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25 September 2017Last updated
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Features | Reportage

Are you ready to reduce your food waste?

As UAE’s global foodprint reaches mind-boggling proportions, Mrinal Shekar explores what measures are being taken at macro as well as micro level to combat the problem

Mrinal Shekar
4 Jul 2017 | 10:28 am
  • Source:Getty Images

The season of lavish iftars just went by. As the hospitality industry recovers from the culinary OTT of Ramadan, here is a fact that will be difficult to digest. Did you know almost half of every heaving buffet served in hotels for iftar goes waste? 47 per cent to be exact. If that is not shocking enough, according to a study conducted by Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute, it is not just an iftar phenomenon. It happens all year long. For instance, 54 per cent of buffets served at lunches, their report says, lands up in waste too.

While monitoring the food waste generated by more than 50 hotels across the UAE, the Masdar Institute scientists found more such eye-popping facts. Did you know that the most popular way to recycle food waste among hotels is not by distributing it to the hungry but to turn it into compost through massive compost machines installed within the premises? So while 36 per cent of food waste becomes nourishment for kitchen gardens and flower beds in the hotels, only 24 per cent goes to those going hungry.

And if you think it is just hotels who are the culprits, then you are wrong. We all are. On an average, each one of us generates 2.7kg of general waste every day (the world average is about 2kg). This doubles to 5.4kg during Ramadan, 55 per cent of which is food waste. The Masdar Institute report, published in 2015, says, it is estimated that nearly 3.27 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UAE every year. This wasted food is worth $4 billion (approx. Dh13billion).

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, the government authority in charge of this sticky issue, says that the statistics did not show much change in 2016.

If it is any consolation, food loss and waste is a worldwide shame. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which leads international efforts to reduce hunger, globally, one-third of food produced for human consumption – about 1.3 billion tonnes costing around $1 trillion – is lost or wasted annually.

Food wasted in Europe, according to FAO, could feed 200 million people, the approximate population of the world’s fourth most populous country, Indonesia.

As we wrap our heads around these facts, let’s put some context to this issue and why it has become imperative for the UAE to address it.

When the UAE, along with almost 200 other countries, signed up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, it committed itself to bringing about policy changes to ensure effective reduction in its carbon emissions – the root cause for global warming – so that the rise in global temperature is less than 2°C. While the UAE is already on its way to producing clean energy, through installation of nuclear plants, for example, thus reducing its carbon footprint, it is the problem of food waste – the third top emitter of carbon dioxide after the USA and China – that is like a bone in the throat. What makes the problem even more serious is the fact that rotting food waste in landfills emits methane, a gas that is much more toxic than carbon dioxide.

With the UAE being one of the leading countries in the world in terms of per capita food waste, it has become vital that it creates a menu of strategies that curbs the problem at macro as well as micro levels – strategies that not only address issues regarding recycling of food waste in a manner that it does not reach the over spilling landfills, but also help in reducing the per capita amount of food waste. What compounds the problem is the loss of precious resources that go into producing that wasted food. From fuel, fertilizers and water to packaging, all of them contribute to carbon emissions.

While UAE’s goals are clear, the roadmap to achieving these goals is riddled with challenges. As Ryan Ingram, founder of TerraLoop, a Ras Al Khaimah-based environmental consulting company that provides customised food waste solutions to commercial outlets – hospitality as well as retail – points out, there are several reasons for the high amount of food waste. ‘One of which is an extreme lack of awareness,’ he says. To be specific, Ryan is referring to the fact that people quite often are unaware about what is the right way to store their groceries to ensure they maximise their shelf life. ‘And extreme climatic conditions almost throughout the year exacerbate the problem,’ Ryan adds.

But the problem is much more complex than one to be pinned on the 45 plus-degree Celsius temperature outside. It lies in our collective mindset. We surrender to marketing gimmicks such as ‘buy one, get one free’ and ‘all you can eat’; or value meal offers that fast food joints and small restaurants rely on to drive business. We grab bundle offers and discounts on perishables and buy only those products that look perfect in colour and shape – so families are spoilt for choice when it comes to getting the best value for their dirham. But in the process, what we overlook is the collateral damage – half-eaten salads, breads and tiny bowls of dressing or dips that get tipped into the garbage bins as we are unable to finish all that was there in our takeaway; or the extra bread, milk, veggies and fruit that we bought just because they were on offer and are now past expiry; or the simple fact that we often don’t buy fruits and vegetables that merely look less than perfect, compelling supermarkets to eventually throw them away.

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While restaurants can donate excess food from buffets, one of the steps for consumers to reduce food waste is to be open to buying less-than-perfect-looking produce – and then storing it properly.

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As the issue puts the supermarket chains in a bad light, some of them have put together an action plan to reduce their contribution to the problem. Spinney’s, for example, has invested in Modified Atmospheric Packaging (MAP) that increases the shelf life of perishables by five days, says Colette Shannon, the chain’s communications manager. ‘Fresh foods such as breads and deli are prepared in smaller batches throughout the day. That has helped in maintaining high quality standards as well as manage waste,’ she adds. It has also launched a range of fruit and vegetables that are naturally imperfect – produce that was earlier binned by the supermarket. To make them more ‘attractive’ to customers, Spinney’s is retailing them at a heavily discounted price.

Choithram’s, meanwhile, is constantly trying to improve its logistics management so that they are able to predict demand better, says Subhash K, corporate marketing manager. ‘Also, our skilled workforce backed by training, is able to better handle perishables which has helped has combat food waste effectively,’ he adds. To further reduce its waste output, Choithram’s now offers ‘buy one get one free’ on baked goods in locations where it operates an in-house bakery. This offer is valid after 8pm, says Subhash.

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Both these supermarket chains have also tied up with the UAE Food Bank, a Dubai Municipality initiative that encourages participating hotels and supermarkets to donate the excess food that meets the Municipality’s stringent food safety standards. This food is then distributed free of cost among the needy through various charities. This initiative was launched in April when Dubai Municipality opened the first branch in Al Quoz. Since its launch, this one branch has been distributing enough food to feed 300 people on a daily basis. By end of the year, the municipality plans on having around 15 branches of the food bank across the UAE, each equipped with refrigerated containers to store perishables, dry, canned and packaged foods.
This is not the only initiative taken by the UAE to mitigate the problem of waste. In 2011, it set up Dubai Carbon Centre of Excellence, an entity established to help the UAE’s transition to a low-carbon and green economy through the consolidation of knowledge. After extensive research, the organisation has concluded that the annual cost of waste collection from every address in the UAE is a massive Dh7,500 – Dh24 per collection. In an interview with Gulf News earlier this year, Ivano Ianelli, CEO of Dubai Carbon, said that he plans on devising a strategy whereby this cost will be turned into a revenue stream. ‘Our vision is simple, transform food waste and organics into a fuel source,’ he explains. By doing so, the authorities will not only be able to generate income, but be able to achieve the 2021 National Agenda directive of reducing waste headed to landfills by 75 per cent.

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The first branch of the UAE Food Bank has been feeding about 300 people every day since it launched in April.

Hotels, too, are becoming mindful of the food waste they generate. Apart from setting up composting machines that turn organic waste into fertilizer and donating excess food to the UAE Food Bank, some 30 hotels across Dubai are using tools that help chefs reduce food waste. By measuring how much food is binned daily and then analysing the data to understand wastage patterns, they can take measures to reduce waste. An example of how effective this tool has been is Pullman Dubai Creek City Centre Hotel & Residences. Within few months of using this technology, the hotel was able to reduce its food waste by 70 per cent – an annual saving of Dh73,000.

The government is also focusing on awareness campaigns that will help reduce waste at the individual level. One such campaign was the Best Awareness Hypermarket Awards. Launched earlier this month by Dubai Municipality, it encourages supermarkets to come up with creative ways to educate consumers about food storage and a guideline on how to shop for perishables. Campaigns like these, the municipality hopes, will go a long way in reducing food waste at the household level. ‘We want hypermarkets to become another educational hub for consumers,’ says Shagufta Zubair, senior food safety awareness support officer at Dubai Municipality.

In the Year of Giving, it’s time we take responsibility of our eating and shopping habits and as Hussain Nasser Lootah, acting Director General of Dubai Municipality says, ‘volunteer and actively participate in the process of giving food to those in need.’

How five countries are combating the global food waste crisis

USA

According to a 2014 report, every year Americans throw away about 60 billion kilos of food, which is one-third of all the food it produces. What is even more shocking is that about 49 million Americans, according to the same report, do not have access to enough food to be healthy. Bridging this gap are agencies like Food Finders and Feeding America that collect food from grocery stores, produce markets, restaurants and hotels and give it to food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, set ups that cater to homeless or those who are too poor to afford a decent meal. Feeding America in fact feeds 46 million Americans every year and is said to be the largest network of food banks of its kind.

Another major step that US took to combat food waste was the passing of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996. It protects the donor from any kind of liability when donating to a non-profit organisation.

UK

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Volunteers at a UK non-profit called FoodCycle collect surplus food from a Waitrose supermarket in London

The problem of food waste in UK has seen an alarming increase over the years. According to a report published earlier this year 7.3 million tonnes of food is sent to landfills, costing UK families Dh3,300 per year. With 8.4 million UK families struggling to put food on the table – half of them regularly going without food for an entire day – the problem takes on an ethical aspect. Fighting the problem is The Real Junk Food Project. Set up in 2013, it takes surplus edible food – even that which is past its expiry date – from food banks, restaurants, events and even food photographers and prepares meals with it which are then ‘sold’ across its Pay As You Feel cafés. So what is legal tender at these cafés? From donations to time to entertainment, everything and anything is accepted.

FRANCE

In 2016, France passed a law that bans supermarkets from throwing away food, making it compulsory for them to donate all their excess food to food banks and other such charities. According to Jacques Bailet, head of Banques Alimentaires, a network of food banks, they receive 100,000 tonnes of donated goods, 35,000 tonnes of which comes from supermarkets. ‘Even a 15 per cent increase in food coming from supermarkets would mean 10 million more meals being handed out each year,’ says Jacques.

DENMARK

Denmark has been leading the battle against food waste, thanks to the efforts of one woman. Graphic designer Selina Juul set up a lobby group, Stop Spild Af Mad – Stop Wasting Food – in 2008 to spread awareness about the problem. Since then, the country has seen more initiatives mushrooming than anywhere else in the European Union. Some of the initiatives are food banks, pop-up stores selling a bag of food items for as little as Dh11, public kitchens that prepare free meals from foods items donated by supermarkets and farms, and charities that inform the poor about restaurants and hotels that have leftover food from their buffets, giving them the opportunity to pick up a meal at a heavily discounted price. In the past seven years, these efforts have helped Denmark reduce its food waste by 25 per cent.

INDIA

India has several non-profit organisations that collect excess food from hotels, restaurants and large-scale events such as weddings and parties and donate it to the homeless, orphanages, shelters and poor patients in government hospitals. One such organisation is the Robin Hood Army. It operates in 41 cities across India and since its launch in 2014, it has fed more than 1.8 million people. The organisation has now opened chapters in 10 more countries.

Mrinal Shekar

Mrinal Shekar