What a waste! (But it does not have to be.)

4 min read

We all have been there. You go food shopping, put the vegetables in the fridge, then a dinner invitation comes up, and the next day you feel like having a takeaway, and then, before you notice, that arugula or cucumbers or spinach just become green goop. With a heavy heart we throw the former salad candidate in the trash bin. We didn’t mean to. It just happened. But can we really afford these mistakes when nearly 850 million people a year go hungry (1)..?   

The type of inefficiency that happens in our private kitchens, can also be seen on a much bigger scale. Food waste is a problem of all sorts of businesses but of course, it is the most prominent in the food and drinks companies. If you find yourself more familiar with such waste problems as the plastic waste problem, for example, these numbers should be helpful for the conceptualization of the food loss issue: 

   •    16 million tonnes of plastic is wasted annually in the EU - and 88 million tonnes of food   

   •    34 million tonnes of plastic waste was generated in the US in 2014 - 60 million tonnes of produce gets thrown out by consumers every year (2)   

 ..and last but not least:

    •    10+ million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year while as much as 1.3 billion tonnes of food destined for human consumption gets wasted yearly (2)

What companies can do to tackle this problem can be separated into 2 broad categories: recycling and prevention. Recycling waste simply means finding productive use of food waste. Prevention includes initiatives that prevent loss or waste first in the food supply chain and then during consumption. 

Depending on whether we are looking at a developed or a developing country, the main food waste appears to happen at different stages. In developing countries, food is lost mostly during production, processing, and distribution (mostly due to inadequate infrastructure). While in developed countries it happens during the retailing and consumption stages because of consumer behavior and lifestyle (3).


As the momentum in food waste grows, it also creates new business opportunities that could be tremendously useful. 

Some key areas:   

 •    smart consumer appliances: refrigerators and innovative food packaging   

 •    innovative loan packages: financial institution can support smallholder farmers in developing countries  

 •    investments: venture capitalists can invest in initiatives focused on food loss prevention and on channeling food waste into other productive economic activities  

 •    waste management: companies operating in this field can develop consulting arms to help clients manage waste in a more productive and environmentally-friendly way 

 •    energy sources: recycling plants and renewable energy generators can be an area for opportunities amidst a higher food waste awareness; methane emitted from food has up to 25% more impact on the greenhouse effect than CO2  

What happens if we do not up our food game?

According to BCG (Boston Consulting Group) estimates, by 2030 the level of losses and food waste will be 2.1 billion tonnes worth 1.5 trillion US dollars (4). That’s a lot of zeros. (Actually, it is so many zeros, I can bet you have fewer cucumbers in your fridge right now than the number of zeros in just one of those numbers.)     

So what are the main issues, the causes of the endless zeros?   

There are three categories (3):   

1.     Production, processing, and storage: in developing countries, it is the lack of necessary equipment and technology and in developed countries, it is rather the difficulty of forecasting, possible overproduction, high standards for products (a lot of produce gets discarded because of “poor appearance”)   

2.     Distribution: incorrect labeling (in the UK, for example, up to 20% of food is thrown out due to misinterpretation of shelf life on the label), plus the need to keep the shelves full with goods plays a role too (customers expect the goods to be in full assortment)   

3.     Consumer behavior: emotionality of purchases, lack of a clear plan, and a strong influence of marketing all lead to potential food waste

It does not have to be like this. At every stage of food’s life, some changes can be made to avoid looming 2.1 billion tonnes of food waste in ten years’ time (4).   

During the harvesting stage, the first solution could be using fertilizers and pesticides to prevent damage caused by weed, fungi, and insects. However, this solution has to be approached with care as fertilizers and pesticides can have negative effects such as long-running health issues for farmers and pollution of water, air, and soil.

  • The post-harvest issue is storage. Small scale innovation (airtight hermetic bags to preserve crops, for example) could make a big difference since the most common reason for food waste after harvesting in developing countries is smallholder farmers lacking access to the necessary tools and warehouses with cooling facilities to store the harvest. As a matter of fact, this is the stage that would benefit from more investment.     
  • Food preservation during distribution is the next step. Food loss that happens at this stage is more common in developing countries. Once again, it is a problem of cooling facilities, but at this stage, it is due to a shortage of vehicles with cooling systems in the hot and humid climate during the distribution process. Poor road infrastructure also leads to longer hours before harvest reaches its destination. Unfortunately, there are not enough solutions out there to address this kind of food loss except such cases as when larger food producers (such as Chiquita, for example) have their own supply chain.   
  • Even if the food survived harvesting, the post-harvest storage, and distribution, it still goes through the food waste risk during in retailing and foodservice. The food loss risk can be reduced via digital media. It can be used to inform people of surplus food. A more structured approach to waste can be achieved by measuring the actual volume of waste to set specific targets for waste reduction.   And then comes the summit of the food pyramid. 
  • The consumer stage. It is one of the most dynamic areas in which both large and small entrepreneurs are investing. This involves using digital media to track surplus food and also channeling it to those who may have a use for it. In addition, the creation of all sorts of smart items (smart fridges, smart packaging, and smart storage) is definitely underway and is expected shortly.    
Even though these solutions might sound theoretical, have no fear. They are not. 

Here is a list of companies that have acknowledged the expensive danger we are facing and are already making the steps to battle the food waste problem:

Apple Science
develop natural protective coatings for fruits and vegetables to increase shelf life by reducing moisture loss and oxidation.  
prevent fruits and vegetable waste with a glass tabletop server with a tray and a lid. The dome-like lid helps to retain humidity inside it which makes vegetables and fruits last longer.
Last Minute Sotto Casa
an online market platform that prevents waste of unsold fresh food at groceries. Users can download the app to get instant notifications while shops with surplus food products can send an alert of what food they plan to throw away and at what price they will sell it.
redistribute food surplus from retail stores in favor of local charities.
Tesco platform with the same mission of directing food surplus to charities.
one such facility processes more than 160 tons of food residues into animal feed or fertilizer daily.
Nu Grocery Store
a grocery outlet that requires shoppers to bring their own containers in order to buy products that are presented in bulk. Glass jars are also made available to shoppers for rent or purchase. (This type of store is becoming more and more popular.)
Iceland Foods
a supermarket chain from the UK that has pledged to drastically reduce plastic packaging for its private-label ranges by 2023.
replaces plastics with recyclable glass, metal or paper-based containers, and also bio-based films that are claimed to be compostable.
412 Food Rescue
helps restaurants, caterers, and distributors redirect viable food from getting wasted and directly distributes it to those who are in need. The startup’s app uses machine learning algorithms to efficiently match available food to a beneficiary organization’s particular needs.
connects food excesses from restaurants to customers willing to save money. The food waste reduction app allows restaurants to offer leftover food at discounted prices and customers simply select their meal and pay through the platform.
says no to food waste and chemical additives. The work with restaurants and local farms to source food scraps to turn into a liquid fertilizer that is 100% organic and produces high yields for less than chemical alternatives.
a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform that helps restaurants monitor food waste and maximize profits. Through real -time analytics and reporting, MintScraps enables restaurants to better understand their waste, uncover cost savings, and support sustainability initiatives.
reduces food waste across the world by providing a way to identify and measure waste in commercial kitchens.

As grand as the food waste problem may be, you can start tossing less and salvaging more today. And the solution might seem obvious but even before investing in an organic fertilizer company or supporting a food-saving app, you can just not purchase more food than necessary. Or say no to a side dish that you won’t eat. Or just not let that arugula or cucumber or spinach go to waste and actually become that salad.