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Food waste

Anne-Sophie BrändlinOctober 22, 2013

On the back of a British study, supermarket chain Tesco has announced it will be taking measures to reduce food wastage. In Germany, companies are already working on ways to deal with an increase in food waste.

Food and packaging in a rubbish sorting planting in Hamburg (Photo: Christian Charisius dpa/lno)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

A recent study produced in the UK estimates that uneaten food costs British families about 700 pounds (830 euros, $1,140) per family per year.

The report shows that, in comparison to other industrialized nations, the issue of food waste remains a particular problem in the UK. As a response, the British grocery giant Tesco vowed on Monday (21.10.2013) to reduce the nearly 60,000 tons of food wasted by its suppliers and shoppers each year.

As part of the measures, Tesco said it would end a range of multiple-buy offers, which encourage consumers to over-buy. Britain's largest retailer also promised to work with growers to reduce pests, improve food transport routes and to share food storage tips with customers.

But it's more than just a British issue. According to Divine Njie, a senior officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food wastage has long been a global problem, which needs to be tackled on all levels.

Tackling food waste

Every year 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown away globally, according to 2013 statistics from the UN. That equates to one-third of the world's food being wasted, and it puts an unnecessary strain on agricultural sectors.

"The first step is to raise awareness that food wastage is a problem. This has to start with the consumers," Divine Njie said on DW's "Agenda" program.

A man places bruised fruit in a bin at a market. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Irresponsible retailer and consumer behavior contribute to high food wasteImage: Getty Images

The FAO recommends that people serve smaller portions, better utilize leftovers, plan shopping trips in advance and donate extra food to vulnerable members of society.

But according to Njie, it's not just the consumers who are wasting food. Other actors within the food chain, such as governments and international organizations like the UN, need to rethink their attitude towards food as well.

In many developed countries, agricultural policies provide incentives for farmers to grow too much produce. "There are also inefficiencies in the technologies. We do not have the resources to use the technologies that are appropriate to reduce losses in the chain," said Njie, pointing to the lack of infrastructure to provide energy needed to keep perishable food fresh.

A new approach

ReFood, a German company, has found its own environmentally-friendly approach for what to do with wasted food. The company picks up food and kitchen waste created by the food industry, supermarkets, restaurants, or catering services.

"In Germany it is required by law that organizations involved in the food industry dispose of food remains," Nicolas Boy, from ReFood, told DW. "They cannot simply toss leftover food onto a dumpsite, because wasted food decays to produce methane, a greenhouse gas."

That's where ReFood comes into play. The company picks up the food waste and recycles it in various ways, including extracting the basic materials needed to produce biodiesel as well as environmentally-friendly energy in the form of electricity and heat from biogas plants.

A picture shows garbage in the recycling plant of waste, ValorPôle 72, on April 12, 2013 in Le Mans, western France. (Photo: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Rubbish sorting needs to occur before biogas production can startImage: Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

"It's a complicated process that requires a lot of logistical planning," Boy said. "Substances have to be ground, impurities must be filtered out, food remains have to be heated at 70 degrees [Celsius] in order to kill germs, and only then is the biomass ready for the biogas plants."

But the efforts are well worth it. Not only is some waste material recycled and able to be used a second time, but, during the recycling process, electricity and heat for 26,000 households is created. Organic fertilizer for agricultural use is also produced during the process.

Private households still problematic

As useful and sustainable as this approach is, it is only applicable for food waste created by commercial producers. ReFood does not pick up food waste from private households. But private homes in Germany produce the majority of all food waste as they are not legally required to dispose of their food remains.

"You would need to alter the system to change that," Boy said. "It would only be possible if politicians introduced recycling laws for private households. That would be an extremely pricy effort and would need a lot of organization."

A street in Cologne, Germany, with residential apartments.
Private households, both on the continent and in the UK, are the main producers of food wasteImage: DW/N. Sipar

While Germany hasn't introduced a law requiring private households to dispose of their food waste yet, it is the first country in Europe to have introduced the law for commercial food producers. France followed Germany's lead in early 2012 and introduced a commercial food waste recycling law as well.

Now, it's up to the rest of Europe to create awareness about the issue and rethink the problem of dealing with food waste, experts say.

After all, says Divine Njie, "the case that we need to take actions against wasting food can be very easily made. You're talking about wasting something - food - that could solve the starvation that we see in others parts of the world."