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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Europe Unleashing Full-Scale Attack on Food Waste

The issue of food waste has rightfully come front and center in the Western world, with staggering figures such as 40 percent waste in the US alone forcing us to find solutions. The problems that lead to food waste lie throughout the chain from production to distribution and consumption, which means countless opportunities for organizations across all sectors to innovate to tackle it.

Europe is leading the way with a rash of new technologies and collaborations working to minimize waste generated in the food cycle, many of them at the retail level.

Original UnpackedOriginal Unpacked is an old idea with new or no packaging, so to speak. Like yesteryear's grocery stores, products sold at this German store will bear no packaging — the idea is to cut down on packaging waste by eliminating unnecessary wrappers and boxes, and encourage shoppers to only purchase the amount they need. Instead, Original Unpacked will carefully select items and present them to the shopper in bulk with information on the product including nutritional information and origins. Shoppers will need to carry their own bags and refill containers to buy items from bulk bins, produce shelves or an electric filling station for beverages. The concept has found immense support and has already received twice the amount of its fundraising goal with six days remaining.

Robuust, a similar zero-waste grocery store, plans to open in Antwerp, Belgium next month. Customers will need to bring their own bags or jars, failing which they will be able to purchase them at the store.

But opinion is divided on the feasibility of the idea of zero-waste stores.

"It sounds appealing to people who don't understand the full impacts of packaging through the supply chain. If they're handing out glass jars, they have to consider cleaning and transporting the heavy jars — which will be far more than if they were plastic,” sustainability consultant Julia Hailes recently told edie. “But most importantly, I think this will lead to far more food waste — and that has a much bigger impact than waste packaging. One supermarket tried no packaging on fruit and veg — and it increased food waste in-store by 50 percent. And that's without considering how the food is transported to the store in the first place.”

On the other hand, food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart thinks it's a viable idea. As he told edie: "It may help and provide an antidote to the claims being made by many plastic packaging companies that their products reduce food waste by extending shelf life, which is belied by both the fact that often this simply means more products can be transported over longer distances and the fact that packaging is often the cause of food waste."

Waitrose mixed tomatoesMoving away from how food is packaged/sold to the food itself, British retail chain Waitrose recently announced that it is selling misshapen tomatoes in an attempt to discard fewer edible foods. The 1-kg pack of mixed tomatoes is made up of a selection of round, cherry and baby plum tomatoes that have either naturally fallen off the vine or are misshapen. This latest addition to the tomato range follows on from other similar successful launches by the supermarket, including misshapen strawberries and plums, all introduced in a bid to ensure that as much fruit as possible is available to customers to buy whole, the company said in a statement.

The supermarket is also introducing weather-blemished apples from its South African farms. “Unseasonal hail has affected the crops from Waitrose producers in South Africa, Kenya and Ghana, meaning that the fruit has a damaged skin, but the apples’ flavor remains as delicious as ever,” said a Waitrose release.

It quotes farmer Pieter Graadd, who says he is “overjoyed that Waitrose have offered me the opportunity to sell the fruit to them which would normally just go to waste.”

True to its name, Food Rescue is a new app launched just last week that is trying to rescue food before it goes to the trashcan. Developed by Sainsbury’s with the help of Google, the app offers users recipes incorporating up to nine ingredients of their choice. Sainsbury’s says the tool will help people use food that may otherwise languish at the back of the refrigerator and contribute to household savings.

“We’ve created Sainsbury’s Food Rescue with Google to inspire people to turn the food items they already have into something delicious,” Sarah Warby, Sainsbury's Marketing Director, said in a statement. “And over the months ahead we’ll be able to see how much food and money British households are saving by using Sainsbury’s Food Rescue, as well as the popular ways to save."

The app also gives users regional information such as the most popular recipe and the most rescued ingredient in the area. "Using our voice search technology, the Food Rescue tool allows Sainsbury’s customers to use up the food that they might otherwise throw away. Simply say what ingredients you have left and discover simple inspirational recipes. Whether you are on the way home thinking about what’s for dinner, at the supermarket lacking inspiration or in the kitchen, the tool will help you save and get better value for money by not wasting food," explained Indy Saha, Director of Creative Strategy at Google.

FoodLoopTackling related notions of 'good' food is FoodLoop, an app that tackles supermarket food before it is considered 'waste' — which just took home both the top prize and the People’s Choice Award at the SB Innovation Open last week in San Diego. The German start-up app promotes best-before-date deals known as 'freshness discounts' in real time and offers consumers an incentive to buy this food before it is prematurely thrown away.

Interestingly, the EU is considering a proposal to scrap 'best before' labels on long-life products such as rice and pasta in an attempt to reduce food waste. The proposal is backed by Austria, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands. Under the plan, manufacturers would no longer have to put a best before date on such food products.

“An estimated 89 million tonnes of food is wasted in Europe each year,” says the proposal. “Consumers often throw food away unnecessarily because of confusion about the meaning of the 'best before' date. Products usually remain edible beyond this date, but are nonetheless thrown away. Confusion among consumers about ‘best before’ dates must be removed.”

The proposal gives the example of the Netherlands, where research shows that roughly 15 percent of food waste is due to the rules on product labeling.

However, the British Retail Consortium has argued that scrapping the labels could in fact, lead to more food waste.

"Given that customers do not have an understanding of the period of time on which a food is safe or of a certain quality, there is a risk that removing the date from certain foods will result in customers throwing more food away," a BRC spokesperson recently told edie.

Research released last year by WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme) showed that UK households alone waste $11 billion worth of food and drink annually; Britain has not backed the proposal.

WRAP, along with the UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation), also recently released a new tool — the Think.Eat.Save Guidance Version 1.0 — which provides guidance to governments, local authorities, businesses and households on designing effective food waste prevention programs. It contains comprehensive steps on scoping, planning, delivering and measuring food waste prevention programs and activities.

“Research shows that at least one-third, or 1.3 billion tonnes, of food produced each year is lost or wasted – an amount corresponding to over 1.4 billion hectares of cropland. Even a quarter of this lost food could feed all the world’s hungry people,” WRAP said in a release.

“Food waste carries direct economic and environmental costs and depletes the natural resource base that underpins food production,” said Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. “Today, diets are becoming more resource-intensive, and the way we buy and consume food is changing due to industrialization, the demands of a growing middle class, and the continued impacts of the economic crisis. This first-of-its-kind guidance document on food waste prevention provides the technical expertise and impetus needed for a wide range of actors to take advantage of existing wisdom, catalyze action, and get a head start in tackling this critical issue,” he added.

In another boost to solve the problem, WRAP and Dekra have announced an £800,000 Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund, accepting applications for local-level creative ideas to prevent waste of priority materials, including food. It aims to support communities across the UK in their efforts to prevent waste, stimulating long-term changes to business models that encourage items to be kept in use for longer.

Earlier this year, European food-waste prevention project FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimizing Waste-Prevention Strategies) along with WRAP launched a series of feasibility studies around using social innovation to tackle food waste. The studies test how social innovation can be used to tackle food waste — anything from using the Internet to connect those with surplus food to those who need it, to arranging community-based food preservation programs and events.

While new tools, business models, products and other solutions continue to emerge Stateside to help businesses and consumers alike make better use of their food, Europe leads the way with these and other system-wide approaches to tackling this issue.

If you know of any potentially game-changing initiatives here in the US that we haven’t covered — or if you have ideas of your own — please let us know!


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