Don't waste your food waste!
Caroline Edey van Wyk
Digital content specialist
SA wastes almost a third of all the food we produce. In a country where almost half of the population is food insecure, this is not only illogical but unethical. There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we view "waste" so we can unlock the value in the energy that sits at the bottom of our rubbish bins, or landfills.
Listen to the podcast
In this podcast, Wayne Harpur of Urban Farms Recycling discusses food waste management and what we can do to save our back pockets and the environment.
If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest polluter, after USA and China.
10 to 15 years
Skip to sections that interest you most, or read the transcript below.
01:57 What constitutes food waste & why farmers are the worst culprits
Caroline: So when we talk about food waste, what exactly are we referring to?
Wayne: Essentially food waste is defined as the waste produced in the entire food production system. So it includes food wasted at the farm in the processing and packaging. During distribution, retail and then finally, I guess the real waste at a consumer and kitchen level.
CEVW: So what foods are wasted the most?
WH: So about 50 percent is wasted at a farm level. And if you’re looking at that, its mainly fruit, veg and grains that are the highest amount of waste.
CEVW: Why is it so high in the agricultural area?
WH: So, its often to do with out-of-spec, over-ripe, over-size - anything that doesn’t fit into the retailer's basket of goods that they’re wanting will be disposed of at the farm. Mainly due to pricing, so the farmers don’t get offered a good enough price to be it worth transporting the food off the farm. So it’s better to be just left.
CEVW: These so-called “ugly bananas” how are they disposed of?
WH: Well they’re often used to just compost on the farm. Um, but that’s obviously one of the opportunities that exists, is having a look at this ugly fruit and veg and see what we can do with it because it is still 100 percent nutritious and good food, it just doesn’t look like the perfect tomato that the consumer is expecting at a retail store.
CEVW: You said about 50 percent of all the food wasted happens on farms, but how much food is wasted overall in South Africa?
WH: In South Africa, we are looking at around 10 million tons of the 31 million tons produced annually. So, that is equivalent to 1650 elephants worth of food a year.
CEVW: But that just seems insane, when you think about how many people are actually starving – what is the best way to redirect all that food waste to those that need it?
WH: It's taking a business opportunity and connecting it with the farmer, so ultimately there needs to be an incentive for the farmer for that food to actually go into that system to become food for a population. We do see that internationally, the waste on farms are higher in first world countries due to more picky consumers, and also another thing in that is also the distance to market. So, in first world countries often there a big difference in where the farm is and where the consumer sits so there’s a lot of wastage just built into that system. There are obviously opportunities, In South Africa we certainly have not only hunger issues but we also have hidden hunger issues, or malnutrition. So, a lot of our population first will go hungry because they don’t have access to food, and secondly they effectively maybe getting food, but is it nutritionally good for
03:46 Getting back to a natural cyclical system. We have enough to feed the world
CEVW: And that has far-reaching consequences in terms of mental development, physical development. To what extent do Urban Farms Recycling get involved and who are your main stakeholders and tell me a bit about your business?
WH: So effectively when we’re looking at food waste its best to go back to what a natural system is because many people have lost contact with how nature even works. Industrial agriculture has all been about fertilizer, big mono-crops and that’s not how nature really works. There’s this misconception that if you don’t fertilise, you aren’t able to produce enmasse or get the productivity that is needed to feed the world. So first of all, to feed the world- obviously if we cut out that huge food waste component we are taking a giant step towards actually feeding the planet. But secondly, it's actually more about looking at our agricultural system as to how it can feed the planet from a fertility point of view. I always use the example of the Knysna forests – no-one goes in there and drops off a load of fertiliser every year in order to make those trees grow. It’s a natural cycle, so that’s really where urban farms comes in – we’re looking at returning food waste and we’re looking specifically at what I’d call “genuine waste”, so that is food that is uneaten off a plate or preparation waste - scraps, cuttings, peels all of that, that’s “genuine waste” but its not wasted if we look at the system holistically - that needs to be returned to the earth. If you are looking at a plant growing, it is taking nutrients up from healthy living soil. The nutrients lie in the soil, there are millions of microorganisms and critters that live in there that allow natural sources of minerals and nutrients to be absorbed. The plant then takes it up, we the eat the fruit or the leaves of that plant, but effectively all those nutrients that we don’t use should be returned to the earth and there’s a growing knowledge and theory around production of a very robust system by almost feeding the waste of your plant back to the soil and you’re closing that production loop.
05:57 What individuals can do to recycle at home
CEVW: Okay, so let's take it back to something we can all kind of relate too, my husband and I are quite big foodies. We are quite particular with the type of ingredients we want to buy and the ingredients we want to use and invariably when it come to things like herbs. Invariably we throw that away, what should we be doing and what sort of system should we invest in so that we can become part of this recycling solution?
WH: So, first of all, we are talking about bad produce, so let's address the sell-by date which is often on the packaging. The sell-by date is for retailers. It is a legal requirement for retailers to have that on there and effectively sell-by date still leaves a third of the life of that product for you at home, so it is “sell-in-the-shop date”. So that’s pretty much the rule of thumb, you can apply another third onto that. Some products have use-by date, that’s a more accurate
representation when the producer is thinking “this is no longer going to be the quality” it may not be unsafe, it shouldn’t be unsafe, but it may not be the same quality as we put it into the container. When it comes to your basil, fruit and veg – the best is your own judgement. You know what not so nice basil looks like so if it’s got to that point then it should be composted, then in my mind, you’re not producing waste. As long as you’re not throwing it in the bin and it's not going to landfill – you’re not producing waste. It can be used to regrow basil – the best would obviously have basil growing in your garden and pick it as and when you require.
07:25 How organisations like Investec should handle waste management
CEVW: So for an organisation, large corporates like Investec for example who you do partner with to help us with our recycling, what is the process? So, we order something at the restaurant – the meal is not finished completely and it gets taken away, and then what happens?
WH: So effectively, it all starts with a source separation system which we’ll put into your kitchen, so when that waste comes back the organic material/organic food waste is separated and kept separate. Things like cutlery obviously go into the pot wash and serviettes go into another waste stream. That together with the prep-waste, which is obviously generated in the kitchen, then goes down into your waste area and what happens there is the food waste is treated with something called Bokashi, which is an effective micro-organism that stabilises the waste. So, importantly with food waste its obviously volatile so given a couple of days it will start going vrot, rancid, rotten, attract pests, produce odour which is obviously what we don’t want to do because a vital part of our business it obviously controlling our entire carbon footprint. So the amount of time we collect, all of that, so Bokashi plays an important role in stabilising food and secondly, it also allows us to recycle things like meat products, poultry, fish and not just vegetable scraps.
CEVW: Bokashi sounds so much like Kimchi, am I wrong?
WH: It effectively is! It basically mimics the bacteria in your stomach and ferments the food waste. It is Japanese for fermented food waste. So, those clever people came up with it. From there we obviously then collect that food waste, it comes back to our farm in Modderfontein which is effectively a composting facility plus a big worm farm. So first of all, that food waste is mixed with other organic wastes, mainly carbon source, because we need that to
produce to do the first phase of our of our composting. That composting is pretty much normal composting where we're trying to get it up to a certain temperature to kill off any pathogens, any seed germination in our end product. So that's first phase and that's about two months’ worth of processing.
CEVW: How big is this massive recycling plant in Modderfontein?
WH: We've got about a thousand square meters of worm farm and then about 2000 or 3000 squares outside where we do the composting.
CEVW: So this process of recycling and decomposing, what have you. What is the volume that you put in and what is the volume that you get out?
WH: Look, we get everything that we put in out, but over
an extended period of time. But effectively, we work off about a rule of thirds. So even in the composting process, what we put in, we'll get a third out and then in the worm process, we'll get it. But the worms will eat eventually everything. It's just a matter of time. So we are sort of forcing a timescale on them rather than letting them do their thing.
10:23 Every tonne of food waste recycled saves 435 kgs in CO2 emissions
CEVW: Um obviously, this must offset CO2 emissions hugely which is obviously beneficial for the planet and also beneficial for Investec as a corporate. We obviously have to adhere to certain rules. Could you expand on that a bit?
WH: This is really all about reducing the amount, going to landfills, landfills are environmentally expensive areas, even though they may not be financially expensive, which is probably one of the big problems we've got in the industry is it's too cheap to just dispose of waste. But if you're looking directly at food waste, food waste is quite a big carbon emitter, because when food waste rots, it gives off a lot of methane. So, if we're looking at what is saved, it's 435 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per tonne of food waste recycled. So effectively for every ton of food waste, you're saving four hundred and 35 kilograms of CO2. So it is quite a significant. A lot of other waste is way lower on CO2 emissions level.
CEVW: Do we have to, do all corporates have to abide by certain CO2 emission reduction?
WH: No, it's very much with the corporates at the moment its sitting more in the sustainability space rather than a legislative framework from government from a waste perspective. Waste is being looked at as from a government perspective of what can be done. That's largely driven by the fact that our landfills are getting full.
11:49 SA’s landfills are 10 to 15 years away from being completely full
CEVW: How much time do we have before landfills are full?
WH: Well, they're talking about having a 2020 ban in Gauteng of any organic waste going to landfill, which is a good target. It's not long to go but whether that will actually come to fruition is another story. I don't think there's the plans in place of actually how to implement that. But yeah, there's not a lot. Between 10 and 15 years of landfill space if we carry on as we go. So that's not long. And the cost of establishing new landfills is very expensive.
CEVW: And a landfill doesn't discriminate in terms of what you can dump in it, correct? I know there are obviously specialized places to dump things like medical waste. And specialize spaces to dump electronics and stuff. But where we find the food waste, is that just literally just... Food and organic matter?
12:35 SA only recycles 10% of waste, but Scandinavian countries import waste
WH: Well, unfortunately, we dump 90 percent of our waste. South Africans recycle about 10 percent of all the waste. So that's a ridiculously low number.
CEVW: And how does that compare to global standards?
WH: Well, if you look at if you look at Scandinavian countries, they import waste because they've got waste to energy plants and their systems are so effective that they run out of waste. But if we look at our corporate partners, it's quite possible to get to 20 per cent comfortably, that is going to landfill and then obviously harder to get to the 10 per cent and eventually a zero waste to landfill, which is a target from a lot of corporate sustainability perspectives. That's definitely what the target is.
CEVW: Sorry, say that again. So you were saying that South Africans, they only recycle 10 percent?
CEVW: And you want us to get to 90 percent?
WH: Yes. 90 percent is quite achievable.
CEVW: Like nationwide or just through private corporates?
WH: Well, if you do the right things, nationwide, I think the fundamental is, is in a corporate situation, it's probably easier to implement, but it's about separating wastes at source. So, you know, in a general corporate where we're talking about food waste and what containers and water bottles people are using, that that can be done. The important thing is to actually separate those streams out. The real opportunities that come when we talk about a circular economy where one person's waste becomes an input for another industry and really closing that cycle.
And if we separate wastes, that can be achievable. And that's really the key. So, I think it comes down to... Scandinavian countries. You have to put these items in specific bins. And if you don't do it, you will be fined. So it comes down to the house and then it makes everything easy. Just imagine you throw everything into one bin and now you expect someone to come and recycle that. First of all, you're gonna get contamination when you put your food waste in there, it's gonna contaminate paper that could have been recycled. To now no longer being able to be recycled. Plus, you're not expecting someone to physically sort through that, which is a horrible job. And that horrible job often ends up just getting being ignored and going to landfill. So the 10 percent that's being achieved is probably due to people rummaging around in bins in South Africa. That's the scary thing.
14:53 All stakeholders need to urgently prioritize recycling. Waste costs SA R10bn annually
CEVW: Wow, because I don't really feel like recycling has ever been hugely prioritized. It certainly doesn't seem like there's been enough emphasis put out there, certainly not from a government perspective or even from a sort of, you know, suburb association perspective.
WH: Yeah. Look, I think it's got a lot to do with legislation and enforcement. If you don't have the right laws in place and you don't enforce them, then nothing's gonna happen. I do think there's some structural things within the actual collection systems of our municipalities that are fundamentally flawed. They talk sustainability normally just in the branding of their vehicles, and that's about it. And it's a bit, it's a missed opportunity because there's value in waste.
CEVW: Huge amount of value. So maybe that dovetails quite nicely into my next question. There's obviously a massive economic impact. If one was to properly handle, food waste, waste at large, I suppose. Could you sort of give us an idea of how much this waste costs South Africa?
WH: So, we are looking at a figure of 10 billion rand in terms of food waste, annually. And that's the financial cost. Obviously if you consider that 50 percent of what is produced at the farm level, is wasted then your wasting 50 percent of the farmers effort to produce that you're wasting 50 percent of the water. So South Africa uses about 40 percent of its water for agriculture. So that's a fifth of the water. One and a half trillion liters of water. Well, 600000 Olympic size swimming pools of fresh water that we can ill afford to throw away is wasted on food production. And then there's obviously there's an estimated billion Rand worth of energy that goes into that wasted food waste and a combined four tons of CO2 emissions that is generated by farming practice that is never, ever going to reach a mouth.
CEVW: So how do you get involved with farmers? Do you, do you get involved with that segment of the chain?
WH: I think that's the big opportunity, especially if we look at the circular economy being a paradigm shift. And it's happening in other places in the world. There's a movement called it Ugly Fruit and Veg movement, which is literally a social media movement that is starting to have an impact. International retailers, are actually starting to have ugly fruit and veg sections in their store where consumers can choose. And I think that's a vital aspect of this is actual consumer behavior.
CEVW: Yes. And all those ugly fruits sold at a discount at the same rate?
WH: They would be sold at a discount. But a realistic price to the farmer. Because effectively it’s got exactly the same nutrient profile. It's just not as pretty or as straight.
CEVW: What they should do is, they should do a little test where they get customers to blindfold themselves and then feed themselves an ugly tomato versus a perfect looking one. And realistically, see if they can taste the difference.
17:40 What can YOU do? Buy locally, buy seasonally & invest in a recycling kit
WH: I think one of the fundamental things, when we look at consumer business behavior, is actually getting closer to supply. So the question of how do you reduce food waste? Well, the first thing is changing your buying. Buy locally, buy from farmers that you know or retailers that are close to the farmers. And in that way, and also buying seasonally is incredibly important. That's a whole another story. If we bring in the air miles associated with food. And obviously because of air miles and long transit routes, then the waste just increases. So the closer we can get to where the food comes from, one the nutrition is higher because it was picked more recently. And two, you're cutting out all that unnecessary waste and unnecessary carbon footprint of moving food around.
CEVW: Are there any opportunities to produce more kits that people can take home themselves and are you in that business at all?
WH: Home Bokashi kits. Easy to use. Simple to use. The problem with them always lies with where to put it afterward. So that's the only caveat and that needs to go into the compost, a separate compost system at your house. Or alternatively, the best way and actually the simplest way is for it to be buried in the garden. That will over time fertilize the area where it's put in. So yeah, Bokashi is an anaerobic system. So, at the end of the process, the food waste actually looks pretty much like the day you put it in because it doesn't rot. Right- So it's not going brown and green and all sorts of funny colors. But the issue is that those bacteria are not colonized and have broken down the cell structure. When you put it into soil, all those micro-organisms come and have a field day of breaking it down.
CEVW: And how much is one of these little systems? How big are they and how much are they?
WH: So they are generally based on a 20 or 25L bucket. For a
household you’ll normally have two of them because you need to let it ferment, so it needs to sit there for two weeks before you can use it. So, it depends on your household but normally two buckets would work for a house. One’s fermenting, one’s getting filled up and then it goes into your garden or compost heap.
CEVW: Do you work with any like complexes, that you know don’t have enough garden space or area to sustain this, but the complex might?
WH: You know the issue with that comes back to legislation.
So, the government is very reluctant to give away the fees that they charge for refuse removal. So, there’s work being done around complexes and especially big estates, where they wanna say you don’t need to service us, we’ll do it ourselves. Especially bigger estates which now have landscaping, they’re seeing the value in what can be produced and cut down costs. So that would be the simplest legislation change and things would change very fast from there. But while you’re still getting charged for a service that you’re not using – people are reluctant and budgets are tight so that’s a big hurdle.
20:34 If food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd biggest carbon emitter, behind USA and China
CEVW: And how urgent is this need for us to all become Food Waste Warriors?
WH: I think it's pretty urgent. I think from a social perspective, just having people that are hungry and this waste, just seems imbalanced. Ridiculous, it's actually criminal. So that needs to change. That’s one area. The second area is all the wasted resources that are going into producing something that never goes into feeding someone. And then, I guess on a more fundamental level and a climate change perspective the whole food system, in my opinion, gets a bit of a bad rep because its seen as a quite of an environmental monster. So if we look at food waste, if it was a country it would be the third-biggest carbon emitter behind the USA and China. So it’s a significant problem. Obviously eliminating the waste largely eliminates that problem but I think also to look at our agricultural systems and to look at more regenerative systems.
About the author
Caroline Edey-van Wyk
Colloquially known as Investec’s “storyteller,” Caroline curates and produces all the content that underpins Investec's Out of the Ordinary brand promise. She works across the business but specialises in the areas of Sustainability, CSI, Sponsorships and HR. Caroline holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree in Political Science and Broadcasting - cum laude. Before she joined Investec she was a broadcast journalist at Sky News and eNCA.
Receive Focus insights straight to your inbox