Working together to reduce food waste in Australia

Food waste is a serious issue that affects our economy, environment and community, yet the quantity of food waste generated across the Australian economy had never been determined. How much is wasted each year? What food types have the most waste? Where in the supply chain does it occur? And what can be done to address it?

Globally, a third of all food is thought to be wasted. While a proportion of food waste is unavoidable, reducing the volume of unnecessary food waste by even a small amount can have a huge impact on the environment. From a climate perspective, this is largely due to the fact that a significant quantity of food waste ends up in landfill, where it gradually breaks down and releases methane - a greenhouse gas with 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

The decay of food waste in landfills is not the only environmental impact. The needless production, harvesting, transporting, and packaging of wasted food also generates greenhouse gases and strains our natural resources. When food is wasted all of the resource inputs used in its production - land, water, energy, and fuel - are also lost. Such wastage is also an economic cost.

At the same time, food rescue pioneer OzHarvest reports high levels of food insecurity in Australia and estimates 710,000 people rely on food relief each month.

Over the years, a significant amount of work has been done to avoid food waste in Australia. This includes consumer education, improved inventory management, broader sustainability programs, the development of technologies that optimize and improve the transparency of supply chain, and business models that reduce food waste, however it is clear that more needs to be done.

These drivers underpin the Australian Government’s commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3 to halve food waste by 2030.

In 2016 the Australian Government introduced the National Food Waste Strategy to provide framework to give effect to this commitment. The culmination of many months of consultation with industry, academia, the not-for-profit sector, and all tiers of government, the strategy notes that achieving a reduction in food waste is a collective responsibility requiring action by all these actors.

It identifies four key areas that need to be addressed:

• Policy support - identifying areas to target investment, establishing a voluntary commitment program to reduce food waste and legislative reform.
• Business improvements - identifying areas for improvement, supporting technology adoption, encouraging collaboration and normalising food waste considerations into business practices.
• Market development - identifying food waste composition and nutritional value to develop new markets, encourage innovation and connecting food waste sources to users.
• Behaviour change - in both consumers and the food industry workforce.


The National Food Waste Baseline

As part of the Strategy, Arcadis was commissioned to develop the National Food Waste Baseline project - the first detailed quantification of food waste in Australia at a country scale and across the full food supply and consumption chain, from primary production through to consumption and disposal or recovery.

The aim of the project was to examine where food waste is produced (both within the food chain and geographically by state/territory), whether the material is sent to a no-value destination, subject to some form of resource recovery, retained within the food system as animal feed or redistributed to food rescue.

It was also used to identify opportunities for food waste prevention and reduction such as by targeting the sectors and regions generating the most food waste or moving up the waste hierarchy of preferred options, and track performance over time.

“Before we commenced this project, the first thing we had to do was take the definition of food waste in the national strategy – any food material that does not end up as human food – and develop the food waste hierarchy to support that,” Richard Collins, Principal Consultant, Waste Advisory, Arcadis said.

“We worked with the Department of the Environment and Energy and the steering committee of the National Food Waste Strategy to very clearly define at what point food becomes food waste.

“So, pathways such as composting, rendering and energy generation, while acknowledged as some form of value recovery, are nevertheless defined as food waste. This is slightly different to general solid waste, where any recovery process will divert the material from a waste outcome, but is based on international best practice.”

Arcadis sourced contemporary and comparable data on food material sent to 12 types of destinations.

More than 300 organisations across the food supply chain were consulted between March and June 2018, based on written survey templates across the community and direct interviews with key stakeholders. From this, 91 submitted some level of data, while others provided anecdotal and contextual information or informal estimates to help validate the results.

“We focused on companies with the largest market share because they were considered most representative of their sector’s operating practices,” Collins said. “Wherever possible, a selection of small and medium-sized enterprises were also engaged as there waste profile is likely to differ when compared to their larger counterparts.”

The limited prior attention to food waste in Australia and commercial confidentiality constraints resulted in mixed results on data acquisition.

“Many organisations do not have reporting frameworks in place to track their food waste by volume or economic value,” Collins said. “The data collected can be highly variable, with uncertain protocols on data management, food waste definition, and transparency on end destinations.”

The approach to data collection and modelling was designed to address these issues to the fullest extent possible, including assessment of best practice internationally and verifying the approach with project partners RMIT and the UK’s Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP).

“Analysis of the available waste and industry profile data for each sector informed a ‘best fit’ approach to modelling in order to scale up the data to national level. In some cases, the reliance on indicative waste factors and assumptions was relatively high,” Collins said.

The report found that in 2016-17 (the base year), Australia produced 7.3 million tonnes of food waste across the supply and consumption chain. Of this, 2.5 million (34%) was created in our homes, 2.3 million tonnes (31%) in primary production and 1.8 million tonnes (25%) in the manufacturing sector. Australians recycled 1.2 million tonnes of food waste, recovered 2.9 million tonnes through alternative uses for the food waste and disposed of 3.2 million tonnes.

Generation of food waste is not evenly dispersed along the supply and consumption chain. Households and primary production are the largest waste generating sectors, together accounting for 65% of national food waste. Significant volumes are also generated in food manufacturing (24%).

“The National Food Waste Baseline shows us where we should be focusing our efforts,” Collins said. “It also makes it clear that halving Australia’s food waste requires an integrated approach from multiple stakeholders including governments, industry, business, academia, and the community.”

“Households and manufacturing are a major problem which the government will have to step in and address at some point. An increase in consumer education, food apps that help us shop smarter, and business subsidies and grants will all go a long way towards getting on top of this issue.”

Reducing food waste has numerous benefits for the Australian community as a whole. Some of the benefits that can be gained from minimising food waste in Australia include:

• Increased economic opportunities through the development of new products, services, and markets.
• Reduced costs for businesses through lower waste management and disposal fees, and increased profits through efficiency gains.
• Improved food security through effective redistribution of surplus food.
• Reduced costs for households by lowering food bills.
• Reduced environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions.

“Food waste in Australia is a national issue that needs to be addressed on every level,” Collins said. “Now that we know exactly where we should be focusing our attention, it’s time to band together and start actively working towards our goal of reducing food waste by 50% by 2030.”

Arcadis was commissioned by the Australian Government to develop the National Food Waste Baseline project. The National Food Waste Baseline project can be found in The National Food Waste Baseline report by Arcadis.

Richard Collins

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