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Start to Scale: Tackling food waste

To the bin and beyond

Did you know that all the innovation we need to get to net zero already exists? The challenge is how we overcome the blockers and scale those great ideas. And that’s where business has a key role to play.

Start to Scale is a new educational series where we explore a key area in sustainability where change is needed – and fast. We look at how to get started, how to find momentum and how others are doing it already.

In this feature, we explore something that individuals, business and innovators can all do something about – food waste.

When we think of major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to picture obvious, gas-guzzling things like aeroplanes. But what if we told you that the emissions generated from food waste is equivalent to the whole of the aviation sector?

A half-eaten sandwich casually tossed into the bin doesn’t feel as bad as a transatlantic flight, but add them all up (and everything else that goes to landfill) and suddenly they account for 1.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What we put on our plate matters, but it’s also about what happens when we have finished eating. We need to think ‘beyond the bin’ – how we dispose, or rather don’t dispose, of our food.

Let’s follow the journey of our half-eaten sandwich. Once you’re done with it, your sandwich is either incinerated (resulting in CO₂ emissions) or it trundles along to landfill, where it is dumped into a low oxygen environment where it breaks down, releasing methane.

You may be asking yourself how something so benign as some unfinished food can have such a large impact. The answer? The scale of it.

1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted per year. This means that every year, nearly a third of the world's agricultural area is used to produce food that is lost or wasted. This is also three times the amount of food needed to feed the world population affected by hunger.

Fortunately, there are plenty of inspiring initiatives that are tackling the different sources of food waste across the value chain – from optimising inventory with a little help from AI, to sharing leftover food with your neighbours.

Let’s take a look at four initiatives:

With a little help from tech


Technologies that have long been used to help supermarkets set prices are now helping to cut food waste. Once food has made it to our retailers, stores need to provide the right amount and kinds of produce, at the right times to reduce waste. This is where solutions like smart inventory management systems, predictive analytics and AI-powered demand forecasting tools are helping.

For example, Walmart’s machine learning forecasting model can predict how many and which items need to be stocked at a given time. These insights help reduce food waste by deciding how much inventory is needed as well as when, what and how to ship these products to store.

Have your packaging and eat it too


An effective means to help food last longer is to ensure its packaged correctly. Reducing food exposure to the air, humidity and bacteria extends its shelf life. But the last thing we want to be increasing is single-use non-recyclable packaging. So, what if we could eat the packaging instead?

Notpla, a UK start-up and winner of The Earthshot Prize, has an innovative solution that replaces fossil fuel-based plastics with seaweed. For example, their spice sachets keep the perfect amount of ingredients dry and safe and dissolves straight into your curry. They also offer other ‘next generation packaging’ which can be eaten, composted or recycled.

Seaweed is a resource that grows quickly, is abundant and requires no additional land, fertilizer or fresh water. Increasing our production of seaweed could not only positively impact marine ecosystems but would also remove CO₂ from our oceans and air. Projections show that if we were to replace all single-use plastic with seaweed, only 0.066% of the ocean would be needed, which is well within safe ecological boundaries.

Sharing is caring – for the environment


In the UK, households cause 70% of all food waste – we throw away £41 million worth of food each day. So, how do we begin to solve this issue?

Well, to quote one solution provider, Olio, “We get weird.” The start-up connects neighbours to one another to share their surplus food. While knocking on a neighbour’s door to bag a bunch of bananas may seem a little strange, that hasn’t stopped the app growing to over 5 million members across 59 countries. Too Good To Go is another company who has seen great success here.

Food isn't waste, but fuel


According to WRAP, a British charity which works with businesses, individuals and communities to reduce waste and develop sustainable solutions, we have also made progress on food related GHG emissions, having reduced them by 14% since 2015. But what if instead of simply reducing these emissions, we went one step further and utilised the sequestration capabilities of our food to remove emissions directly from the atmosphere? Standard Gas, a UK start-up, is doing just this.

They convert our food waste into ‘biochar’, a black dust-like substance that locks in the carbon, effectively removing it from the atmosphere. Furthermore, their process to make this product also creates renewable energy. The biochar can, for example, be added to agricultural soil where it increases water retention and farming yields (producing even more food). This is the very definition of the circular economy: taking something that was considered waste and turning it into a valuable product.

These examples, and many more like them, illustrate that combining data with innovative thinking beyond the bin can help us address processes and behaviours to transition to a net zero economy.

To summarise, let’s recap on some of the ways we can help reduce food waste:

  • For individuals, it's about being mindful of what’s on our plates. Reducing food waste is among the top actions UK consumers are taking to lead a more sustainable lifestyle – but there’s more we can do. For both, consider services such as Too Good To Go and Olio to connect with restaurants, stores and individuals that have surplus or unsold food.
  • For businesses and organisations, consider a circular economy approach by re-evaluating how you produce, consume and dispose of food. By taking actionable learnings from charities such as WRAP, organisations can improve processes, find new techniques and implement best practice in their supply chains.

    As a first step consider using their Greenhouse Gas Scope 3 Measurement and Reporting Protocol to help you identify where you are at and then measuring and tracking your progress. Being able to identify the main contributors to waste and emissions can allow businesses to identify the best ways to reduce waste and emissions.
  • For retailers, consider how much inventory is needed on shelves and explore innovative ways to extend shelf life. This could mean using AI powered inventory optimisation software and leveraging insights on expiration dates, and customer demand to make data-driven decisions that reduce waste and improve profitability.

While the solutions described are still nascent and need to scale, they provide us with a vignette of how we can shift our perspective and implement changes across our food value chain – something to chew on next time you look at your leftovers.

This article has been contributed by Ashleigh Arton and Dr Sadia Ahmed in our Sustainability and Climate Market innovation team.

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