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Hard to swallow

Household food waste in New Zealand

· Wellington Climathon

Aviva Stein is Wellington City Council's Waste Minimisation Project Officer and she's delivering the tough news regarding household food waste in New Zealand in this detailed and informative blog. 

The situation

One third of all food produced globally for human consumption is being lost or wasted (1.3 billion tonnes per year!), making food waste a huge global issue. This isn’t just on the production/industrial level- in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels1 . This means everyday consumers are a large part of the problem, so there’s potential for some simple household behaviour changes to make a significant difference. 

Food waste ending its life in a landfill isn’t a travesty in terms of resource and economic wastage alone. Organic materials in landfill break down anaerobically which releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas – the comparative impact of methane is more than 25 times greater than carbon dioxide2. Furthermore, in poorly managed landfills, the nutrients and water that were extracted from the biosphere to grow this food leach out of the landfill over time mixed with other pollutants. Not only is this environmentally abhorrent, but it means these otherwise beneficial nutrients are actually being disposed of in a way that damages the environment. 

In New Zealand alone, we throw out 122,547 tonnes of fully edible food per year

How much are households to blame?

In 2015, national research into New Zealand’s household food wastage was carried out in order to get a handle on the scope of our problem. This involved surveying 1,365 New Zealanders; sorting through the contents of 1,402 household rubbish bins; and examining food diaries outlining weekly food disposal practices.  

The research found that not only does New Zealand have a food wastage problem, but it’s a big one:  

  • In New Zealand alone, we throw out 122,547 tonnes of fully edible food annually that ends up in landfill – to put this in perspective, this is the equivalent weight of 400 Boeing 747-8 aircrafts.  It is also enough to feed 262,917 people or the population of the Bay of Plenty for 12 months.
  • It is estimated Kiwis spend $872 million a year on food that then gets thrown away uneaten.
  •  Bread, fruit, vegetables and meal leftovers are the most commonly discarded foods. The equivalent of 20 million loaves of bread is thrown into rubbish bins uneaten every year.
  • The average household sends around 79 kg of edible food to landfills every year. (Note that this is EDIBLE food, not scraps).
  • Avoidable food waste costs the average household $563 a year.

This research became the platform that officially launched "Love Food Hate Waste" (LFHW), a nationwide food waste prevention campaign run by 61 Councils throughout NZ, co-funded by the Ministry for the Environment. 

The LFHW campaign has been extremely effective in highlighting the problem of food waste, and providing information and resources for reducing household food wastage. Some of the key messaging centers around the importance of shopping and meal planning, food storage techniques, and being creative with leftovers.

Actual food taken from household waste audits conducted for LFHW campaign – average 6 months food from one family. 40 kilos worth of edible food waste.

Are retailers to blame?

A recent study looked into the retail side of food wastage from Countdown, New World and Pak ‘n Save stores, and found that NZ supermarkets are wasting 600,500 tonnes of food per year. This equates to 160 tonnes per store per year, and 13 kg per capita going to landfill. 

This research reveals that, although retailers have a long way to go in terms of food waste reduction, household consumers (generating 79 kgs per capita) are actually sending more edible food to landfill each year. 

Opportunities for food waste reduction

The Food Waste Hierarchy, pictured below, illustrates solutions for dealing with food waste ranked by their impact on the environment. This model was developed by WRAP in the UK in order to form a basis for policy and engagement. The hierarchy clearly shows that preventing food waste in the first place is the most attractive solution to the problem. 

Secondary to prevention, is redistribution. At the moment, there are estimated to be about 14 Food Rescue groups in New Zealand that collect and redistribute food that would otherwise go to landfill. These groups work on different models; in the Wellington Region we have Kaibosh and Wai Waste (supermarkets to food banks), the Free Store (Cafes to individuals) and Kiwi Community Assistance (mixed model of food rescue and donations). Wellington City Council has also funded two community fridges, at Newtown and Aro Valley Community Centres, which aim to reduce waste and provide food to people in need. These are all fantastic community initiatives which divert heaps of waste from going to landfill. 
Further down the hierarchy we see options like turning the food waste into animal feed; recycling through anaerobic digestion; and composting. While important, these solutions are like an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff -  however, still many more times preferable to organic waste ending its life in landfill!

So food for thought...

  • Are we currently doing enough to address the issue of food waste?
  • How can we get householders to reduce the amount of edible food waste going to landfill?
  • Is there a niche for new products/technology to prevent household food waste? 
  • Are there new opportunities to reduce food waste from retailers?

Wellington City Council also has waste minimisation grants available for supporting organisations and initiatives that reduce waste. 

Good Luck!

Readings referenced:

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