If the amount of food that the world’s hungry needs to survive was the size of a ping-pong ball, then the total amount of food waste would be as big as a basketball.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), a third of global annual food production, which is as much as 1.3 billion tonnes, is discarded before being eaten. As a result, there is a global population of 800 million people who suffer from chronic hunger, while there are more than 210 million people who suffer from extreme obesity. If food could be rescued from being wasted, the amount of food saved would be sufficient for the world’s hungry to live on for four years.
If we look at this issue by region, we discover that, according to estimates by the European Commission, the annual food waste produced by the European Union amounts to 22 million tonnes, of which the largest proportion is produced by the UK, where an average of one tin of beans is wasted per person per day. Even Romania, which is the smallest producer of food waste in the EU, wastes approximately one apple a day per person. In the Asia Pacific, the “APEC Information Platform on Post Harvest Loss and Waste System (APIP-PHLOWS)” developed by National Taiwan University showed that 670 million tonnes of food is wasted annually in the region, which is about what the global population of 800 million people who live below the poverty line need to survive for a year.
In fact, food waste does not only happen at dining tables; it occurs as early as in the place of production. Generally, the reason behind food waste is “passive loss” incurred by errors related to production and storage in developing countries, while “active waste” produced by distributors and consumers is the biggest factor in developed countries.
When it comes to “active waste”, high-income countries produce 31-39% of this type, while low-income countries produce 4-16%. So, at which stage is food most lost or wasted in Taiwan?
Which stage in the whole journey of food production is the most wasteful?
1. The production and processing stage: 20-40% of vegetables, fruit and rootstock are wasted in this stage, the value of which is equivalent to the total annual income of 700 full-time farmers.
The UN’s FAO has pointed out that, in Asian industrial countries, vegetables, fruit and rootstock are the most common forms of food to be wasted in the production and processing stage. When it comes to Taiwan, the value of fruit and vegetables wasted in this stage comes near to NT $150 million, which is equivalent to the combined annual income of about 700 farmers.
The biggest reason behind food waste in this stage is market mechanisms. For example, when it comes to Taiwan’s most in-demand vegetable, cabbages, farmers screen out 10-15% to maintain the desired quality standards, which are based on size and weight. After arriving at wholesale markets, another 10-20% of cabbages are removed. Supermarkets also cut off damaged leaves before putting cabbages on shelves. After they finally arrive in restaurants, more damaged leaves are cut off before being turned into dishes. When cabbages finally appear on dining tables, they have already lost 40% of their original weight.
2. The retail stage: 90.4% of expired food is thrown away as waste, the estimated annual value of which comes close to NT $3.8 billion.
The amount of food that is left to pass its expiry date across retail channels in Taiwan is alarmingly huge. Research has shown that a total of 36,880 tonnes of expired food is generated by hypermarkets, supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants in Taiwan annually. Of this, 90.4% of expired food is directly discarded and only 9.6% is returned to original suppliers for reprocessing.
If we translate that into financial cost, the food thrown away by Taiwanese hypermarkets and supermarkets is worth about NT $3.81 billion, with the majority being vegetables, fruits and meat products. The most common reason for discarding food is that it is too close to its expiry date. Other reasons include damaged packaging, undesirable appearance, or overripeness.
3. The dining table stage: on average, each Taiwanese person produces 96 kilos of kitchen waste a year, which is the equivalent of NT $10,000. In total, NT $240 billion worth of kitchen waste is generated nationally every year.
On average, each Taiwanese person buys 567 kilos of food a year and generates 96 kilos of kitchen waste, which means that 17% of the food in our bowls is thrown in the bin. Annually, each person’s kitchen waste amounts to about NT $10,000, and the total loss of food from kitchen waste is worth NT $240 billion nationally. If we used this money to provide free lunch for all Taiwanese primary school students, they could eat for 39 years.
Although more than ten years has passed since Taiwan enforced the recycling of household kitchen waste, only 27% is recycled, and this is mostly fed to pigs or composted. About 40% of household kitchen waste is mixed with general garbage and is incinerated or buried in landfill, which can shorten the expected life span of incinerators.
Redistribute, recreate, recycle: using “3R” principles to rescue surplus food
One of the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the UN in 2015 is to “reduce the food waste generated in the process of retail and consumption by 50% before 2030”. Therefore, the French government has made a rule that all big supermarkets must donate their unsold food to charity. By giving tax benefits and simplifying administrative processes, the Italian government has also started encouraging businesses to donate their unsold food.
As for Taiwan, the government is actively planning to turn unsold food into biomass energy. However, at the point that it can be turned into biomass energy, food has already become waste. The real solution to the problem of food waste is to reduce waste in the early stages of the food production process. Even though the government is unable to bring about any significant changes for the moment, the private and non-governmental sectors are already working towards a solution to this issue.
Spring Trading Company collects overripe, unsaleable fruit from Taitung and blends it with water and granulated sugar, turning it into icy lollies. No artificial flavours are added to its products. Instead, the fragrance of fruit pulp is what awakens customers’ taste buds.
Nanjichang Livelihood Bank has set up a food bank in a community that is home to a high proportion of low-income families and asked supermarkets to donate expired food. It also runs a restaurant which accepts unsaleable ingredients donated by supermarkets and transforms them into meals for disadvantaged and vulnerable community members.
7C Kitchen is a restaurant that collects misshapen fruit and vegetables from traditional markets nearby and makes meals using these rescued ingredients. It allows customers to enjoy meals in exchange for their labour, goods or monetary donations, as well as delivers free meals to the homeless.
Do You A Flavor not only collects surplus ingredients from households and restaurants to make into meals, but also rescues uneaten food from banquet halls. All meals and rescued food are given to homeless people.
The solution to food waste is, put simply, to redistribute, recreate and recycle edible but undesirable food. Now, why don’t you open your fridge and see how much food has been stored in there for a while. Is there anywhere better it can go than in the rubbish bin?