything else that goes to landfill?

Michelle:

Well, when food goes to landfill, so that's all the food that you've probably got in the back of your fridge that you sort of realized that it isn't edible anymore, or even plate waste from making too bigger portions and not eating it, that way. When it goes to landfill, it emits methane. So methane is for those listeners who aren't aware, is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it's about 28 times more potent. So a ton of methane is equivalent to 28 tons of carbon dioxide. And in landfill, it doesn't rot down properly. That's what methane is as a result of non-complete rotting, basically. And it just keeps on giving. So once it's there, that methane will just carry on.

Michelle:

In terms of local authorities separating it out, what happens then is they tend to take it to anaerobic digesters, and it'll be used for city energy of some sort. There is legislation coming, I think it's 2023, where all local authorities across England have to provide a separate food waste collection. There is a downside to that though, because if there is a collection and it's being taken to anaerobic digestion, it almost creates a mentality that it's okay, because it's being used. So we have to be aware that we shouldn't be encouraging behaviors of waste, because we know the waste is being repurposed.

Anthony:

Tell me about the Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

Michelle:

Love Food Hate Waste campaign was started by WRAP. Now, WRAP originally started with, what was called the quartile commitment before that, and that was for restaurants and for supermarkets and any food companies in the supply chain to reduce their food waste. But out of that, which has and continues to be very successful, it's now in its fourth phase, out of that, I think must have come from there the realization of all this domestic food waste, and it's a campaign to raise that awareness and that understanding of the deep issues that we've been talking about. And what's great about it is if you go on the WRAP website or if you just Google Love Food Hate Waste, there's a lot of resources there. And they're resources to help with the understanding of the issues that we've been talking about, where the waste is coming from, but also resources to help you understand how to change your behaviors and encourage those around you to behave differently and waste less as well. And-

Anthony:

Okay, so WRAP, we'll put a link to that on The Sustainable Futures Report website, so we can go and look at that and find details of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. You also mentioned OLIO and Too Good To Go, we'll put links to those as well, and they both play a part in helping to reduce or repurpose food waste.

Michelle:

... Yeah. So, OLIO and Too Good To Go are apps that people can download. And they can find, as you say, waste that can be repurposed. So OLIO is kind of a community one where you find if somebody's got excess food in their fridge and they want to give it away, you can just find somebody locally and pick it up from there. And then Too Good To Go is quite an exciting app. It's at the end of the day, rather than waste food from retailers or restaurants as they put it in what's called a magic bag and the person goes along and purchases a magic bag. I think it's a minimum of three pounds and it's supposed to have nine pounds worth of value. But I hear from people of very exciting bags that have got way more than that amount of value in them and for very little money. And I know that my children used this up as students. So it helps them with their budgeting as well.

Anthony:

Oh, well, I'll look at that then. That sounds interesting. Talking earlier, you mentioned how some companies within the food industry are actually adopting the circular economy. And I just wonder how you can do that with a food product. You cited Toast Ale and bio-bean. What's the background to that?

Michelle:

So the circular economy is where that waste product is, rather than viewing it as waste, it's seen as a resource for another process. And in terms of food, those examples like Toast Ale, they've realized that many, many millions of slices of bread gets wasted. There is a company that makes sandwiches and I believe they don't just cut off the crust, the next slice in, they don't use as well, so that it's not dried out. So that's four slices of bread out of every loaf was going to waste and Toast Ale takes that bread and turns it into beer and they're very successfully saving. If you look at Toast Ale's website, it's got the statistics of how many tons, how many hundreds of thousands of slices of bread, how many tons of carbon they've diverted in making their Toast Ale. And there's some other brewing companies that do that as well.

Anthony:

Right? And bio-bean?

Michelle:

Bio-bean is a company which collects the used granules, so if you think of all your coffee shops and all those coffee machines, all those coffee granules that just are going to waste. And some companies just give them away to customers, because they make very good compost, very nutritious compost. But what bio-bean does it is, it takes them and it does some sort of process where it turns them into what they call coffee logs and you can put those in your wood burners. And apparently they reduce the carbon emissions by about 80% and they burn hotter as well. So if you've got one of those lovely wood burners and are aware that they are causing quite a lot of emissions.

Anthony:

Right, so you can burn coffee grounds as long as these things remain legal, but that's another issue in itself, I'm afraid isn't it?

Michelle:

Indeed.

Anthony:

We're less than a month to Christmas and people eat a lot of food at Christmas, but I fear they probably waste a lot as well, don't they?

Michelle:

Yes. Does it go on the waist, or does it go in the waste? Yes, there's a lot of food that gets wasted at Christmas. So one of the big things is sprout. WRAP measures how many sprouts they do research into that as well and they reckon about 17 million sprouts get wasted. And the bottom line is, yes they're traditional, but if you don't like them, don't buy them and just put them on the table and throw them away. So sprouts is one thing, mince pies, believe it or not, is another thing and they certainly don't get wasted in my house, but apparently millions of packets of mince pies get wasted as well. So again, it's about being realistic with your shopping. We're indulgent over Christmas, but let's balance that with a little bit of consciousness about what we're not going to eat as well. And then there's also lots of websites with lots of nice recipes for what to do with cold turkey, for example.

Anthony:

Well, that's a good idea. But basically what we should do is save food, save money, avoid waste.

Michelle:

Absolutely. And in doing so we're-

Anthony:

And still have a very Merry Christmas.

Michelle:

... Have a very Merry Christmas, definitely. With everything that's gone on with CoV and the feeling that there's so much to be done and where do I start? Food as you said in your introduction is something that we all need, we all use, we all buy and it is something that we can be active about and feel that we're doing something positive.

Anthony:

Michelle, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with The Sustainable Futures Report.

Michelle:

Thank you again, Anthony for inviting me to do so.

 

Michelle Marks of Coral Mountain and Speak Carbon. Link to these organisations and other sites and apps that she mentioned, below. If you go to the Too Good to Waste website there’s a good explanation of the date labels on food and the confusion they cause - leading to waste!

We heard Michelle refer to WRAP, that's the Waste and Resources Action Programme, a UK charity that aims to support the circular economy.

In Wednesday interviews this month you’ll hear that a chicken can’t lay a duck egg, I talk to a man who wants to make your flights net zero (yes, really) and I find out what sustainability means at York Minster.

Before you go, don’t forget to subscribe. Better still, if you’d like to be a patron for a small monthly donation you’ll be helping me keep the Sustainable Futures Report independent and ad-free. Many thanks to those who have already signed up at patreon.com/sfr. Much appreciated.

I’m Anthony Day and the next regular edition of the Sustainable Futures Report will be with you on Friday. I wonder what it will be about.

 

Links

Coral Mountain

https://www.coralmountain.co.uk 

Speak Carbon

https://www.speakcarbon.earth

Toast Ale

https://www.toastale.com

Love Food Hate Waste

https://lovefoodhatewaste.com

Olio

https://olioex.com

Bio-bean

https://www.bio-bean.com

No thoughts on “Food: What a Waste!”