Food waste - a resource with value

Thursday, 04 November, 2010

Households throw away billions of dollars of edible food each year, equating to around 3 kg of food waste each week per household. This is not only a massive waste of food, but it is also a waste of energy, water and resources which have been used in the production of that food.

Zero Waste is challenging Australia to minimise waste, decrease consumption and ensure products are designed to be re-used or compostable. In order to achieve zero waste it is critical that we develop the proper infrastructure; waste reduction, re-use, recycling and composting services, and support those businesses which collect and process these materials and manufacture and sell zero-waste products.

The first step in achieving zero waste is to produce no waste in the first place. However, for a consumption-driven economy such as Australia this is a hard task. According to Vaughan Levitzke, CEO, Zero Waste South Australia, the whole psychology of consumption is a difficult problem to solve but one that is being explored further by academia.

Created under an Act of parliament, Zero Waste SA was established in 2003 and collaborated with 68 councils to come up with a consistent strategy for waste across the state. Funding for the government agency has come from the landfill levy. Recent legislation in South Australia prohibiting the disposal of certain waste types, such as lead acid batteries, to landfill further helps the agency, which continues to stimulate investment in infrastructure and drive resource efficiency.

One of the recent programs run by Zero Waste SA was a food waste recycling pilot for around 17,000 households, with 10 councils involved. The pilot used a basket and corn starch bag and received an 80% support rate. “The people loved it!” said Vaughan. He believes if we can tap into the massive stock of food waste it will make a huge difference, not only in terms of greenhouse gas reductions but also improving soils, thus providing a full-circle solution - cradle to cradle. A number of councils have now taken up the program or plan to do so next year, and the reason for such interest may be a result of South Australia’s incentive program for councils to reduce food waste to landfill.

Kim Russell, Executive Director of Zero Waste Australia said: “Composting has been recognised as the most effective waste management option for organic waste. If biodegradable bags are used, separation of a bag from waste is not necessary: the organic waste can be treated organically together with its bag.”

BASF has developed a plastic that is completely biodegradable, ie, able to be converted entirely into water and CO2 by fungi or bacteria. Dr Jens Hamprecht, Head of Global Product Management, said, “Biodegradable plastics help organic waste to be sorted and transported cleanly, enabling the production of high-quality compost.”

Hamprecht says we need to change our way of thinking and maximise the value of the products we produce and the innovation in production. Those products that don’t add value should only be produced in small volumes. He says his company’s philosophy is to only produce products that are better than previous ones, if it doesn’t add value it won’t be produced.

Landfill levies have been steadily increasing in most states of Australia, but, unlike South Australia, this levy is not always directed to infrastructure, waste reduction, re-use, recycling and composting services. In some states, the levy has been treated as a tax and not part of a waste-reduction policy.

Mike Ritchie, Director of Mike Ritchie and Associates, believes that without incentives most councils around Australia will currently find the cost of recycling organics too expensive compared to landfill. NSW is now probably on par with costs, he says, but states like Queensland, with a $40 per tonne levy for landfill, will find composting unfeasible as it costs around $100 per tonne to compost.

Organic waste recycling is currently a more economical solution for the C&I sector as large volumes can be collected from a central point. Transpacific is helping the food industry reduce its impact on the environment through the re-use of commercial food wastes as fertiliser.

Peter Howarth, National Market Development Manager, Transpacific Industries Group, says that dairy products and returns from supermarkets are now being sent to its factory called EarthPower. The food waste-to-energy facility is located in Sydney’s west and accepts source segregated food wastes from the industrial commercial and domestic sectors. The waste is then converted to green energy and nutrient-rich fertiliser, using anaerobic digestion technology that facilitates the conversion of solid and liquid food wastes using bacteria operating in a controlled environment.

It is a growing trend for national and international organisations to voluntarily use recycling schemes such as this and actively try to reduce waste. According to Mike Ritchie, currently only about 5% of organisations are proactive in this area and one such company is Woolworths which has voluntarily set a target of zero organic waste to landfill by 2015. “But we need 50% of companies to do this, not 5%,” he says.

Woolworths supermarkets this year launched a campaign to rescue a record amount of surplus food from the waste stream and turn it into meals for the needy. Although not always fit for sale, much of the food is good quality and could easily be rescued and turned into nutritious, healthy meals. The program has a target to provide two million meals this year for those in need and $2 million in awards ranging from refrigerated vans to kitchen upgrades to those who serve them. Organisations such as Foodbank, OzHarvest, FareShare, Food 4 Life and SecondBite and others work hard to turn excess food into nutritious meals for the homeless, the vulnerable and the needy. Woolworths also recycles the remaining food waste using Earthpower for its Sydney stores, and is working through an expression of interest process to find partners for the rest of the country.

Food waste is a problem, one which some states and organisations have taken action to solve. To make these solutions economically viable across the nation requires consistent policy to create a level playing field within competitive markets. What would also help is a dynamic shift in the behaviour of consumption where the value of a product is considered and waste is treated as a resource that needs to be recovered. However, in an economic climate that encourages consumption to drive the growth of the nation, the latter may be more difficult to achieve.

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