Welcome to the waste land

BY MARK BROATCH
Last updated 05:00 09/08/2009
waste
Photo: iStock
As much as 40% of refrigerator food ends up in the bin.

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IMAGINE counting out $500 of your hard-earned cash, a soft wad of tens, twenties and fifties, and throwing it straight in the rubbish bin. You'd take it as a sign of madness. Yet that's the amount of food each of us bins every year.

We tell ourselves that we are clean and green but, as a country, we waste like there's no tomorrow. The OECD dubs us a "leader" in waste production among its member nations, meaning we produce more waste per person than most other countries in the group. At least we're top of the bill in something. We dumped 3.2 million tonnes of waste into landfills in 2006, according to a Statistics NZ survey, 23% of which was organic waste. And among that, the below-the-waterline iceberg of waste, is food.

If, like Australians, we typically bin 13% of our total food purchases each year and we have no reason to think we are any different from our neighbours more than $2 billion of food is wasted. That's $465 per person per year thrown in the rubbish. And that conservative figure a 2006 estimate suggested 40% of refrigerator food is typically dumped is household waste; it takes no account of the amount lost in the commercial production-distribution-retail cycle, which is certain to be massively larger.

Meanwhile, our foodbanks go begging, our growers and manufacturers are frustrated at the losses, and the resulting waste of food is a "tragic and massive environmental problem", according to British author and campaigner Tristram Stuart.

We are hardly alone. Every American household throws away 96kg of edible food each year, the British 70kg. A 2004 survey found that Australians wasted money on food at a rate more than three times greater than any other goods and services. A study in Sweden found that if supplies were examined from "the plough to the plate", 50% of all food effectively disappeared.

Food waste matters more than simply to our back pocket if we didn't waste so much, at home and as hungry cogs in the nation's wider supplier-distributor-retailer food chain, we could feed our own and the world's malnourished without further despoiling the planet.

Stuart, who spent three years researching Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, says Kiwis do well by some measures compared to other western countries. New Zealand produces 160% of the consumption of its population, he says. Of edible grains it produces 350%. We feed our pigs our food waste. Australia doesn't and no longer does Europe.

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"If you've got waste, the best thing to do is feed it to livestock," says Stuart. "That's what humans domesticated pigs for. Pigs and chickens are very efficient converters of food waste into meat. In the whole of Europe it's banned. Instead of feeding our pigs and chickens with food waste, we're paying the South Americans to destroy the Amazon rainforest to grow soya, which we then ship across the Atlantic to feed to our livestock. And that is globally irresponsible."

Recycling plastics, paper and glass has become second nature, but we largely ignore food waste, possibly because we have become used to the excess that has been built into the food production and retail cycle.

"The waste of food is of inestimable importance," says Stuart. "Food production requires a huge amount of energy, so roughly a third of our greenhouse gas emission comes from food production."

And richer countries are wasting up to half of their food. "If we're wasting land, we're depriving other people in the world of the produce of that land. We're buying food on the world market, the same world market as people in Africa and India and Pakistan, and if we're buying food and then chucking it away, we're actually taking the food out of their mouths. We're hoarding land for our own benefit, only to fill rubbish bins."

Stuart, who spent many years as a freegan retrieving discarded food from retail skips, points out the many holes in our current way of doing things. He says, for example, that the "use-by" dates on food products allow large margins of error, and effectively encourage consumers to handle and store products badly. In the US retailers give away far more of their excess stock to foodbanks for two reasons, he says. In countries with a weak welfare state, the philanthropic initiative usually is more developed, and due to "Good Samaritan" laws. These protect food donors from liability when donating should the product given in good faith later cause harm to the recipient, and put some responsibilities back on foodbanks.

He fingers supermarkets in particular for the waste they create during the retail process, by pushing over-ordered stock back on to their suppliers and encouraging consumers through offers such as buy-one-get-one-free.

The awareness of waste has reached critical mass. Around the world urban people are planting vegetable gardens and considering previously laughable ideas such as keeping bees. A new book called On Guerrilla Gardening instructs people on planting vegetables and flowers on unused public land (see right). An Oregon couple, Amy and Adam Korst, horrified at Americans throwing out 2kg of rubbish every day, are blogging about trying to reduce their annual rubbish to that amount at www.greengarbageproject.com. This week a Melbourne university lecturer living in a hut he built himself released Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture.

Critics like Stuart say the current production/distribution/retail model builds in excess and, to be good corporate citizens, supermarkets have a role in reducing waste through the cycle, especially food waste. The Sunday Star-Times asked the two main supermarket chains, Progressive and Foodstuffs, if they would like to reduce their food waste, and if so, what measures they were taking to do so. Neither addressed the food waste issue directly, but Progressive spokesman Bill Moore responded to the question of food safety around disposal and donation: "As a supermarket retailer, we take food safety very seriously. We strictly adhere to all health regulations in relation to the shelf life of product in our stores and the disposal of food." He reiterated the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, which demands that all packaged food items with a shelf life of less than two years have a "best before" or "use by" date.

"A `best before' date indicates that the product's quality [freshness, texture, taste etc] will be reduced after that date; however, there is no immediate health risk. It is not illegal to sell a product past its `best before' date. It is illegal to sell a product after a `use by' date. Our policy is that we do not sell any product that has past its `best before' or `use by' date. It must be safely disposed of."

We provided information on Good Samaritan laws but no further comment was forthcoming.

Foodstuffs South Island also didn't respond to our questions on waste reduction, but loss prevention manager Dave Norton said because the business is a co-op and stores are individually owned and operated under the Foodstuffs brands, "collective data may not therefore be available as each store is run independently". He said many Foodstuffs stores donate near expired or stock with slightly damaged packaging to foodbanks and social welfare/community agencies and also animal welfare agencies.

Progressive's Moore said the chain supports a wide range of charities, and will donate saleable products that are damaged in packaging or labelling.

"This is done at the store level, hence centralised statistics are not kept. All supermarkets dispose of various amounts of fresh food waste, eg meats or fruits and veges that are unfit for human consumption. For safety, legal and commercial reasons, we cannot give away food that has passed its `best before' date, including fruit." (This has opened up opportunities: Reduced to Clear shops in Wellington have begun selling goods from manufacturers that may be past best before dates.)

Many large manufacturers also give away food. Rather than donate its excess, baker Goodman Fielder has been producing specifically for charities since 2006, handing over 150,000 loaves annually through the likes of the Salvation Army and Auckland City Mission. Demand continues to grow and the company is happy to add foodbanks to its list, says marketing innovation manager Paul Harris. George Weston Foods, whose brands include Tip Top and Berger, also bakes fresh for schools and other charities.

Baker's Delight, a franchisee operation with 33 shops in New Zealand, gives away $1m of excess product each year, says country manager Colleen Milne. At the end of the day, bread is given to charities such as Auckland City Mission, women's refuges and church groups.

Is it enough? Auckland City Mission's Diane Robertson is grateful for the dozens of donor companies, from Sanitarium to Hubbards to Tegel to Fonterra. They do get some vegetables from a few Auckland New Worlds but in general don't get enough fruit, veges or meat, she says, partly because of supplier concerns about safety. The charity spends an "enormous" amount on milk as it's difficult to maintain supply and quality.

Robertson has considerable sympathy to the idea of having more leeway under health and safety legislation for producers "too nervous" to donate perishable goods. Some already ask the Mission to sign a waiver. "Sometimes [companies] throw out stuff which is perfectly, perfectly useable. I think there's a lot of waste, and there is, in some cases, an attitude in the past that they're not prepared to let it go anywhere else. They'd rather waste it. We need to get more of it."

There is corporate interest in "Good Samaritan" concepts and other changes that might cut food waste. Ian Greenshields, Goodman Fielder's Melbourne-based director of corporate affairs, says: "In general we would be interested in looking at any proposal that would be of potential benefit in respect of the best use of food manufacturing waste. We constantly look for ways to minimise and use waste more effectively, such as, for example, stock feed or pet food."

George Weston Foods' head Laurie Powell says bakers have to replenish bread stocks in supermarkets daily. Returns usually get made into breadcrumbs and heavier grain loaves often go to pig farms. Bread stays fresh for several days, as consumers who store it properly know well, and he says he would be quite happy for the frequency of replacement to be lower.

Horticultural NZ head Ken Robertson says growers take considerable pride in what they produce and keeping it at optimal temperatures, and "it frustrates the hell out of them at times" when supermarkets allow it to spoil by not keeping fruit and veges correctly chilled.

Turners & Growers, one of the largest growers, says margins on produce are so tight that it has to sell what comes in for auction. Very little produce gets dumped and what is imported effectively has zero waste, a spokeswoman said.

Stuart says large retailers frequently place strong financial pressure on suppliers to over-produce. Can the relationships be improved? Powell, for example, says his company has a "pretty good" relationship with the supermarkets, though he acknowledges occasional "fire fights" around subjects like price. He says business relationships in other retail markets, such as the UK, are quite different. The day after the Sunday Star-Times spoke to Stuart, the British Competition Commission issued a more rigorous code of practice to protect suppliers of supermarkets and is proposing to set up an ombudsman to rule on disputes.

Measures are being made to reduce waste in general. The Waste Minimisation Act was passed last September by the previous government. The act administered by the Ministry for the Environment, currently being downsized now applies levies of $10 a tonne on landfill dumping that goes into a fund. About half goes to territorial authorities Christchurch, for example, is using funding to compost green waste and half to a fund that can be applied for by those with waste minimisation proposals.

Voluntary "product stewardship" accreditation schemes are being developed for the minimisation of packaging, construction waste, e-waste, oil, refrigerants and the like. Zero Waste NZ director Jo Knight says there is always going to be waste, so we should be using it to produce energy and create jobs. Auckland produces 180,000 tonnes of waste each year, 48% of it organic. Some European and Asian countries are already converting food waste into biogas and on into electricity and CNG. Tristram Stuart says Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, are taking food waste seriously. South Korea has banned sending food waste to landfill entirely, and has diverted 98% to compost or livestock feed.

It is inevitable, Knight says, that New Zealand homes will eventually divide their refuse into three bins: recycling, organic and "residual" material that might be recycled in future.

Many local firms are working on a smaller scale to cut food waste. In Wellington, for example, Kai to Compost collects food waste from restaurants and supermarkets for composting.

And we are feeding much of our current food waste to pigs. Biosecurity NZ says it was decided to allow pigs to be fed food scraps not specifically to reduce waste but because it was deemed the least labour-intensive way to manage biosecurity risk.

There are signs that New Zealand consumers are seeing the light on waste. Perhaps they still grab the milk from the back of the fridge and the freshest loaves of bread, but more are aware that tasty, blood-red tomatoes only come in summer.

The food crisis of 2007 and current worldwide recession have been a corrective, Stuart acknowledges. People now grow more and waste a little less.

But we shouldn't have needed a corrective to reduce what we buy, cut waste and keep company profits healthy. Stuart says the one advantage of New Zealand being a farming country is that "people are very aware of the land and where food comes from".

In Europe, America, Japan, he says, there is a disconnect.

"We are now an urban species... and the further you are from the land, the easier it is to forget what food production entails... We've come to think of food as a factor of what we can afford financially, not what the planet can afford and what the rest of the inhabitants of this planet can afford."

Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Penguin, $30.

- Sunday Star Times

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