Food waste reduction: the time for talking is over 

Laura Gilbank, business development manager at Columbus UK, explains that food waste has been a global problem long before the pandemic – and why food companies need to digitally transform their processes to help address the issue.

“Waste not, want not” has perhaps never been so fitting as when looking back to the panic buying witnessed across supermarkets following the Covid-19 outbreak. Food waste is something most of us have been guilty of. In the UK alone, more than 10 million tonnes of food is wasted from farm to fork, worth over £20bn a year.

Food waste – and loss – is affecting our environment too. Producing, moving, storing, and cooking food uses energy, fuel, and water – each of which emit greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. 

It’s also worth considering the amount of land needed for production. The estimated area of land required to produce the amount of food thrown away by UK households is 19,000km2.

Laura Gilbank, business development manager at Columbus UK

“Food waste” and “food loss” are commonly used terms but it’s important to understand that they have different meanings. Food loss typically refers to food lost in the earlier stages of production. This could be because of harvesting, a lack of proper infrastructure, or poor storage and transportation practices.

Food waste, however, refers to items that are fit for human consumption but end up being thrown away by consumers who fail to plan meals properly and store food until it spoils or exceeds its expiry date. In fact, it’s been suggested that the prevention of good food and drink waste would have the same positive environmental impact as taking one in four cars off UK roads.

What’s being done to stop the rot?

Companies such as HelloFresh have emerged to help tackle food waste with its offering of planned meals made up of the correct and measured amount of ingredients and doorstep-delivery service, while the Courtauld Commitment 2025 delivered by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) brings together organisations across the food system to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable.

At the heart of this voluntary agreement between WRAP and Courtauld is a 10-year commitment to identify priorities, develop solutions and implement changes to cut the carbon, water and waste associated with food and drink by at least one-fifth in 10 years.

Under a “three pillars” strategy, there’s a call to action for leading food businesses to set a waste reduction target in their UK operations, measure loss consistently, and act to reduce food waste and in turn help consumers limit their food waste.

WRAP is using a “5-5-5” approach to help maximise waste reduction. This provides businesses with five actions to take, five key areas to target and five essential stages to follow to reduce their environmental impact. Interestingly, the first of the five key target areas is to improve systems and processes. Here’s how.

Technology – a key ingredient

It’s not always easy to understand exactly how much waste you are producing and what the true cost of waste is. Many companies significantly underestimate this cost, but food producers can develop insights into waste reduction by systematically capturing information in their supply chains and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. This can be achieved through operational analysis using Power BI, which analyses each stage of operations to identify waste or loss.

In the food and grocery industry, smart technology in the form of the Internet of Things (IoT) is being used across the food supply chain. This not only improves supply chain performance, profit margins and tracking for food freshness, but helps predict and avoid the spoilage of perishable foods.

In addition, the integration of 5G connectivity, along with better sharing and integration of data between suppliers and retailers, will reduce waste and improve the real-time visibility and availability of products.

Food producers need to rethink their production processes. This may mean using by-products in other markets – such as pet food in meats or surplus bread for brewing, for example – which will strengthen supply chains and make them more resilient.

Management of promotions is also vital to help companies flex production in line with ordering patterns and to ensure effective production planning to reduce discrepancies and overordering.

Only business transformation will do

Changing consumer trends, regulations, and costs mean that food and beverage businesses need to do more than just adapt, they need to digitally transform.

The digital transformation journey must start with modernising business infrastructure, as technology constitutes the essential building blocks necessary to deliver the products, services, applications and workloads every business needs to operate.

In the warehouse, the heart of the supply chain in food and beverage, traditional manual handling processes can no longer meet consumer demand for faster service, greater transparency and better accountability.

Warehouse owners must also look to increase their use of renewable energy and be far more energy-efficient or carbon neutral in response to changing consumer sentiment.

While digital transformation isn’t simple, many food and beverage companies have used the pretext of digital transformation for too long to buy more time to develop their core business models.

Food companies must realise that if they want to survive and grow in today’s economic climate and meet evolving customer expectations, they must implement the right technology and develop a digital strategy which prioritises the environmental and ethical concerns of consumers that show no signs of abating.