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Reducing food waste a matter of urgency - Elomatic Expert articles

Reducing food waste a matter of urgency

Globally about 1300 million tonnes of food is discarded as waste every year. This clearly has detrimental financial, social and ecological implications. In order to preserve natural resources and live sustainable lifestyles the reduction of food waste has become a decisive battleground. A key aspect is changing consumer behaviour, which in turn requires that waste data is gathered and communicated to consumers efficiently.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food waste as the ‘masses of food lost or wasted in the part of food chains leading to edible products going to human consumption’. By this definition food that is extracted from the human food chain and reused elsewhere is also considered waste.

Food waste is created in agricultural production, the foodstuffs industry, retailing, distribution, and consumption. According to FAO 25-30% of global food production is lost in the human food chain, while the World Food Programme indicates that the current level of food production is sufficient to cover the global human population’s nutritional needs. 

It is interesting to note that food waste levels do not differ much between industrialised and developing nations; both lie at close to a third of the food produced. An important difference, however, is that in industrial countries households contribute significantly to waste creation while in developing nations the majority of the losses occur during storage and transportation (see Fig. 1).

The Agrifood Research Finland Institute (MTT) has conducted research on food waste and quality in Finland for the entire human food chain in its Foodspill study. The results are displayed in table 1.  It indicates that households create the most food waste with the total food waste in the human food chain being about 400 million kilograms. This translates to roughly 400 million euros a year lost as waste.

In Finland the climate effects of household waste corresponds to the carbon dioxide emissions of about 100 000 passenger vehicles. Finnish household waste predominantly consists of vegetables, potatoes, home-cooked food, dairy products, bread and fruit. 

Environmental impact of food production

Food production, preparation, transport and consumption result in emissions. It follows that if edible food ends as waste the emissions were caused in vain. In addition to raw materials, other natural resources such as fresh water, energy and soil are also used in the process. As much as a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions resulting from transport are attributed to food production.

It is clear that food production affects the environment. There are, however, large differences between different food types with plant-based foods burdening the environment less than meat-based foods. Either way, reducing food waste has a direct positive environmental impact and also reduces food production-related emissions by reducing food demand. 

The EU Commission has taken the lead in food waste reduction by encouraging EU member states to halve their food waste by 2025. It is also drawing up guidelines and best practices in this regard, which can be implemented throughout the EU. One such a measure is raising the value placed on food and food products.  

In Finland there are already several organizations and digital publications that report on food waste and provide hints on how it can be minimized. The Finnish Ministry of the Environment’s programs for sustainable consumption and production also aim at identifying working food waste reduction methods. Efforts as such as being made, but more needs to be done.

Consumers can bring about change 

The storage of energy wood and woodchips at one or several stages in the dry woodchip production process is inevitable. A factor that is often overlooked is the dry matter loss of the fuel, i.e. the slow burning of woodchips during storage that occurs naturally as micro-organisms break down the wood fibres. As the wood is broken down the fresh woodchips give off heat. 

Several field studies have been conducted regarding the amount of dry matter loss. The Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) conducted research in the early 2000s on the dry matter loss of woodchip stacks. It found the loss to be about 16 % over a six month storage period for initial moisture levels of 58 %. For moisture levels of 42 % the loss was about 7 %, which indicates that even for dryer woodchips the loss is still significant. It is worth noting that the greatest amount of dry matter loss is incurred in the first three months of storage. 


Author: Lita Nordén

Waste is easier to understand if it can be concretised with illustrative and comparable measurement data

Diagram 1. Per capita food losses and waste (kg/year. Equal amounts of food waste are created in industrialised and developing nations. In industrialized nations households, however, contribute significantly to waste creation while in developing nations the majority of the losses occur during storage and transportation.(Source: FAO, Global Food Losses and Food Waste)

Table 1. Food waste in human food chain per year in Finland. (Source: MTT Foodspill 2010–2012)

With the ESCflow device the diner selects the food type and rates the food quality with the appropriate smiley face. ESCflow shows the amount of waste in grams. More questions can be input for broader feedback.

Figure 2. Food waste distribution according to source in different restaurants and eateries in Finland. In catering the most waste in created during service and the least in the kitchen and as leftovers. (Source: MTT Foodspill 2010–2012)