Will Forcing Retailers to Donate Excess Food Work to Reduce Waste?

There has been a lot of talk about the new law in France which will compel food retailers to donate unsold food rather than throw it out.  Given our work in food waste, we’ve been asked a lot what our thoughts about it are.  I’m scheduled for a 30 minute call in on radio this afternoon so thought I should pull my thoughts together and a blog post seems a reasonable approach to doing that.

First of all – reducing the amount of food that goes to landfill is a good thing.  We should be looking at more ways to do that.   Secondly, talking about food waste is a good thing.  Higher awareness means lower waste – and not just at retail.  Many Canadian retailers already divert product to food banks – largely from distribution centres.  So what could possibly go wrong?

As always, the details will make all of the difference.  Here are a couple of thoughts about implementation.

Where is the line?  Some product that gets thrown out is clearly still edible and could be re-purposed.  I was speaking to a student who regularly “liberates” food from behind food retailers just the other day.  They found 8 wheels of brie and many potatoes and beets just the other day at a single retailer.  I don’t know why it was thrown out but it was clearly still edible and was used.  There is, however, also a significant volume of inedible spoilage.  Who decides whats good and what isn’t?  What happens to the stuff that isn’t?  Will we burden charitable organizations with increased disposal costs?  This needs to be figured out.

What is donatable?  Fridge space is often an issue at food banks.  What if they don’t want it?  Some stuff simply doesn’t move well at a food bank.  What if they don’t want it?

Who pays?  There is already some donation.  We don’t have a good sense of how much edible food is thrown out – although we know there is some.  If retailers have to pay to sort and ship it to charities (assuming they have the capacity or ship it to multiple locations) this needs to be figured out.  The classic operations management newsvendor problem suggests that as disposal costs go up, optimal order quantity goes down.  Availability may decrease.  That may be a good thing.  Diversion (to charitites, animal feed or others uses) is a secondary objective to not generating the waste in the first place (apologies for the suggestion that providing food to the less fortunate as waste).  Grocery stores may be more inclined to run out than to have to manage the diversion of excess.  That may be a very good thing but it doesn’t increase the food going to food insecure individuals.

In principle this is a good idea.  It remains to be seen whether it truly is in practice.

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The Beauty of Ugly Fruit

There has been considerable attention given to Loblaws’ recent announcement of their “Naturally Imperfect “product line.  Naturally imperfect will introduce smaller or slightly misshapen food into grocery stores at a discount.  The idea is to reduce the amount of waste upstream in the value chain and to improve access to these products at lower prices.  Seems like a win win!   I’ve had the chance to speak about it several times and, as always, things become clearer after you’ve spoken so a blog post seemed like a great idea.

A Great Idea

Reducing food waste is a great idea.  Its not clear how much of some of this product is getting thrown out versus diverted into processing.  That’s why we need more research on food waste at all stages of the value chain (a shameless plug for our ongoing project).  What is clear is that some small produce is difficult to put through processing and is thrown out.

Improving access to affordable fruits and vegetables is a great idea.  The price for perfection is higher.  While we spend a lower proportion of our income on food than almost anywhere else in the world, we do have food insecure people and others who perhaps eat less fresh healthy produce than they might if it was more affordable.  Why should we hold everyone’s diet hostage to a misguided standard of beauty.  The nutrition is identical.

Raising awareness of food waste is a great idea.  Our research suggests that the more people think about food and waste, the less food they waste.  Just talking about the issue like this has the real potential to reduce household food waste – which we’ve measured at 4.5 kg per household per week.

Is there a downside?

There are folks at some farm organizations saying that this initiative has the potential to erode the prices they receive for their premium produce.  That might be true but its not clear that it will happen.

1 – The economics of this aren’t as clear as the critics might suggest.

  • if consumers don’t buy it, it won’t matter.  I hardly expect that everyone will buy naturally imperfect so premium products will still exist.  If lot’s of them buy it demand will drive the price up.
  • When prices are lower, total demand increases.  The increase in total demand may increase revenues rather than decrease them.  Its not clear what will happen but this is as plausible as decreased revenues.
  • Even if prices come down, the cost of production includes the produce that is thrown away.  Including that in the total sales means revenue should increase.
  • If the price for imperfect food that is not wasted is too low, the product will get diverted to processing markets rather than retail.  The market will figure it out.

2 – This is not the first time I’ve had someone say we should continue to waste food to support farm returns.  I had someone stand up once at a presentation and say we shouldn’t encourage household food waste reduction because it would lower demand and cost jobs and revenue in the production and processing sector.  Its heartbreaking to consider that we would produce food to throw out just to keep people employed.  Even if prices come down (which I argue above is not a sure thing), do we really want to use resources to produce product just to throw it away?  Consumers can and will make the choice.  Change happens.  This position is indefensible and unsustainable.  I can’t imagine making the argument in any other sector.  We should scrap cars off the assembly line just to keep people in Windsor and Oshawa employed?

We should celebrate this initiative.  We should buy these products.  We should expand it to other product.  We should expand it to other stores.  Everyone, including producers, processors and retailers will be better off in the long run.

Coffee Pods – a Waste Nightmare

I am amazed at some of the things we see thrown out.  It is unbelievable the types of food we see in the garbage.  As we learn more about food waste there will be things we can do to reduce it.  We will never completely eliminate it but we can definitely make progress.  I am a big proponent of reduction but today’s rant is about unavoidable waste – coffee – and more specifically about individual serving coffee pods.  We can’t reduce it unless we drink less coffee and I won’t begrudge anyone their cup of coffee.  I think though we can do better on making sure that all of those grounds don’t end up in landfill.  Coffee grounds are an unavoidable waste but these coffee pods end up in the garbage stream. Its egregious.  The containers are recyclable and the grounds are compostable but together they end up in the garbage stream most of the time.  Its got to stop.  In out audits we looked at household organic waste production.  We saw a huge volume of these coffee pods in the garbage.  They are rarely separated.  Is the convenience really worth the huge volume of garbage we’re generating?  You’re not saving money.  I hope the municipalities with waste bans enforce them on coffee pods.  I wish we could charge a garbage tax on these sorts of products where they end up unnecessarily in the garbage.

coffee pods

There are starting to be programs through which you can pay a premium and ship the pods back through a recycling system.  That hardly seems sustainable with all that extra shipping.  And are people who won’t separate the plastic from grounds are unlikely to pay extra, store them and then ship them back.  This seems like green washing.

This seems so simple.  It drives me crazy.  I won’t use them.  Do you?

With Food Waste, the Devil is in the Details

It is encouraging that we are seeing more and more discussion on food waste.  It is becoming a mainstream issue.  The challenge becomes making real progress on food waste.  I believe we spend too much time on diversion (but that’s my next blog post) but reduction is tough and we need to understand what we’re wasting and why we’re wasting it in order to make progress,  This has been a primary focus of our research.

Gooch et al (2014) make a substantial contribution in attempting to quantify the total value of food wasted in Canada.  Their 31 billion dollar number is staggering.  It is difficult for us as individual Canadians to conceive how we can make a contribution to reducing that number.  Making the numbers relevant to individuals provides, in my opinion, the impetus for motivating real change at the household level.

We’re fortunate to have municipal partners in York Region and the City of Guelph who are interested in the details – in understanding what volume is wasted, what is in the waste and what factors contribute to that waste.  This work is ongoing and we will be back in the field again this summer.  If you’re interested the first academic publication is out (Parizeau, K., von Massow, M., & Martin, R. (2015). “Household-level dynamics of food waste production and related beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in a municipality in Southwestern Ontario,” Waste Management. 35.) but I thought I’d just summarize some of the key findings in that and new research.  These details are the key to motivating reduction.  More work is critical to building that understanding.

We found that the households we evaluated threw out more than 4 kgs of food a week.  Part of the problem is that many of us don’t realize how much we throw out.  About a third of that is unavoidable – trim, banana peels and coffee grounds for example.  That means two thirds is aoidable or at least partially avoidable (that distinction is also a future blog post).  Half of the total (and more than 60% of the avoidable) are fruits and vegetables which means we are throwing out a significant volume of some of the healthiest stuff in our kitchens.  This is clearly some of the product that is hardest to keep fresh but food skills and planning can likely quite easily reduce this volume.  This worth understanding and adds insight to reduction efforts.

We also asked households to complete a survey.  We found that both food awareness and waste awareness (separately) reduced the amount of waste.  Waste awareness is simply a consciousness of and concern about waste.  If you think about it you throw less out.  That makes sense.  Food awareness is simply thinking about food.  The more you think about it and value it, the less likely you are to throw it out.

Much of the communication around food waste diversion and reduction is couched in an environmental context – highlighting the environmental costs and impacts of both production and landfilling food waste.  We found that, while environment does matter, economic and social (food security) implications are more resonant for these households relative to food waste.  It is clear that understanding the specific details of what is wasted and why is critical to making real progress on food waste reduction.  We’re excited to be doing this work.

Stay tuned to this blog as more details become available.

Can food waste be unavoidable?

Thoughts for Food

As we continue to explore the details of food waste one term we use regularly is “unavoidable waste.”  We define unavoidable waste as that part of the food that is inedible – trim, peel etc. While I suppose by the purest definition of waste this type of stuff is really unavoidable waste.  I do wonder if we shouldn’t refer to it differently.  I wonder if we might confuse the issue and almost justify food waste by allowing some of it to be unavoidable.  While there are some things we can’t eat and should throw out (or compost or . . . )

The problem is that unavoidable is subjective.  We will all agree that an apple core is not edible  – well not all but I think its at least generally true that part of it should be discarded.  How much is reasonable though?  I’ve seen many different types of…

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