Food waste: A problem we produce but don’t talk about

Image: Ross Mc Govern
Image: Ross Mc Govern Mass amounts of waste

In Ireland we produce about one million tonnes of food waste annually and if we give each tonne a value of roughly €2000 that equates to over €2 billion of food not being used and going in the bin. It is also estimated that 600,000 people experience some form of food poverty in this country.

We are ranked fifth worst in Europe for dealing with the problem. Figures like these make sense to people, however many just furrow their brows and make solemn sounds and agree that things are bad, but until you actually see vast quantities of food being thrown out you don’t really understand the situation.

Image: Ross Mc Govern
Image: Ross Mc Govern Food in a waste bin in a supermarket

Picture this: a chicken is born on a factory farm and reared along with a few thousand others. Once it is of killable age it is slaughtered, gutted, beheaded and de-feathered. It comes into a supermarket, via an 18 wheel articulated truck, and is prepared and put into an oven. This roast chicken is then left on a hot counter waiting for someone to buy it, if this doesn’t happen it is put into a trolley at the end of the night and dumped into a bin along with all the other food waste. The chicken’s life has been completely pointless. It has served no function and now only rots.

In the shop where I work about €4,000 is thrown in the bin every week and this number rises sharply around Christmas to over €10,000. In case you’re wondering, yes I’ve seen whole turkeys being thrown out after the people who ordered the bird got theirs somewhere else. The situation has gotten better over the last few years. The ‘display until’ and ‘sell by’ dates have nearly all been removed from packing, these dates are used to make the stock controller’s job easier. The ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates are now the only form of shelf life indication that products have. Food manufactures are inclined to be very cautious when creating these dates for their products as it removes liability for them in case somebody were to ingest spoiled goods. God forbid anyone just used their nose. Fun fact: even ice that has been stored in a freezer has a best before date.

Image: Ross Mc Govern
Image: Ross Mc Govern Past the sell by goods are simply thrown out

There are community based social enterprises that have been set up to combat both problems of food waste and hunger. One of them is set up by co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien and chef Sophie Morris. It works via a smartphone app or the website.

A supermarket or restaurant uploads details of their surplus and when the food can be collected. A text is then sent to the nearest community organisation in the area, they accept the offer and collect it directly from the business. Iseult ward’s sees things clearly “one in every four calories produced from food in the world, is wasted. “We want Irish people to think about how they can reduce this waste”.

Solutions like are fantastic but supermarkets are wary of giving away their waste as the fear of someone getting sick looms over their waste policies. Put simply, if half a carrot is a bit soft it can’t just be chopped up and the offending half thrown away, the whole thing needs to be chucked. Many of the organisations wishing to tackle the problem often state that “uncertain demand” in what supermarkets buy contributes to the problem and that reducing this more money can be saved.

From being on the ground I would have to state that supermarkets accept that they will produce waste and if they remain competitive in their national market, then that means that waste will continue to be produced. Until Irish people are willing to talk about how much food is thrown out in their own houses, the glut that fills this “uncertain demand” will continue to grow in our landfills.

One comment

  1. The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. There is no single cure, or silver bullet for food waste reduction therefore, we should address the food waste problem in every link in our food supply chain. For example, the excess inventory of fresh perishables close to their expiration on supermarket shelves, combined with the consumer “Last In First Out” shopping behavior, might be the weakest link of the fresh food supply chain.
    The new open GS1 DataBar standard enables applications that encourage efficient consumer shopping by offering him automatic and dynamic purchasing incentives for fresh perishables approaching their expiration dates before they end up in a landfill.
    The “End Grocery Waste” App, which is based on the open GS1 DataBar standard, encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue, makes fresh food affordable for all families and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint.

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