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.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere