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War on Waste: How Food Rescue Charities Are Fighting Food Waste

The recent ABC television series War on Waste aired last month, and suddenly everyone is talking about waste. Which, in my view, is a good thing. A great thing! As it should be ;) The more conversations we have around waste, the better.

I watched the series myself and thought it was well made, informative and motivational. It did a great job of addressing the problems. The problems need talking about, definitely. But I felt it only touched on the solutions. Which, maybe, was a missed opportunity. In my view, there are plenty of solutions, and we need to talk about these as much as (or more than!) the problems!

No doubt there wasn’t time for everything. (It was only 3 episodes, after all!)

So I thought I’d explore some of the solutions here. Today, I’m going to talk about food waste, and more specifically, what people are doing about.

Food waste is a huge issue in Australia, with around 40% of food being discarded before it leaves farms, and shoppers throwing away 20% of everything they buy (the equivalent of 1 bag of shopping in 5). The UK reported similar statistics with their Hugh’s War on Waste series last year, saying 1/3 of food produced is never eaten. The figure is similar in the U.S.

The supermarkets are linked to a lot of this waste. With their strict cosmetic standards, unbalanced supplier contracts in favour of the retailer, pre-packaging loose items (where they control the portion sizes), and promotional 3-for-2 offers that encourage us to buy more than we need, they encourage waste at every stage in the process.

Arguably, it’s a broken system. But within this system, organizations are doing what they can to reduce this food waste by distributing some of the surplus to others who need it via charity partners.

Here in Perth there are a number of organisations working to fight food waste by “rescuing” food.

Food Bank: are the largest food relief organisation in Australia. They deal with large quantities and collect food on a massive scale. They don’t go to individual supermarkets to collect discards, but rather collect pallets of food from warehouses for redistribution.

Oz Harvest: with their quirky yellow vans, Oz Harvest collect surplus food from all types of food providers, including fruit and vegetable markets, farmers, supermarkets, wholesalers, stadiums, corporate events, catering companies, hotels, shopping centres, cafes, delis, restaurants, film and TV shoots and boardrooms. They collect both fresh food and dry goods and distribute as is to charitable partners.

Food Rescue WA: a WA initiative of UnitingCare West, Food Rescue WA collects surplus fresh produce (no dry goods) from cafes, supermarkets and farmers and repacks into “veg boxes” which are distributed to charitable partners.

Case Study: Food Rescue WA

This week I had the opportunity to visit Food Rescue WA in Belmont (a suburb of Perth). I was amazed, humbled and heartened by what I saw and learned. They haven’t stood by in despair at what can seem an overwhelming situation; they’ve got to work righting some of the wrongs.

Food Rescue WA have just two full time staff, with 4 casual drivers and 100 regular volunteers. Powered by this volunteer army, and with 4 vans that have been donated, they collect food from 49 supermarkets, sort and re-pack, and redistribute to 78 different charitable organisations.

In addition, they have two food carts which collect food from 37 cafes in the CBD, and redistribute directly to homeless people in the city who have no access to kitchens.

Between them, they supply food to organisations who feed more than 11,000 people every week.

“Waste” products that have arrived and are waiting to be sorted and repacked.

Food arrives here at the Food Rescue WA warehouse in various ways and for various reasons. The black boxes at the front are assorted rejects from the supermarkets. The oranges are an overstock. The yellow container at the back (a cubic metre) comes directly from a farmer, with carrots that don’t meet the cosmetic/size standards.

Food Rescue WA only deal with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also receive eggs for redistribution, and occasionally chilled products.

This second yellow container is filled with cosmetically imperfect but completely edible carrots donated by a farmer. The dimensions of the container are 1m x 1m x 1m (a cubic meter).

The food is then sorted by volunteers and distributed into boxes (old banana boxes). The food is distributed so that each box has variety and colour, and looks visually appealing.

Sorting food and packing into boxes..

A partially packed veg box…

Boxes of colourful, edible food saved from the bin and ready to be distributed by the Food Rescue WA vans to people in need.

Food Rescue WA currently operates from Monday to Friday, but they may expand into weekends. The volunteers arrive at 7am and sorting and packing is generally completed by 10am. The boxes are then delivered, with all charities in receipt of their food by 11.30am.

What happens next is up to the charities. Some cook meals using the ingredients; others allow people to take the boxes home to cook for their families.

This operation provides 11,000 meals a week. That’s impressive in itself, but there’s more. Food Rescue WA don’t just fight food waste, though. They fight other waste too.

Plastic

Firstly, they sort and recycle all of their packaging. They have a plastics recycling system where plastics are separated into their different types (numbers) and then this is collected by CLAW Environmental for recycling.

They even go one step further and remove all the plastic packaging from the boxes they are donating to the charities. They realise that the charities won’t have the time or capacity to recycle the soft plastic, and may not have the knowledge to sort it correctly either.

By removing the plastic before it is distributed, it saves the charity workers a job and also the disposal costs, and ensures it gets recycled properly.

Food Rescue WA currently recycles 4 cubic meters of soft plastic a week.

Cardboard

The food received by charities is packed into banana boxes which can be returned for re-use. Typically a driver will deliver new boxes, collect old empty ones and they will be re-used for packing. Each box can be used several times before it begins to wear out. The cardboard is then recycled.

Food Waste

Food Rescue WA have an innovative composting machine called the Orca that aerobically digests unusable food waste rapidly, and produces a liquid effluent that can be safely discharged into the municipal sewerage system.

The jar of apple sauce on top of the machine is in fact the liquid effluent which comes out of the machine after the contents are aerobically digested, and have passed through a grease trap and filter system.

These fresh veggies were added…

…and 15 minutes later they were well on their way to breaking down. The food waste has no smell, or if anything, it smells like a fresh green salad!

Food Rescue WA did secure backing to fund a composter in the past, but unfortunately could not get council approval to install it.

Fighting Food Waste: What Can I Do?

There’s plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce our food waste at home. We can reduce what we buy, learn to understand the different ‘Best Before’ and ‘Use By ‘codes, and also learn how to tell if something is good or bad without relying on the packaging telling us. We can learn new ways to cook things, embrace home composting and get more organized so there are no longer unidentified objects that used to be food lurking at the back of our fridges. (For more ideas, here’s 12 tips to reducing food waste.)

But we can go one step further. We can support these organisations working to reduce food waste. Here’s three ideas:

Volunteer for a few hours at a Food Rescue service such as Food Rescue WA and donate your time to help collect, sort and redistribute food that’s headed to landfill to people who need it. Or if you have a specialised skill that you think may be of use, offer these services!

Donate to the cause. These organisations run on volunteer hours and donated food, but still need to pay for utilities, fuel and maintenance to keep the operation running. Donating money directly to these organizations is better than buying food from supermarkets to donate. There’s already plenty of food out there that needs rescuing, and supermarkets really don’t need our money – the charities do!

Share their story! Tell your local cafe, restaurant, workplace, supermarket, greengrocer or farmer about these services, and encourage them to use them and support the work that they do.

If you’d like to get involved with or support Food Rescue WA, you can find more information here.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What solutions do you have for reducing food waste – at home, at work or in your local community? What organisations are doing great things in your local community and how could you support their work? Any thoughts on the story I’ve shared? Anything else you’d like to add? Please leave a comment below!

 

Zero Waste Exceptions: Packaging, Plastic + Single-Use Items I Can’t Live Without

In my perfect world, I wouldn’t buy a single thing in plastic, I wouldn’t use a single thing in packaging…oh, and the sun would shine every day :) Even though I’ve lived plastic-free for almost 5 years, and describe myself as “zero waste”, there are still things that I buy in packaging. There are still single-use items I choose not to live without. Oh, and there’s still occasional plastic.

Of course I aspire to do better. But I don’t believe that zero waste is about being perfect. I believe it is about making better choices, trying to improve and doing the best we can.

If it was about being perfect, almost all of us would fall short. Then we’d decide it is all too hard, and give up. What a waste that would be! If we all make a few changes, that adds up to an enormous difference.

Imagine if every single person in the world decided that whilst they couldn’t do everything, they could manage to bring their own bags to the shop or market? Or that they could refuse a disposable coffee cup? Does it really matter that they can’t fit their entire landfill trash for the year in a jam jar?! I don’t think so ;)

Both my husband and I have our zero waste weaknesses. It’s all too easy for me to lump them together – and then blame him for most of them! So I’ve decided to focus on mine only. Just this once!

Packaging, Plastic and Single-Use: My Zero Waste Exceptions

1. Toilet Paper

I know that many people use “cloth” rather than toilet paper. I know that I could get a bidet attachment for my toilet. But the truth is, right now, I use toilet paper. It’s not that I am opposed to either idea, but my husband has assured me he is never giving the loo roll up, and I don’t want to have two systems. I’m happy to stick with his!

That’s not to say I’ll never change, but right now toilet paper is working for me, and it’s staying.

We buy Who Gives a Crap toilet paper. It is 100% recycled, the packaging is plastic-free, and the company donate 50% of profits to water projects overseas. We re-use the paper wrapping, and recycle the big cardboard box it comes in (the are 48 tolls in one box). It is an Australian company, although the rolls are made in China.

Maybe not perfect, but it works for us.

2. Chocolate Bars

Chocolate is my weakness. I’m trying very hard to buy more bulk chocolate and less packaged chocolate, but I have a particular obsession with Green & Blacks 85%. I like to buy organic and fair trade chocolate, and bulk stores have less options.

Yes, I know that Green & Blacks was purchased by Cadbury’s, and Cadbury’s was sold to Kraft. Not ideal at all. Truth is, I got addicted before that happened!

I only buy chocolate bars that come with tin foil and paper or card, and I recycle the packaging. I do buy bulk chocolate, too. My local bulk store also sells Loving Earth chocolate in bulk which is organic, Fair Trade and vegan – but it has a lot more sugar than these guys. If I ate a little less, maybe it wouldn’t matter…

3. Baking Paper

I  use baking parchment. I use it to bake bread and biscuits (to line my metal baking tray) and to line cake tins or loaf tins. I find it helps stop the edges burning.

Whilst I do have silicone muffin trays of various sizes, and silicone muffin cases, I sometimes need to bake more than I have, and other times I need a bigger size. Sometimes I use paper muffin cases.

I’ve tried greasing my tins, but I prefer baking paper. Whilst silicone works well, it isn’t recyclable, and heating in the oven does seem to degrade it over time. The muffin cases (baking cups) I use very sparingly, but the paper I use more often.

I will wipe the baking paper clean after use, and will aim to get a few uses out of it before composting.

4. Seedling Punnets

I’ve been buying seedling punnets to establish our garden. After almost all of my summer seeds failed to germinate, I resorted to buying seedling punnets (plastic punnets with seedlings in them ready for transplanting in the garden). It was that or not grow any vegetables all summer, so overall I felt I could justify the waste.

I’ve tried reusing them, but the soil tends to dry out too quickly. I’ve saved them all up in the hope of passing them on to someone who will re-use them.

I use the plastic labels in my garden. Hopefully I will be able to reuse these multiple times, but eventually they will end up as landfill.

5. Seed Packets

As we are establishing our garden, I’ve needed to buy seeds. Some seed packets contain foil/paper envelopes with the sees sealed inside; others have plastic zip-lock bags; and occasionally the seeds are loose.

My long-term plan is to save most of my own seeds, participate in seed swaps and grow seedlings from seed. But seed-saving is an art, and it will take some practice. Some things (like tomatoes and capsicums) are easy to save from seed; other things are harder and some require expert knowledge (and more land than I have).

So it’s unlikely I will ever be fully self-sufficient with my seeds.

I will be able to reuse the zip lock bags and the envelopes, but the foil/paper packets aren’t recycable.

6. Dog Food

We buy our dog food in large 14kg plastic sacks. Believe me, I do not like buying packaged industrially-produced dog food. We have tried all sorts of brands, organic and locally produced and Australian-made, but our dog prefers this one.

This is the biggest size available in this brand. Some Australian brands are slightly bigger (20kg). There is a bulk store in Perth that sells Australian dog food in bulk, but they buy 20kg bags and use those. As our dog eats through this in a month it doesn’t make sense for us.

I’ve looked into making food myself, but we don’t have space to make it in advance and freeze, and I’m not sure I want to go to the butchers every few days. Maybe in the future it will happen, but for now, we are sticking with this.

The plastic is recyclable at REDcycle.

7. Q Tips/Cotton Buds

I know that Q tips/cotton buds are meant to be bad for our ears, but seriously, I cannot bear to have water in my ears, or blocked ears generally. I use Q tips. They are 100% compostable and they come in 100% compostble packaging, but they are still a single-use item, and one that many zero wasters do without. I, however, have no plans to give them up.

I never ever use the ones with the plastic sticks. I also don’t use them often, maybe once every couple of weeks.

These are made from paper/card and organic cotton, in a cardboard box. I’ve had this box for around 2 years, and I’m due for a new one soon.

8. My Plastic (But Reusable) Toothbrush

When I went plastic-free in 2012, I started using bamboo toothbrushes. The bristles would constantly come out in my mouth and it used to drive me nuts. Not only that, but as I watched the plastic bristles wash down the drain I’d think – isn’t that exactly what I’m trying to prevent?

I saw a plastic toothbrush with a remove-able head in a health food shop in 2014 and made the switch. The heads only need replacing once every 6 months (I was replacing my bamboo toothbrush every two months).

The toothbrush is a brand is called Silver Care. I don’t love the plastic handle, but I think as a toothbrush, it does the job. The packaging and head are recyclable via Terracycle.

I suspect that it was the brand of bamboo toothbrush that was the issue, rather than bamboo toothbrushes as a whole, as many of my readers have told me that they get on well with different brands.

Nevertheless, now I have this one I intend to re-use it. Otherwise it’s a waste.

9. Re-Purposed Plastic

Mostly the zero waste and plastic-free movements align, but sometimes they do not. I’m happy to repurpose plastic if it is suitable for the job intended, will last, reduces landfill, and there isn’t an obvious better solution.

We used repurposed olive export barrels to make garden beds/pots for our veggie garden. These plastic barrels are used to ship olives from Greece to Australia just once, and then they are landfilled. We cut each one in half and turned them into garden beds. Each barrel cost around $30 (and cut in half makes two pots) compared to $150 for a single half wine barrel of the same size. They are food grade, UV stable and a waste product.

I’d rather olives were shipped in reusable containers, and maybe one day that will happen. Until then, I’m happy using these to grow my own food.

10. Plastic That Other People Give Me

Where I’ve been offered something that I know I can use and that might otherwise end up in the bin, I accept it. Reducing waste in generally is my priority, not keeping my own home pristine. My sister-in-law recently gave me a box of strange-flavoured tea that I knew I would drink and she knew she wouldn’t. It came in a box with a plastic window.

I’ve also been given some DIY skincare ingredients from a member of a community group who would have thrown them out had no-one wanted them.

This wax is a plant-based (vegan) alternative to beeswax, and I’m keen to try it out in some recipes. I’ll recycle the packaging when it’s empty.

I’m happy to take packaging from others and accept the waste if it means not wasting the product itself.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What are your zero waste exceptions? Are they things you can’t avoid, or things you choose not to? What is your biggest struggle? Is there anything that you thought would be impossible to give up or avoid, only to find that you were able to much more easily than you thought? Can anyone relate to me me on the chocolate issue?! Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!