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How to reduce food waste

What if the fight against waste prevents us from questioning the overproduction of food?

Marina Julienne, Independent Journalist
On May 11th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Marie Mourad
Marie Mourad
Sociologist and independent consultant specialising in waste reduction
Barbara Redlingshöfer
Barbara Redlingshöfer
research engineer at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE)
Key takeaways
  • The available food production of France and the United States amounts to more than 3,500 calories per day per person – for estimated needs of around 2,000 or at most 2,500 calories.
  • Contrary to popular belief, a large family, per person, wastes less than a couple without children, as they have more opportunities to offer cooked leftovers.
  • Tax deductions are most often calculated on the weight of food donated, which encourages a focus on quantity over quality.
  • Companies such as Too Good to Go are taking action, for example, by having 62 companies sign a pact to reduce food waste due to use-by dates.

Today, the avail­able food pro­duc­tion of France and the Unit­ed States amounts to more than 3,500 calo­ries per day per per­son – where­as needs are esti­mat­ed at around 2,000–2,500 calo­ries. But these fig­ures are rarely quot­ed by those who fight against waste, whether they are indus­tri­al­ists, asso­ci­a­tions, or politicians.

Waste becomes a market

Marie Mourad stud­ied the sub­ject in France and the Unit­ed States, and in her the­sis high­light­ed this poten­tial­ly neg­a­tive effect of poli­cies to reduce loss and waste. “In both coun­tries, large-scale dis­tri­b­u­tion and food indus­try firms, in con­junc­tion with the Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture in France and envi­ron­men­tal asso­ci­a­tions in the Unit­ed States, have pro­duced esti­mates focus­ing on the per­cent­ages of prod­ucts thrown away, sec­tor by sec­tor, with­out ques­tion­ing either the quan­ti­ties pro­duced, or the nature of the food con­cerned. They thus pro­mote a def­i­n­i­tion of waste as a prob­lem of opti­mis­ing exist­ing pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and con­sump­tion, and favour the use of exist­ing sur­plus­es rather than their reduc­tion at the source.”

As she shows, dur­ing the 2010s, com­pe­ti­tion devel­oped between the dif­fer­ent uses of sur­plus food. Seek­ing to use unsold food prod­ucts, com­pa­nies are strength­en­ing the chan­nels for donat­ing con­sum­able food to food aid asso­ci­a­tions, gen­er­at­ing finan­cial rewards (usu­al­ly tax incen­tives) for donors.

Some sus­tain­abil­i­ty man­agers of food com­pa­nies are also set­ting up recy­cling and sales of non-con­sum­able mate­ri­als, in part­ner­ship with waste treat­ment com­pa­nies. Founders of start-ups and asso­ci­a­tions are seiz­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty of these devel­op­ments to devel­op inter­me­di­ary activ­i­ties that strength­en exist­ing chan­nels and cre­ate new chan­nels for pro­cess­ing and real­lo­cat­ing sur­plus­es. “These devel­op­ments reveal a mech­a­nism that could be described as the re-mar­ket­ing of sur­plus­es,” empha­sis­es Marie Mourad. Their new mar­ket val­ue is part­ly based, para­dox­i­cal­ly, on their de-mar­ket­ed (not sold) or non-mar­ket­ed (not intend­ed to be sold) character.

Anoth­er per­verse effect of the fight against waste as it is cur­rent­ly organ­ised is that tax deduc­tions are most often cal­cu­lat­ed accord­ing to the weight of donat­ed food, which encour­ages peo­ple to favour quan­ti­ty over qual­i­ty. For exam­ple, in the Unit­ed States, but also in France, soda cans are treat­ed as food: donat­ing them is prof­itable for com­pa­nies, even though it is harm­ful to the ben­e­fi­cia­ry pop­u­la­tions, which are already suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion, over­weight or obesity… 

On the oth­er hand, no mea­sures are being tak­en to curb retail­ers’ ever more tempt­ing offers of pro­mo­tions that encour­age con­sump­tion, on shelves that are gen­er­al­ly much more vis­i­ble and bet­ter pre­sent­ed than those where goods that are almost out of date are stocked and there­fore offered at a low­er cost. 

Waste is multifactorial

Anoth­er prob­lem in the fight against waste is the need – and the dif­fi­cul­ty – of act­ing on sev­er­al fac­tors and/or actors at the same time. Bar­bara Redling­shöfer, a researcher at INRAE, has just com­plet­ed a the­sis on food loss and waste in cities and has stud­ied pub­lic poli­cies aimed at reduc­ing food waste in the Paris region. She found that there are many pub­lic poli­cies that offer levers for action, such as aware­ness-rais­ing cam­paigns, tax incen­tives for food dona­tions, and the sort­ing of bio-waste and its com­post­ing or methanisation.

These cam­paigns are part of poli­cies relat­ed to food, waste, or ener­gy, at var­i­ous admin­is­tra­tive lev­els. But they are not very well coor­di­nat­ed. For exam­ple, a “com­post plan” is not coor­di­nat­ed with actions to com­bat waste and may even implic­it­ly legit­imise throw­ing away food by asso­ci­at­ing com­post­ing with a pos­i­tive gesture.

Most food waste is cur­rent­ly treat­ed by incin­er­a­tion, thanks to an effi­cient col­lec­tion and treat­ment sec­tor that needs to be fed… with waste! Although the leg­isla­tive frame­work pro­vides for the expan­sion of food waste col­lec­tion and recy­cling, we are far from achiev­ing the objec­tives. “We need to artic­u­late and cre­ate syn­er­gies between these dif­fer­ent poli­cies instead of man­ag­ing them in silos,” empha­sis­es Bar­bara Redling­shöfer. “Oth­er­wise, there is rea­son to fear that they will remain ineffective.”

The Ter­ri­to­r­i­al Food Projects (TFPs), which aim to relo­cate agri­cul­ture and food in the ter­ri­to­ries, should there­fore take account of this type of inter­ac­tion from the outset.

Individual differences

Fur­ther­more, she empha­sis­es the extent to which indi­vid­ual behav­iour towards waste is diverse and com­plex and needs to be analysed at the lev­el of house­holds and their activ­i­ties, and there­fore beyond indi­vid­u­als. “There are of course indi­vid­ual sen­si­tiv­i­ties that are more or less recep­tive to this issue. But depend­ing on the com­po­si­tion of the house­hold, the occu­pa­tion, the hob­bies, the sup­ply of shops in the neigh­bour­hood, prac­tices can differ.”

For exam­ple, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, a large fam­i­ly wastes less per per­son than a cou­ple with­out chil­dren, because they have more oppor­tu­ni­ties to offer cooked left­overs. Anoth­er exam­ple is that, depend­ing on whether peo­ple have time to go shop­ping dur­ing the day or not, they may fill their fridge as close­ly as pos­si­ble to their needs, or on the con­trary, they may stock up, some of which may end up in the bin. It will be impor­tant to analyse how the devel­op­ment of tele­work­ing will affect waste.

It can be assumed that it is eas­i­er for a per­son who works from home to do the dai­ly shop­ping than for some­one who has an hour’s com­mute to the office. Also, aspi­ra­tions to eat “health­ily” may con­flict with want­i­ng to waste less, as eat­ing “health­ily” is often asso­ci­at­ed with eat­ing pro­duce, par­tic­u­lar­ly fruit and veg­eta­bles, as fresh as possible.

“This field of research on house­hold food prac­tices and their deter­mi­nants is recent, but when we see the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of inter­act­ing fac­tors, we already know that we will have to find dif­fer­ent levers of action, and not think in silos as we tend to do today, tar­get­ing each cat­e­go­ry – con­sumers, dis­trib­u­tors, pro­duc­ers – sep­a­rate­ly,” con­cludes Bar­bara Redlingshöfer.

Awareness-raising projects are underway 

“There is some good news, how­ev­er: aware­ness of waste is grow­ing and the mobil­i­sa­tion for ‘ugly’ prod­ucts, for exam­ple, is bear­ing fruit,” empha­sis­es Marie Mourad.

On the issue of use-by dates, Too Good to Go has made real progress by hav­ing 62 com­pa­nies sign a pact to reduce food waste due to use-by dates. Thus, 3,000 prod­uct ranges raise con­sumer aware­ness of the Min­i­mum Dura­bil­i­ty Dates (MDD) with “Observe, smell, taste” pic­tograms to encour­age them to use their sens­es, and more than 600 anti-waste shelves have been deployed to sell prod­ucts with a close or exceed­ed MDD. Proof that it is pos­si­ble to get around cer­tain reg­u­la­to­ry obstacles.

Final­ly, some advice giv­en to house­holds, if fol­lowed, has proven effec­tive: such as mak­ing shop­ping lists before going to the shop avoids impulse buy­ing, mea­sur­ing out the quan­ti­ties to be cooked accord­ing to needs and learn­ing to cook with left­overs pre­vents the bins from fill­ing up too quick­ly. One exam­ple is that of Great Britain, which car­ried out real work in the field, mobil­is­ing local play­ers as close as pos­si­ble to fam­i­lies, organ­is­ing cook­ing work­shops and train­ing to strength­en their abil­i­ty to man­age their food better.

In France, asso­ci­a­tions such as Familles rurales car­ry out equiv­a­lent actions through­out the coun­try, as close as pos­si­ble to the households.

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