Turning food waste into organic fertilizer.
Turning food waste into organic fertilizer. Photo credit: Katie Campbell EarthFix/KCTS9 via Flickr

Reducing the amount of food loss and food waste is crucial to feeding a growing population and to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Throwing away edible food means wasting money as well as the work, energy and resources that have gone into producing it.

The Sustainable Development Forum, hosted by SEI Tallinn on 8 November, explored the potential for reducing per capita food waste in Estonia by 2030, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

All participants were invited to post their ideas for solving the problem onto a common IT platform set up for the occasion, and these ideas were discussed by a panel of experts from ministries, food businesses, food banks, and local government.

“Best before” and “use by”

Participants at the Sustainable Development Forum 2016
Participants at the Sustainable Development Forum 2016

One issue discussed was the need to raise consumer awareness – for example, so people know the difference between the labels “best before” (when it will taste best) and “use by” (it may be spoiled after that). Although 90% of the audience said they knew the difference, the labelling system has led to confusion and to food being discarded when it was still safe to eat.

But giving up the labels altogether would not be a solution either. Not having a date of safe consumption on the food package could lead people to be hesitant about consuming the food from a food safety perspective and therefore waste even more.

Another topic discussed was whether food prices should be raised as a catalyst for making people waste less food. This idea has been voiced before – for example, at a side-event at the Committee on World Food Security meeting last month.

Raising food prices

However, it was noted that while Estonia is doing exceptionally well in many aspects, one in four children lives in poverty or is at risk of poverty, so raising food prices cannot be the solution, as food is a basic human right.

Others pointed out that a rise in food prices is foreseen in the coming years anyway due to an increase in the cost of products and as a result of new various taxes that are being discussed in Estonia.

Waste collection and leftover food

A regulator in the panel expressed that the current system of waste collection is not helping to waste less food. At present in Estonia, the monthly waste collection service fee for citizens is very low (equalling on average the price of a cup of coffee and a croissant in a café). Therefore, people don’t have enough incentive to sort biodegradable waste separately or waste less altogether.

Donating leftover food in supermarkets to food banks is currently not compulsory and not regulated by the state. The business representative concluded that donation should remain a voluntary option, since making it compulsory for the supermarkets would create an extra workload and logistical stress for the commercial sector.

An “Uber” for reducing food waste

There was also discussion about the possibility of creating an “Uber for reducing food waste”. Similar apps and solutions for sharing food have been created globally and seem to work well. Also, there are examples of informal food-sharing in residential buildings in Germany and Finland, for instance, where a common refrigerator in the basement is used for people to leave food that they end up not using due to travelling or having cooked too much at once.

However, such food-sharing systems, whether informal or via an app, come down to trust. Are we ready to trust the food that citizens are sharing and leave for us to consume?

As a conclusion, we can say that it is individuals who are the key to reducing food waste. According to research carried out by SEI Tallinn, over 70% of food waste in Estonia happens in households rather than supermarkets or the food industry, which clearly indicates that much of the effort to reduce waste comes down to us as individuals. It is our consumption patterns, our awareness as consumers and actions that set an example to our children as future consumers and therefore the future of the food waste problem.

The Sustainable Development Forum is organized biannually by SEI Tallinn. This year the forum concentrated on the interlinkages of food and climate change.

Sustainable Development Forum 2016 Logo