Reducing waste and eliminating single-use plastic
We are committed to preserving and enhancing the world we live in and are continually trying to reduce our carbon footprint in everything we do. We have implemented a number of ways to reduce our carbon footprint by sourcing locally, eating seasonal, reducing delivery days, optimising delivery routes, using shared vehicles, reducing plastic in food packaging, re-using boxes, and our big focus - reducing food waste.
It is well publicised that food production is our greatest impact on the planet’s ecosystem. Globally, our demand for food has caused 80% of the deforestation, 70% of fresh water consumption and upwards of 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite this, at least one third of all food grown is wasted, this is enough to feed all of those currently suffering from malnutrition.
In 2018, WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme), estimated annual food waste in the UK reached 9.5 million tonnes. This had a value of over £19 billion a year, and contributed to more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.
In 2015, supermarkets and manufacturers began to sign up to the Courtauld Commitment; an action plan designed to cut the carbon and waste associated with food and drink by at least one fifth by 2025.
Since this commitment was brought into action, there have been great strides made when it comes to the redistribution of food surplus. Redistribution via charitable and commercial routes have risen by 180% and 37% respectively, and in 2018 totalled 56,000 tonnes of redistribution.
The Bulk of Waste Is Pushed Up The Supply Chain
The major supermarkets have successfully cut down on in-store waste by forming relationships with charities to redistribute food that is still safe for consumption, but reaching the end of its life. A leader in this has been Marks & Spencer, who have empowered local store managers with the opportunity to collaborate with local organisations to redistribute food surplus from their stores, which would otherwise have gone to waste. Our social enterprise, SW Fruit & Veg, has experienced this first hand, collecting over 50 full large sacks of food and redistributing this to local charities, food banks, and homeless shelters. Supermarkets have also clamoured to present PR friendly ways of tackling the issue, from wonky veg boxes to ‘banana rescue stations’.
The evidence in the investigation of supply chains however, suggests that supermarkets’ business practices drive waste in packing houses and behind the farm gate.
“Because the market actor with the ability to reduce costs is different from the actor bearing the burden of these costs, an unregulated market leads to higher than efficient cost levels.”
The key driver of food waste in the supply chain are cosmetic specifications, or the use of these specifications as a proxy for unfair trade. These visual requirements not only create a systemic overproduction of food, but are used to reject perfectly edible food after it is grown, when demand at the supermarket is suddenly and unexpectedly lower than supply, usually due to weather conditions. In the UK, A Feedback Global report on food waste on farms showed that supermarket practices drive farmers to waste around 10-16% of their crops. Farmers feel under pressure to over-produce in order to avoid the risk of failing to meet demand, which would mean facing losing their supermarket contracts. When growers overproduce, they act in the most economically viable way, which is typically to let the surplus rot in the fields. Because of the costs associated with harvesting and packing, there is no widespread incentivisation for them to find a new home for this produce. In Senegal, 80% of mangoes are deemed unfit for export to Europe, not because of their quality, but the way they look.
The cosmetic restrictions only tend to apply when demand from consumers is low, illustrating the arbitrary nature of the practice. When supermarkets see less demand for a product, they reject perfectly good food, but at certain times of the year, when weather is better than expected and demand for a particular product is high, they are less scrupulous and the tolerance to loosening their standard increases significantly. Food quality inspections seem to be driven by supply and demand to a far greater extent than the quality of the food itself – meaning that retail buyers are successful if they are adept at rejecting good food at the ‘right’ times. This is heavily driven by customer expectations – the UK weather is hard to predict, and we turn our noses up at ‘wintery’ foods as soon as the sun makes a brief appearance from behind the clouds. Neither the supermarkets or the growers are incentivised to find an end destination for rejected produce, while demand for fresh food, particularly in the charity sector, remains high.
There is evidence however, that retailers can work closely with farms for the greater good, helping farmers increase their production efficiency. For example, by working closely with 822 sheep farmers during poor Spring weather in 2015 that delayed lamb maturation, Sainsbury’s extended the lamb season by five weeks. By waiting until lambs reached their full weight, Sainsbury’s increased UK-grown lamb availability for customers and prevented farm losses.
Extensive research has been done in the UK and abroad on our food supply chains, but there is an unsettling lack of transparency in terms of data reporting. The exception to this is Tesco, who make limited, independently audited data available. Tesco for example, sent 7,738 tonnes of edible food for anaerobic digestion in 2019/20, an improvement from 19,898 in 2017/18. Retailers are happy to report on in-store waste, because that's the area in which they have greatly improved, and have greatest control and oversight of those operations. But that is a small drop in the ocean. For large-scale reduction of waste, there must begin to be an understanding of the food surplus and waste that is generated elsewhere in the supply chain. Therefore it is necessary for standardised and enforced food waste data reporting from large retailers, independently driven and audited as well as publicly available.
Reported Data on Food Waste Could Include:
- Type of food wasted;
- Quantities of different types of wasted food;
- Stage in the supply chain where waste occurs;
- The cosmetic specifications applied to the crop;
- Progress since last reporting;
- Trading practices adopted that have an influence on food waste;
- Quantity of food sent to anaerobic digester and the type of food. What was the food and was it edible?
- Quantity of food sent for animal feed and the type of food
- Quantity of surplus sent to secondary markets before reaching stores;
- Quantity of surplus sent to charities before reaching stores.
It is these inefficiencies in the food supply chain that OddBox and other fantastic new organisations have exploited to create products that customers want, while simultaneously saving perfectly good food from the bin.
The decision to waste produce is made quickly and unpredictably, dictated mostly by what supermarkets want on a week to week or even day to day basis – farms and packing centres cannot possibly cope and plan redistribution appropriately. These organisations have to be extremely agile to plan and consistently deliver quality to their customers in this environment.
The Targeted Outcomes From The Courtauld Commitment 2025
- 20% reduction in food and drink waste arisings in the UK
- 20% reduction in the greenhouse gas intensity of food and drink consumed in the UK
- A reduction in impact associated with water use in the supply chain
If we are going to reach these targets, then entirely new business models and food waste consortia need to be formed between those in retail, manufacturing and supply chain, hospitality and food services, agriculture and local authorities.
Traditional, linear supply chains that have been used in food for thousands of years must give way to modernised, circular supply chain ecosystems. That is, a connected network of organisations involved in the design and management of value-adding processes and value recovery of a product. Recovered value can be seen in terms of the economic, social, or environmental benefits for these organisations and associated stakeholders. The reality is that while we all benefit from social and environmental benefits from a reduction in food waste, change will only happen when economic value can be demonstrated from the practice. And although at first glance we would associate waste with an economic loss, for those holding the power in food supply chains it still pays to be wasteful.
Since March 2020 we’ve been building relationships with charities including Age UK, Regenerate, The Passage, Heathmere Community Kitchen, Home Cafe and Home Instead Kitchen. Using our ‘Donate A Box’ scheme we have been diverting surplus food from the hospitality industry to those who can use it.
We’re extremely proud to join the cause of the like-minded companies below, and in some cases work directly with them.
Innovative Companies Are Taking on The Problem of Food Waste
Dash creates flavoured water made with real, wonky fruit. That’s bent, crushed, curved, knobbly, misshapen fruit which others say no to. They create both a great product and help raise awareness about the issue of waste. “One bashed up berry, curly cucumber and lopsided lemon at a time.”
Olio connects those willing to take surplus food with those who have something to give away, as well as local businesses – promoting a culture of sharing food rather than chucking it away.
From its beginnings delivering to 20 customers in South London, OddBox has experienced incredible growth, now sending fresh fruit and veg to 10,000 London homes. This subscription service sends top quality “wonky” produce to customers, encouraging them to be more imaginative and less driven by the weather in what they cook.
This innovative app connects businesses with surplus food to local charities who need it. Founded in 2012, this company teamed up with Fareshare to tackle food waste in retail and hospitality.
Rubies In The Rubble
Rubies make condiments using surplus fruit and veg. They created a ketchup recipe using surplus pears as a sweetener in order to give surplus a sustainable use. To date they’ve rescued 126,195kg of fruits and vegetables.
Based in the Netherlands, a start-up called Kromkrommer turns imperfect vegetables into soup. This company recently started selling toy vegetable kits called Wonky Fruits and Vegetables as a way to start educating children about the value of cosmetically challenged produce.
London Veg Box has a pioneering approach to reducing food waste
One of the benefits of using a weekly subscription scheme is that only the right amount of food is sourced for the number of deliveries required. It hasn't been sitting around for days either in big warehouse, we'll get hold of it direct from the farm where possible and it's fresh on your plate within 24 hours. The fresher the food, the less chance it will be wasted. It tastes better too!
We also built a clever system for customers to get what they need only - we call it 'Shape Your Box' - a live stock system every Tuesday morning. Inevitably, there is a small amount of surplus food still, so we divert any leftovers to be cooked up into hot meals by a local community kitchen.
Collecting cupboard items from your door
We drop items to local food banks and other organisations that are so reliant on donations. One of the ways that we support this is by collecting cupboard items from our customers and including these in our donations, and everyone is so grateful for the variety of items that this produces.
So next time you place your order, at the same time why don’t you clear out a few items that have been sitting in your cupboards, and leave them out for us to collect in your recycled box. Hopefully this can both clear some space for yourself, and provide a new and varied source of food to those who need it.
Do we really need cucumbers wrapped in plastic?
Big supermarkets are responsible for producing more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste each year.
Wherever possible we avoid plastic wrapped food or use a compostable alternative. London Veg Box is not entirely plastic-free, but the majority of fruit and veg is provided loose to cut down on plastic.
Repurposed and reused delivery crates
All fruit and veg boxes are delivered in repurposed apple crates which we collect back off you the following week.
We're working hard to do better every day. We'd love to get ideas and innovations at email@example.com.