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Waste food or surplus food? It’s not just semantics.

Everyday we talk about food waste and surplus food with our clients. Our Dominator Depackaging machine enables such food to be removed from its packaging milled down to a consistent size to pass through a selected mesh size (typically between 12mm and 40mm) and repurposed for animal feed, or to create energy rich soup via anaerobic digestion. So often, the terms are used interchangeably which prompted us to think about the distinctions, and more importantly, why it matters.

In the U.K., if you think food waste, your first thought is probably the caddy that likely sits on your countertop for all your uneaten food. It’s been a staple part of residential waste collection for around 70% of local councils since 2014. And rightly so, with the UK producing some 4.5 million tonnes of food waste each year from households alone* – that’s before you even consider the waste from businesses.

But what is waste? Well, what you pop in this caddy might well be true waste. It’s essentially food that is no longer fit for human consumption. It might be that mouldy banana that never got made into a banana bread, or produce lurking in the back of your fridge a little longer than it should have been. In the commercial world, it is food past its expiration dates, including spoilage. However, it might also be surplus – food which remains fit for consumption but exceeds the immediate demand. In a wider context, this is typically through overproduction, in-perfect factory rejects, or simply an abundance of perishable goods.

The critical aspect of surplus food lies in its potential for redistribution before it reaches the point of spoilage or expiration. There is evidence all around us of efforts to channel such food towards foodbanks and community initiatives to reduce food insecurity – particularly during economic downturn where diverting surplus not only avoids landfill but supports poverty, public health and our economy.

 

So why does it matter?

 

Let’s start by saying that regardless of whether food is waste or surplus, it going to landfill can result in emitting harmful greenhouse gases and microplastics entering our food cycle. It is not a good nor necessary outcome for either type of food, and therefore our primary focus as a business is on tackling this issue.  If we can’t eat it for whatever reason, then can we use it as animal feed?  If not, then let’s reuse this food to produce energy via an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant.

But beyond similarities in the environmental factors, it is the social and economic considerations that make it so important to distinguish waste food from surplus food.

As an industry, perhaps we need to challenge ourselves to be better at making the distinction and ensuring we are more conscious about not using the words interchangeably, truly understand the potential in the materials we deal with. Let’s help shift the narrative around food surplus and waste, and play our part in building a more sustainable and compassionate future.

 

*based on a nationally representative OnePoll survey of 2,000 UK adults undertaken on behalf of WRAP, 15-17 February 2023.