Digesting the Food Waste Issue
Food waste is an issue that’s both pressing and easy to ignore.
Each day, we’re confronted with food items to assess and make decisions on whether to keep or dispose of.
Does that cheese smell funkier than usual? Is this bread stale? Are these bananas just a little too brown?
It makes sense to throw food away when it’s necessary; you don’t want to eat something that’s going to do you harm. Far too often, however, perfectly edible food is thrown away.
In the U.S. alone, 90 percent of Americans throw food away because of their misinterpretation of expiration dates. According to a study conducted by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental action group, Americans are throwing out nearly $165 billion in wasted food each year.
This is also a huge problem in the U.K. 7.2 million tons of food and drink are disposed of annually, much of which is perfectly safe for consumption. It’s costing the U.K. €12 billion a year and shows no signs of slowing.
While the numbers detailing this waste are certainly staggering, it’s the costs that are harder to quantify where the real danger lies. Food waste, despite being food, is still waste and costs money, resources, and space to deal with—not to mention the toll it takes on the environment.
Some of the biggest offenders when it comes to food waste are supermarkets. For a variety of reasons, supermarkets dispose of incredible amounts of edible food daily. However, while they are part of the problem, supermarkets are also looking to be part of the solution. There are several that are leading the way in effectively managing their food waste—with one supermarket turning the food it would normally throw out into energy.
“Sell By,” “Use By,” and “Best Before”
What’s the difference between “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” when it comes to food expiration labels?
The lack of understanding in answering this question is driving much of the issue with managing food waste. Even still, the answer is more a subjective than objective one. “Sell by” dates are for stores to know the shelf life of a product, while the “use by” and “best before” dates are for consumers to know when the food is supposedly no longer safe. These dates, however, are all estimates.
As previously stated, throwing unsafe food away is the best interest of the person who would otherwise consume it, but often times the food that goes bad is seen as excess, which in a world of massive hunger disparity, is a major problem in itself.
“We have a tendency to overbuy and overcook,” CEO of SupermarketGuru.com Phil Lempert said. “Awareness of how much food you’re wasting does help people buy properly. As prices go up, people also become more aware.”
Some supermarkets have attempted to mitigate this by donating food to hunger initiatives, though regulations on what can and can’t be donated, and whether food can be donated at all, often make this more difficult than it needs to be.
U.K. supermarket chain Sainsbury’s is taking a different approach to managing its food waste: by turning its would-be wasted food into energy.
Nothing Goes to Waste
In October of 2011, Sainsbury’s signed a three-year deal with Biffa to send all of its food waste to anaerobic digestions for conversion into energy. The energy is used to power homes and businesses, while none of Sainsbury’s waste ever goes to landfill. It’s a solution to waste management that just makes sense, especially to Sainsbury’s former property director Neil Sachdev.
"Anaerobic digestion is the most efficient way to create energy from waste, so this new contract means our food waste is being put to the best possible use,” he said. "It has taken quite some time for us to get into a position where we are able to send all of our food waste to AD due to a lack of facilities in the UK. However, I am pleased to see that the waste industry is catching up with demand for this green technology. This new contract builds on our existing leadership position on AD, making us the largest retail user of AD in the country."
In late July, Sainsbury’s announced that in continued partnership with Biffa, it would take its store in Cannock off the grid, powering it entirely using energy from wasted food.
"Sainsbury's sends absolutely no waste to landfill and we’re always looking for new ways to reuse and recycle," Paul Crewe, Sainsbury's' head of sustainability, said. "We’re delighted to be the first business ever to make use of this linkup technology, allowing our Cannock store to be powered entirely by our food waste."
What isn’t used to energy is donated to hunger initiatives.
Anaerobic digestion is an increasingly popular form of energy-from-waste for a number of reasons including its carbon neutrality and ability to operate in remote areas. Sainsbury’s efforts in this field are already paying off, as the energy can power 2,500 homes each year in the area of Cannock.
A Perfect Solution to an ‘Imperfect’ Problem
The European Union declared 2014 the European Year Against Food Waste. While Sainsbury’s is inarguably the leader in this category, French supermarket chain Intermarché has a slightly different solution which involves a clever bit of marketing.
The company bought the imperfect and “grotesque” fruits and vegetables from its growers that would otherwise be thrown away. These are all perfectly safe for consumption, though their appearance hinders sales.
Intermarché markets the fruits and vegetables in a humorous, appealing manner (calling them The Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables) and sells them for 30 percent less than “normal” produce. To get customers to buy in, they provided sample juices and soups made from the Inglorious produce to prove their lack of difference.
This turned out to be a wildly successful venture, as during the first two days of the campaign, each store averaged 1.2 tons of sales and saw an increased 24 percent average foot traffic.
Though this may be a different kind of energy—the caloric kind—these kinds of initiatives are vital to the success of programs like Sainsbury’s.
“Efficient energy recovery means getting the most out of energy from waste, not putting the most waste into energy recovery,” reads the U.K.’s analysis of its energy-from-waste efforts.
These two innovative approaches are helping fight the often overlooked issue of food waste and the energy industry at large would do well to take note, as more projects such as these are sure to sprout up. Partnerships such as Sainsbury’s and Biffa’s are lucrative for not only monetary reasons, but also put companies such as Biffa in a position to become early leaders in eliminating food waste.
Drax advances biomass strategy with Pinnacle acquisition
The Group’s enlarged supply chain will have access to 4.9 million tonnes of operational capacity from 2022. Of this total, 2.9 million tonnes are available for Drax’s self-supply requirements in 2022, which will rise to 3.4 million tonnes in 2027.
The £424 million acquisition of the Canadian biomass pellet producer supports Drax' ambition to be carbon negative by 2030, using bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and will make a "significant contribution" in the UK cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 (click here).
This summer Drax will undertake maintenance on its CfD(2) biomass unit, including a high-pressure turbine upgrade to reduce maintenance costs and improve thermal efficiency, contributing to lower generation costs for Drax Power Station.
In March, Drax secured Capacity Market agreements for its hydro and pumped storage assets worth around £10 million for delivery October 2024-September 2025.
The limitations on BECCS are not technology but supply, with every gigatonne of CO2 stored per year requiring approximately 30-40 million hectares of BECCS feedstock, according to the Global CCS Institute. Nonetheless, BECCS should be seen as an essential complement to the required, wide-scale deployment of CCS to meet climate change targets, it concludes.