Rotting food deadly to the environment
While decomposing food in a landfill is deadly to the environment, it has tremendous potential in composting bins; however, this requires diverting discarded food away from landfills
It might be difficult to believe that the forgotten, rotting tomato at the back of the fridge could be one of the biggest challenges to the global environment, but food waste contributes an estimated 4,4-billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which costs developing countries around US$ 310 billion (R4,3 trillion) and developed countries about US$ 680 billion (R9,6 trillion).
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) of the United Nations notes: “If food wastage were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world.” It would rank after China and the United States (US) according to 2011 data.
Aside from the impact on global warming, food waste is concerning as it leads to the waste of natural resources and labour – not to mention the large numbers of people who go without food. The FOA estimates that a third of all food produced globally goes to waste. South Africa is no exception.
According to the World Wide Fund (WWF) South Africa, around 10-million tonnes of food (valued at R6,15 billion) goes to waste each year with fruits, vegetables and cereals accounting for 70 percent of the losses.
The energy used to produce the food waste in South Africa can, reportedly, power the City of Johannesburg for roughly 16 weeks, while the water required could fill over 600 000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. About 90 percent of this food waste ends in landfills where it emits methane gas and carbon dioxide.
Diverting waste from landfills
“When food scraps lie against plastic (as happens in landfill sites), the area gets no oxygen. It starts to rot and releases methane gas,” explains Craig Bartlett, research and development director at Organic Bin – manufacturers of compost bins. The company believes that on-site composting is an ideal way of diverting food waste from landfills.
South African landfills were 94-percent full in 2017 with many remaining open long after they were due to be closed. Diverting food waste through on-site composting reduces the methane gasses released, while also addressing the lack of space in landfills. According to research undertaken by Organic Bin, composting food waste reduces food costs by 4,2 percent and kitchen consumables by 11,8 percent.
“The beating heart of these bins is an organic micro-mix of the best bacteria and Lumbricus Terrestris (earth worms),” explains micro-mix developer Gavin Atwell. “It’s a beautiful cycle to create organic food for plants.”
Food waste can be the unconsumed or rotten food thrown out by consumers, but it can also refer to the food wasted during the packaging and transport process, which is commonly referred to as food loss.
Reducing food loss
Most of the fruits and vegetables that spoil, do so during the processing and packaging stage. In fact, an estimated 25 percent of food waste is a result of packaging, according to a 2016 study titled: A roadmap to reduce food waste in the US by 20 percent, undertaken by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data (ReFED).
Another 20 percent of food loss is as a result of a breakdown in the cold chain, according to the Cool Chain Association (CCA). About 40 percent of all food transported requires some form of refrigeration.
ReFED suggests solutions across the food chain to assist in reducing food loss including better packaging, more effective transportation, donations and recycling. It estimates that these solutions can divert 2,6-million tonnes of food waste from US landfills and add US$ 7,7 billion (R109 billion) to the US economy annually.
Suggestions by ReFED include removing the “sell by date”, which can cause confusion among consumers, introducing packaging that helps slow down the spoiling process in perishable foods like fruit, and introducing a cold chain certification system.
Food loss of about 18 000 t to the value of US$ 32 million (R453 million) can be prevented by addressing the challenges in the cold chain, according ReFED. The CCA is focusing on reducing food loss by creating better transparency and data sharing throughout the cold chain.
The American Journal of Transportation quotes CCA treasurer Eric Mauroux: “This opens up a new way of working, where we are not pinpointing the excursion, but looking at the journey as a whole and developing solutions.”
Monitoring the produce through the entire supply chain can assist in pinpointing areas that are lacking, or instances where the cold chain is broken, which can result in food loss. Information sharing can also assist in improving inventory management to reduce the time an item remains on the shelf.