Closing the loop on food waste

10 Dec 2019

The UK has a food waste problem. Per family, we throw away £810 of food each year, which as a nation, equates to £20bn annually in food waste-related losses.

Around 8.4 million people struggle to put food on the table – equivalent to the entire population of London – and 4.7 million live in “severely food insecure homes”, classed as homes where food intake is greatly reduced and children regularly suffer physical feelings of hunger.
 
“Sadly, it's no exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the largest problems facing humanity today,” says Tessa Clarke, co-founder and CEO of the food-sharing app OLIO.
 
In response, businesses, including bars, restaurants and brands, are bringing the issue of food waste front of house, taking action to embed initiatives that ensure they’re making a positive contribution to society.Our recent survey of 102 UK business leaders, found that 72% believe that a sense of “purpose” in business is a good source of innovation, rather than just a passing trend. For just under half (46%), taking action to cut waste in their business is a key component of their corporate social responsibility strategy.
 
“Few sectors present the level of opportunity as food does to transform the picture on megatrends such as climate change and biodiversity, while at the same time offering new ways to generate massive economic benefits,” says Emma Chow, project lead for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Cities and Circular Economy for Food initiative.
 

Learning to love waste

Supermarket Morrisons now buys whole crops from farmers, including “wonky” fruit and veg. Asda, Tesco and Aldi sell imperfect produce at discounted prices, while Lidl’s Too Good to Waste boxes are filled with fruit and veg that may be damaged or otherwise imperfect.
 
The situation represents an improvement on 2013, when wonky produce represented around 40% of wasted fruit and vegetables. Yet even now, one in four apples, one in fiveonions and 13% of potatoes grown in the UK are wasted because they’re just not pretty enough.
 
Beyond reducing waste in the weekly shop, we’re seeing a number of initiatives emerge that shine a light on the otherwise invisible impact of food waste. Most – if not all – of which reframe the issue as a benefit for those affected.
 
Oddbox is a subscription service that delivers misshapen and surplus produce, with its founders inspired by the staggering statistic that 20-40% of produce is wasted before it even leaves the farms. To date, they’ve saved almost one million kilograms of “waste” and donated almost 50,000 kilos of it to charities.
 
Social enterprise DayOld sells surplus baked goods, delivering everything from trays of brownies to loaves of bread to office pop-ups and other events, distributing the profits to charities that address child hunger.
 

Cleaning up kitchens

Chefs too stand accused of being slow to make a difference in the kitchen, with hospitality accounting for almost 10% of the food thrown out by shops and consumers.
 
But in recent years we’ve seen the likes of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall use their celebrity to push for policy change. Others have created social enterprises and new concepts, turning food waste into a source of genuine innovation.
 
“Few sectors present the level of opportunity as food does to transform the picture on megatrends such as climate change and biodiversity, while at the same time offering new ways to generate massive economic benefits.” 
Emma Chow, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
 
Chef Massimo Bottura, recipient of three Michelin stars at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, opened Refettorio Felix in 2017. At the London-based centre, he and other world-renowned chefs prepare three-course meals for rough sleepers, the homeless and those with mental health and substance misuse issues – all using food that would otherwise be discarded.
 
Dan Barber, whose restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns placed 28th in the 2019 World’s Best 50 Restaurants List, brought his pop-up, WastED, which created gourmet dishes from traditionally discarded ingredients, to the rooftop of Selfridges in 2017. Guest chefs included Nuno Mendes, Raymond Blanc and Clare Smyth, and ingredients ranged from vegetable pulp to waste-fed pig parts.
 
Many UK restaurants and bars have since taken steps to do the same: Silo in Brighton mills its own flour for bread and recycles all its food waste, while Cub in London creates zero-waste cocktails. Toast Ale brews beer made from bread that would otherwise go to waste.
 
“Without a doubt we've seen awareness of the problem of food waste increase significantly over the past couple of years,” Clarke says. “Unfortunately that awareness doesn't include an understanding of the fact that half of all food waste takes place in the home – most people assume food waste is a problem just for retailers.”
 

Waste as inspiration

It isn’t only recognised names tackling the social and environmental issues associated with food waste. Heightened awareness about the impact of food waste has given birth to entirely new businesses.
 
Rubies in the Rubble has been “rescuing fruit in a pickle since 2011”. Its condiments, including ketchup, mayonnaise and relishes, sell in some of the UK’s leading retailers. Flawsome sell a range of juices made from imperfect fruit; in the first nine months of 2019, the brand had redirected 7.5 million fruits destined for the dump into their juices.
 
Hannah McCollum, founder of ChicP, says: “Businesses are very vocal on this issue, but when it comes to doing something themselves, it’s too easy to do nothing.” After witnessing “colossal” amounts of food go to waste in the catering and events industry, she began making hummus dips from surplus vegetables.
 
In the short three and a half years since she started the business, McCollum says: “Customers now are definitely much more aware of the risks associated with food waste and want to do their bit. Be it through composting, buying only what they need or moving towards vegetarianism.” Businesses like hers are simply facilitating this lifestyle change.
 
Beyond waste-free alternatives to the products we buy, there are a number of technology-focused solutions centred on the way we consume, rather than what we consume.
 
OLIO connects neighbours with one another so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. Kitche is a new app that helps users keep track of the food they already have at home, while Karma is a platform where grocery stores, restaurants, cafés and bakeries can upload surplus food and enlist new customers.
 

The circular economy

Not just in food but in many industries we see this same transition being made: a move from a linear ‘make, use, dispose’ model to a closed loop in which waste itself is viewed as a resource, meant to be reintegrated, regenerated and reutilised. Beyond bans on plastic straws, pioneers are incorporating these circular principles into the design and operation of their businesses, reducing waste and keeping resources in play as long as possible.
 
With the FAO estimating that one-third of food produced globally is lost or wasted and one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aimed at cutting retail and consumer food waste in half by 2030, the issue is gaining real traction.
 
“I firmly believe that the circular economy will become the new normal – because it has to be,” says Clarke. “This year Earth Overshoot Day (the day of the year in which humanity has used up all the resources the Earth can replenish in a year) was on 29 July. So, by definition, our current linear, wasteful model of consumption cannot continue, and it will have to be replaced by the circular economy in every sector.”