Cebolas danificadas. Crédito: Stella de Smit/Unsplash

Food recycling: find out actions to reduce food waste

1.3 billion tons of food is wasted annually, whether due to failure in logistics or storage, standard issues or lack of consumer awareness; however, innovative initiatives seek solutions

It's still dark outside while the farmer selects the food to be delivered to the buyer. During the process of corncob separation, they are divided into four categories: 1A, with the most beautiful samples; 2A, with samples of medium commercial value; 3A, with the lowest commercial value; and the imperfect and varied, which find no buyers and are usually wasted.

The difference between the 1A corncobs and those imperfect and varied is merely aesthetic. Differences in color pattern, shape and size determine the samples to be sent to the buyer - who resells them to the end consumer in trays that require each of the corncobs to have a certain size, defined by contract. Those that do not fit in the profile, as a rule, are wasted.

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According to the report The Value of Flexible Packaging in Extending Shelf Life and Reducing Food Waste, published in 2015 by the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) and translated into Portuguese by the Brazilian Packaging Association (Abre), 34.7 million tons of food are wasted annually in the United States, representing 40 percent of all food marketed in the country - and its impact on greenhouse gas emissions is around 27 million tons of CO2e.

According to the Climate Change report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), the volume of food wasted worldwide is huge: 1.3 billion tons of food in good condition are wasted every year – it’s one-third of food produced for human consumption, generating an estimated economic loss of USD 940 billion. In Brazil, the waste exceeds 41 thousand tons per year.

Food waste has two major bottlenecks. The first one is the loss between production and logistics that takes it to its point of sale. The second is where food is thrown away the most: between the seller and the end consumer.

The FDA document reports that a third of food waste occurs, on average, in this final phase: 35% of fresh vegetables, 37% of fresh fruit, 22% of poultry, 27% of beef and 39% of poultry are wasted between retail and our own homes.

Cenouras danificadas. Crédito: Thomas Gamstaetter/Unsplash

Food reuse: consuming imperfect food

That corncob that didn’t meet the standards and would be wasted may now find its place in the food chain. There is a global movement of local initiatives dedicated to giving commercial and social value to this type of food. One of them is based in the neighborhood of Vila Guarani, in the south area of São Paulo.

The Fruta Imperfeita project began when the mechanical engineer Roberto Matsuda and the food engineer Nathalia Inada decided to dedicate their careers to developing a sustainable business. In 2015, the couple talked to more than 30 small producers in the region of Atibaia, a city in the state of São Paulo where Roberto grew up in his parents' flower farm, to understand the biggest difficulties in their business. The answer was almost unanimous: what to do with non-standard products?

"We realized the need to make people aware of this problem, that nature produces food that does not meet commercial standards, but can be consumed as much as the beautiful ones - and they are currently wasted," explained Roberto. "Thus, a movement for information and awareness was born."
 

Roberto Matsuda, fundador do Fruta Imperfeita, analisa maçãs recuperadas
Roberto Matsuda, fundador do Fruta Imperfeita, analisa maçãs recuperadas

Roberto and Nathalia visited schools, clubs, and several institutions to show that wasted food has value. And they realized there was a business opportunity. They published a website, got a car for delivery and decided to sell subscriptions for baskets of imperfect fruits and vegetables. "The customer does not choose the product; they only inform their restrictions. We set up the baskets [that can weigh from 3 to 10 kilos] according to what is available: it comes from small producers, from local producers and respects natural seasons," explains Roberto.

In the beginning, there were only 30 baskets. Today, 1,300 baskets are distributed weekly to a base of 1,500 subscribers - and they already have over 3,000 subscription requests. "We do not increase our service since we are also concerned with sustainability in the delivery and we must also think, from the logistic point of view, about how to reduce carbon emissions," justifies Roberto. "People want to be part of a movement like this, but there are many ways to collaborate: sometimes it is better to find a local market and buy products from a small producer," he recommends.

According to the company, the average price per kilo of food is compatible to those in the market - subscriptions start at BRL 30.00 - and 30% cheaper than conventional delivery services. "Our proposal is to solve the producer's problem, paying a fair price and generating income for them. It is a way of fueling the market, fostering a positive cycle," says Roberto. Currently, 30 farmers and 5 cooperatives provide fruits and vegetables, amounting to about 8 tons of food per week and 35 tons per month.

Food for those who need it the most

The FDA report shows that one of the main reasons for household waste (both in restaurants or domestic kitchens) is the miscalculation in buying and preparing food: excess food is wasted. In domestic use alone, every American citizen wastes 132 kilos of food in good conditions of conservation every year. Aside the obvious social and environmental impact, economically this represents USD 161.6 billion lost annually.

On the other hand, the US has the worst poverty rate among rich countries, with more than 40 million people struggling to keep food on the table. In Brazil, the number is higher: 53 million Brazilians are living in poverty, with 13 million people starving. Taking surplus food to those in need is the idea behind the app Comida Invisível.

The app has been nicknamed "The Food Tinder," because its purpose is to connect people, restaurants, bars and markets to NGOs, day care centers, shelters and even individuals in need of food. The lawyer Daniela Leite, journalist Sergio Ignacio and publicist Flavia Vendramin created the organization and operate Comida Invisível since 2016.

The idea began to take shape when Daniela started dealing with Ceagesp's day-to-day business, a food distribution center in São Paulo. The lawyer worked for free in exchange for information and discovered that from the 3 thousand booths, only 150 had already donated food and that only 30 did it regularly. "Ceagesp’s food bank (kind of a donation center) receives 160 tons of food per month. They are like 16 garbage trucks loaded with food, catering to 29,000 people. However, per day, 100 tons are wasted, or ten trucks," the lawyer told the Paladar section of Estadão newspaper.

Coleção de pimentões. Crédito: Martin Adams/Unsplash

One of the concerns of Comida Invisível is to provide legal safety for those who decide to donate: anyone who registers in the app to receive food signs a liability agreement. In addition, there is a quality control so that food is not delivered if it’s unfit for consumption. "We act to facilitate transactions between small businesses and entities, with the help of scheduling and maps to highlight geographic proximity," said Ignacio, in an interview with the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. "In today's world, in which technology provides horizontal structures, the behavior change we want to encourage has to be digital," he concluded. 

For Alan Bojanic, representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), projects like these are great ways to think about more efficient consumption. "All these initiatives go in the right direction to make better use of food," he says.

Correct use of packaging is important to preserve food

De acordo com o levantamento realizado pela FDA nos EUA, o principal motivo para o desperdício de pratos

According to the FDA survey in the US, the main reason for wasting ready-made meals, meat and dairy products is consumer behavior. However, in the case of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as bread and eggs, the blame for food deterioration is a result of inadequate transportation and storage.

"In the context of waste, consumers need to be made aware that they need a better attitude when it comes to buying food, storing it in their homes and, especially, when using it," Bojanic proposes. "We have to change our habits to enjoy everything in our food."

In terms of loss along the production chain, there are two alternatives: improving logistics and promoting proper packaging for each product. "In the case of groceries, for example, a proper packaging would aim at loss reduction. We have to enable small farmers to have access to knowledge and tools to seek efficiency," says Luciana Pellegrino, executive director of the Brazilian Packaging Association (Abre).

The FDA's conclusion is that many consumers do not recognize that packaging protects food and underuse it, reducing its shelf life. The recommendation of the entity is to increase citizen awareness and to propose flexible solutions that increase food shelf life.

Roberto Matsuda, from Fruta Imperfeita, says that in the case of sensible foods such as tomatoes, improper transportation and storage can result in a loss of up to 20% - and the lower the profit the product yields, the lower the quality of their packaging, causing high loss rates. "Export-type foods have minimal loss, but the imperfect and varied ones come in bulk and are much wasted," he says. "At Ceagesp, about 80% of the packaging is incorrect. It's too much!"
 

Seleção de frutas e legumes no centro de distribuição do Fruta Imperfeita
Seleção de frutas e legumes no centro de distribuição do Fruta Imperfeita

Fruta Imperfeita packs its products in reusable cardboard boxes: since they go to the same households on a weekly basis, they are able to apply reverse logistics to reuse the boxes. Currently, there is an average return of approximately 70%, considering half of the total returning in good use conditions: 30,000 boxes have been reused, representing 8 tons of cardboard.

"Packaging may be the most efficient, adequate and sustainable solution, but it has the problem of incorrect disposal," analyzes Luciana. "We need to focus on consumer awareness and encourage reverse logistics. We have to go further as a society: the government must contribute and the industry needs to encourage and value recyclable material," she concludes.