It's a simple business concept: supply and demand. You want something so I give it to you. Tit for tat. Job done.
However, this is business and it's an art, not a science so it's not quite as straightforward as I've made it seem. There will always be surplus. It doesn't matter if you're an artisan producer or a multinational corporation you will have waste; and, arguably, the more successful you become the more waste you will generate. That waste may be the by-product of production processes or a surplus due to fluctuations in the demand curve but waste is waste.
This has been going on for centuries but the problem has increased dramatically because we, as a nation, have become more particular about the food that we describe as 'fit for human consumption'. It's the difference between the two ends of the cow; and, peculiarly, we prefer the one without a face!
Waste in the food industry has become an enormous problem and is under great scrutiny from an ethical, social, legal and political perspective. The Grocer magazine launched its 'Waste Not Want Not' scheme in 2016 after finding that 'just 47,000 tonnes out of the 2.64 million tonnes of surplus and waste food the industry accounts for is redistributed for human consumption' (2016). This issue seems all the more ugly when we don't have to walk more than 200 yards in any city centre to find someone who could benefit from the products the industry defines as waste. According to FareShare, the food re-distribution charity, there are 8.4 million people in the UK struggling to afford to eat (2016). They estimate that available food surplus would make an additional 650 million meals each year.
Well, I can do the Maths on this one: let's move that food from where it's not wanted to somewhere where it's welcomed. Tit for tat right? Well...
I first became aware of the bureaucracy of waste when I was working at a sandwich shop in Wakefield, aged 18. We weren't particularly good at predicting what we were going to sell and I'd often end up chucking at least one bin bag full of perfectly good bread away each night. After a couple of weeks I decided that I'd let a homeless fella I used to speak to have the bread instead of it going in our smelly bin. This went on for a while until I was caught and given a warning by my boss. I was given some excuse about liability and legalities but I was pig-headed and didn't want to hear it. So I wasn't allowed to give the bag to my homeless hombre but I could, if I double-bagged the bread, leave it at the top of the bin, still visible and almost hanging out, and then give him the nod as I went back into store. Tit for tat restored.
Now, I'll admit that in the naive eyes of my 18-year old self this problem wasn't complicated but now I can see why, corporately, there's more to it than that. However, businesses are now being asked to be more responsible with their waste. This doesn't mean that they dispose of it in a more ecologically-friendly fashion but it means that they are required to actively reduce the amount they are wasting; which is marvellous. As well as being marvellous this could also be a profitable venture. Imagine a world where the only thing not consumed (and therefore sold) on a chicken is the cluck.
Let me bring this issue a little closer to home, on the off chance you haven't picked up the fact that this affects everyone. The Guardian estimates that UK families throw away, on average, 24 meals a month which is pretty devastating; but so what? I want to put a pound sign in front of that for emphasis. Let's we assume that the average family meal costs £5 (I've low-balled that one) and that there are 26.7 million families in the UK (based on ONS household numbers). Are you with me? All that means that UK families are throwing away £3.2bn each month - have I got your attention now?
Now what we have is a commercial, corporate, social, economic and human issue; but what's the solution?
In terms of a specific and tangible solution I haven't seen a better laid plan than the one launched by The Grocer this year. Its campaign has three aims as outlined on the website (2016):
- For the industry to more than double the current amount of food sent for redistribution to 100,000 tonnes, which equates to 100 million extra meals, by 2018.
- For the government to incentivise the industry to redistribute edible food, in exactly the same way it encourages the use of anaerobic digestion, to help achieve this.
- To encourage greater engagement, transparency and co-operation among retailers and their suppliers in reducing waste and increasing food redistribution.
Education needs to account for some of the solution and food activists Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are pushing the agenda by launching a War on Waste and bringing Wonky Veg to the fore. We need to re-define what is meant by waste or 'not fit for human consumption'.
So what's already happening is great but I want to take The Grocer's and the Food Activists' pledge a little further and wage an Obama-esque, full scale, nuclear, visceral and emotional effort to Make Peace with Waste!
In my quest for Waste Peace I will consider issues on waste from the perspective of startisan food businesses, retailers, families and global sustainability.
Join me on my Quest for Waste Peace!
All photos author's own