Food Loss vs. Waste: What’s the difference?

Food waste can be a challenging topic to study. From difficulties in quantifying food waste to estimating its impacts, a consistent point of discussion in the literature is defining the terms used to study food waste.

Among most parties working on this issue, there is typically a distinction made between “food waste” and “food loss”. Although the definition of these terms is not universally agreed upon, Thyberg & Tonjes (2016) defines them as follows:

Food Loss: “A decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption.”

Generally speaking, this is an aspect of waste generation that as consumers, we are less likely to contribute to. Food loss is typically driven by infrastructure limitations, climate and environmental factors as well as quality, aesthetic or safety standards. Food loss most often occurs at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food chain.

Food Waste: “Food which was originally produced for human consumption but then was discarded or was not consumed by humans. This includes food that spoiled prior to disposal and food that was still edible when thrown away.”

Food waste typically occurs at the retail and consumer level and is driven by decisions made by consumers and businesses who consider quality, aesthetics and/or safety standards. Food waste as defined here is more directly linked with consumer behaviour.

It is interesting to consider whether these two terms elicit different responses. Does one evoke a feeling of guilt more than the other?

I personally associate a more negative connotation with the term “waste” versus the term “loss”. Loss implies a lack of control over the issue and therefore, a lack of responsibility. However, using the word “waste” more directly implies responsibility. What I hear in this context is that loss is inevitable, but waste should be avoidable.

And yes, food waste to a great extent is avoidable. However, are evoking feelings of guilt through the naming process effective in improving consumer food waste behaviour? In this case, we must consider whether the negative connotation promotes more conscientiousness about the issue or whether it discourages engagement.

Some have attempted to offer alternative definitions by, for example, substituting wasting with “discarding”, a term that is thought to reduce implied judgment among consumers (Neff, Spiker, & Truant, 2015).

My question to leave you with is this: Would we feel less guilty about losing, discarding or wasting food? And more importantly, does how we define a term actually impact subsequent behaviour?

References:

Neff, R. A., Spiker, M. L., & Truant, P. L. (2015). Wasted food: U.S. consumers’ reported awareness, attitudes, and behaviors. PLoS ONE, 10(6), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0127881

Thyberg, K. L., & Tonjes, D. J. (2016). Drivers of food waste and their implications for sustainable policy development. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 106, 110–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2015.11.016

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Flashfood app to bring discounted surplus food to Toronto

 

Recently, more and more cities are beginning to use apps that help deter food waste while providing discounted food to consumers. Apps such as Montreal’s Ubifood have seen startling success by providing a virtual platform for users to buy discounted surplus food. These programs work to reduce food waste by connecting hungry consumers with willing sellers who have surplus food on the verge of going bad. With this approach, consumers, sellers, and the planet benefit.

Set to release a beta soft launch in Toronto this August 2016, Flashfood has similar aspirations to reduce waste, while benefiting both sides involved.

“Flashfood is essentially the discount food rack on your cellphone and it’s a means for grocery stores, restaurants, food vendors, being able to resell their surplus food before they’re going to throw it out,” Flashfood CEO Josh Domingues explained in an interview with City TV.

Domingues hopes to expand Flashfood Canada-wide and eventually, go global.

“People have signed up from Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Italy, the States, India, Brazil” he told City TV. “It’s caught on.”

View the Flashfood website here to sign up for notifications relating to the app’s launch.

 

Reducing Food Waste in Korea

In 2013, Korea brought into effect the Marine Environment Management Act, banning the disposal of food waste water into the ocean in order to comply with the London Convention. With this new law came a serious crack-down on food waste in Korea. In a small and densely populated country, and one where the standard of living has grown so quickly, waste was becoming a serious problem. New systems were put in place, and now the significance of such changes can be seen.

Residents were accustomed to a pay-as-you-go system for waste, but in 2013  this changed from a flat collection rate to a pay-by-weight system  for food waste. This was put in place for residents, but also businesses and restaurants.

In parts of Seoul, smart disposal systems were implemented where individuals were given ID cards that are scanned before the waste is dropped into waste bins and weighed. In other areas, residents must purchase specific bags that are priced by volume.

“SK Telecom, Korea’s largest wireless carrier, has designed RFID food waste bins with equipment that will weigh food waste to the nearest gram. Photo: KIM GYONG HO / JEJUWEEKLY.COM”

In the neighborhoods where  the smart disposal system has been implemented, Seoul has seen a 30% decrease in food waste.  Filmmaker Karim Chrobog has created a short documentary on the changes in South Korea as part of the e360 video series “Wasted” (the whole thing is worth watching). To get a bigger picture of the changes, you can watch the video here.

For residents, this strict regulation has created incentives to lower waste (or learn some small scale composting skills!), but some might argue that it is excessively strict. No one can argue, however, that it hasn’t made a difference: in a relatively short amount of time, waste in neighbourhoods with a pay-by-weight system decreased their food waste by 30%. Not only is the waste being reduced by consumers, the collected waste is not headed for landfill but for animal feed, fertilizer, or conversion to electricity. These laws also target waste across multiple sectors, in contrast to, for instance, the recent law in France requiring only large supermarkets to donate excess edibles to charities. It’s possible too that, as mentioned in the film, food retailers and restaurants concerned with their bottom line will do more to reduce waste, but also might make more of an effort to connect with charities for the waste that still remains. The changes made in Korea do involve high costs and technology as well as some ‘tough love’ – laying down a stricter system – but it seems to be getting the desired results!

For more on how Korea’s Ministry of Environment is tackling food waste check out:

http://www.asiatoday.com/pressrelease/south-koreas-food-waste-solution-you-waste-you-pay

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/27/food-waste-around-world

http://www.earth911.com/food/south-korea-charging-for-food-waste/

Hope for the end of food waste

Sometimes it’s all too easy to feel like an issue is too big or beyond ourselves. Environmental issues often fall into this as they can feel disconnected or beyond the scope of the individual consumer.

I’m not trying to get people down, but rather to take heart in something I like about studying food waste. In this case, the huge environmental (and social, and economic) problem is very much one of which the average consumer is a part: that is the beauty of the issue. According to a report from last year, 47% of food waste in Canada is created at the household level, making it the largest sector, as can be seen in the chart.

VCMC - Fig. 4.1

From the Value Chain Management Centre report:  “$27 Billion” Revisited

While I don’t mean to oversimplify (there are certainly structural changes which also need to occur), consumers do play a major role, as we can see from the fact that the majority of food waste occurs at the household level. The beauty of this is that we do have a great deal of power to change by altering our waste creation and disposal practices.

Perhaps I’m more talking to myself, but I think sometimes we need the sense that a difference can be made. Because so much of the waste occurs in the home, changing household behaviour can have an enormous impact. Consumers can reduce the amount of waste they create by adopting proper food storage or careful meal planning, but consumers can also create demand for less wasteful products, or buy products close to their best before date in order to cut down on retail waste. Even just being aware of food waste has shown to cut down on it.

I like to take heart in this,  that individuals have so much power in this area.  While consumers may feel overwhelmed by the need for systemic change, and it is important, I think it’s equally important to remember to start with the easy changes, including steps that de-normalize food waste. Food waste is complicated, but there are some areas of low hanging fruit, like starting with eating your leftovers and composting inevitable food scraps. The reality is that changing policy can make the food system more efficient, but that still won’t cut out food waste in homes, where so much of it occurs – that requires changes in consumer behaviour. And here’s where I think there’s so much potential: consumers have already been seen to produce less waste once they are conscious of it, and with the growing attention to our food and now the waste associated with it, I feel more confident that food waste is manageable and that we will start to see changes.

 

The intricate web of food waste

food issue map

Designer Christina Amelie Jensen created this web to show the ‘issue space’ of food waste in the restaurant context. One can imagine how much more complex the web would become if it were to include other sectors. For instance, how would it change if it were looking at the household level? This web is useful for beginning to think about the many connected actors and processes that contribute to the creation and disposal of food waste.

Image from: http://designobserver.com/article.php?id=34178

More Food Waste Art

Brazilain artist Narcelio Grud uses food waste to make a bold statement. The project “Tropical Hungry” was created using food collected from markets, which was then separated by color and used as a sort of paint to create the wall mural. Like other food waste art, this piece is a bit morbid and unsettling as it confronts the viewer with a grotesque image of waste.

Another artist is working with wasted bread to capture the attention of passersby and call attention to the massive food wasting. Markus Jeschaunig created the piece “Arc de Triomphe” from stale bread, metal, wood, and concrete to create a replica of its namesake. The installation was displayed at the “street gallery-Lendwirbel Festival 2012” in Graz, Austria where it won the “Environmental Award of the City of Graz”. The arch is typically thought of as a monument to victory and glory, but in this context it pays a twisted homage to the excess and waste of civilization.

At least this kid knows bread is food not waste!

Food waste fueling your flight?

Farm waste, animal fat, and your everyday food waste could be what fuel your next flight. Farm waste and food waste can be broken down by anaerobic digestion and used to create biogas and power. This fuel is being seen as a potential renewable fuel for the transportation industry and one that creates significantly fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels.

At Fair Oaks Farms in Fair Oaks, Ind., an anaerobic digester converts half a million gallons of cow and hog manure each day into enough renewable energy to run a fleet of 42 milk delivery trucks.

United Airlines has already purchased 15 million gallons of renewable jet fuel made from beef tallow by Alt Air Fuels, and plans to use the fuel this year for Los Angeles-to-San Francisco flights. Additionally, the airline has invested $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc., which uses household garbage, including food waste, for its fuel feed stock. There is still work to be done in the field (particularly finding efficient locations and ways of creating this renewable energy), but it may not be far off before flying on our food waste becomes the norm.