With food waste one of the biggest contributors to the global carbon footprint, transport operators might have the opportunity to help save the environment with better food-transportation processes. MARISKA MORRIS reports
It might be difficult to believe that the forgotten, rotting tomato at the back of the fridge is one of the biggest global environmental challenges, but food waste contributes an estimated 4,4-billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, while costing developing countries around US$ 310 billion
(R4,3 trillion) and developed countries about US$ 680 billion (R9,6 trillion).
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA) of the United Nations notes: “If food wastage were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world.” It would rank after China and the United States (US) according to 2011 data.
Aside from the impact on global warming, food waste is concerning as it leads to the waste of natural resources and labour – not to mention the numerous people who go without food. The FOA estimates that a third of all food produced globally goes to waste.
South Africa is no exception. According to the World Wide Fund (WWF) South Africa, around ten-million tonnes of food goes to waste each year with fruits, vegetables and cereals accounting for 70 percent of the losses. This loss equates to R61,5 billion.
The energy used to produce the food waste in South Africa can, reportedly, power the City of Johannesburg for roughly 16 weeks, while the water required could fill over 600 000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. About 90 percent of the food waste ends in South African landfills where it emits methane gas and carbon dioxide.
Food waste can be the unconsumed or rotten food thrown out by consumers, but it can also refer to the food wasted during the packaging and transport process, which is commonly referred to as food loss.
Most of the fruits and vegetables that spoil, do so during the processing and packaging stage. In fact, an estimated 25 percent of food waste is a result of packaging, according to a 2016 ReFED study titled: A roadmap to reduce US food waste by 20 percent.
Another 20 percent of food loss is as a result of a breakdown in the cold chain, according to the Cool Chain Association (CCA). About 40 percent of all food transported require some form of refrigeration.
ReFED suggests 27 solutions across the food chain to assist in reducing food loss including better packaging, effective transportation, donations and recycling. It estimates that these solutions can divert 2,6-million tonnes of food waste from US landfills and add US$ 7,7 billion (R109 billion) to the US economy annually.
Some of the suggested changes by the ReFED include labelling that removes the “sell-by date”, which can cause confusion among consumers, and packaging that helps slow down the spoiling in perishable foods like fruit. For transport operators, the best solutions are better managing the products and improving cold-chain shipments.
Cold chain management
One of the solutions proposed by the ReFED is “reducing product loss during shipment to retail distribution centres by using direct shipments and cold-chain certified containers”. It notes that the food logistics sector is highly fragmented with retailers lacking the financial incentive to make changes as the cost of food loss is passed to the shipper or supplier.
Some suppliers or distributors might be motivated to make a change, but lack the scale, financial capacity or time to implement these new practices. To overcome these challenges, ReFED suggests the implementation of performance standards and a cold-chain certification system as well as conducting studies on minimising temperature-related losses during transit.
“Non-profit organisations or industry players can develop a cold-chain certification system that outlines best practices and holds businesses accountable for avoiding preventable waste. Large retailers can create demand for better cold-chain practices among the fragmented logistics industry by using their buying power to encourage suppliers to change practices,” the report reads.
Food loss of about 18 000 t to the value of US$ 32 million (R453 million) can be prevented by addressing the challenges in the cold chain, according the ReFED. Some are already looking into these suggestions. The CCA is focusing on reducing food loss by creating better transparency and data sharing throughout the cold chain.
In May, it ran a pilot to test data sharing. Five pallets of berries and avocados were monitored as they were transported from Latin America and the Middle East. The data from the pilot will assist in establishing best practices and solutions.
The American Journal of Transportation (AJOT) quotes CCA treasurer Eric Mauroux: “This opens up a new way of working, where we are not pinpointing the excursion, but looking at the journey as a whole and developing solutions.”
Monitoring the produce through the entire supply chain can assist in pinpointing areas that are lacking, or instances where the cold chain is broken, which can result in food loss.
Similar to the proposed cold-chain transparency, ReFED suggests a number of product management systems to reduce food waste. The first is waste tracking and analytics, which would provide the supply chain “with data on wasteful practices to inform behavioural and operational changes”.
The information can assist in reducing waste and in return increasing profit margins. An estimated 571 000 t of food waste to the value of US$ 1,3 billion (R18 billion) can be diverted.
Another suggested solution by ReFED is improved inventory management, especially tracking the products’ remaining shelf-life and reducing the time the item remains on the shelf. ReFED also proposes optimising the manufacturing line, encouraging secondary resellers and educating consumers.
Some simple management changes, or even just investing in quality cold containers, could have a big impact on business and the environment by reducing food waste, carbon emissions and the loss of resource – both natural and human.