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Thursday, 5 July 2018

Supermarket food waste: prevent, redistribute, share - Towards a circular economy?

John Lever, Fiona Cheetham, & Morven McEachern, University of Huddersfield Business School.
  • This project report explores the sharing of supermarket food waste in Kirklees, West Yorkshire. Conducted over a nine-month period from September 2017, the research was funded by the University of Huddersfield Business School. 
  • In the project, we used qualitative methods to explore whether the sharing of supermarket food waste through NGOs increases the sustainability of the wider food system, or if this trend is a response to its increasing unsustainably.
  • Looking beyond the current extractive industrial model that generates so much waste, in principle the circular economy aims to redesign products and services to eliminate waste at source. It is the links between sharing and circular thinking and the wider relationship with the sustainability of the food system that this project report is ultimately concerned with.
  • There was a general consensus that it is all but impossible to eliminate food waste completely from supermarket operations and international food supply chains. Even in a sustainable food system, there will always be a degree of surplus food to be redistributed to people in need. 
  • All the NGOs consulted were reluctant to call the food they received from supermarkets “waste”, and the terms “wasted food” and “spare food” were sometimes used interchangeably with the notion of “surplus food”. In this context, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is often used to justify the linear model of food production and consumption that generates vast quantities of food waste.
  • Independent food banks (IFBs) encounter a number of problems and barriers in their work. These revolve around the type and volume of food they receive from supermarkets, which they have no control over. Conversely, NGOs within the national distribution network (NDN) never accept supermarket “surplus” unless it is in good condition and they have the capacity to redistribute/share it before it becomes “food waste”. 
  • The value of the work being done by NGOs was widely recognized, yet concerns were expressed from both a political and environmental perspective about the normalization of these ways of working.
  • Sending less ‘surplus’ food to anaerobic digestion as ‘waste’ in order to share and redistribute more food through NGOs was seen by some interviewees as one way of enhancing the links between sharing and circular economic thinking. At the same time, others argued that these ways of working add another level of governance to the existing linear model.
  • Central government policy is not keeping up with the developments in technology that can drive movement towards a circular economy. As well as redistributing and sharing surplus food from supermarkets regionally, more food needs to be produced regionally, both on local farms and through the use of vertical farming, for example, to minimize food waste at sourceand encourage circular economic thinking.
  • While it is difficult to envisage a completely circular food system emerging, cities and regions such as Kirklees can help to reduce the burden of supermarket food waste by encouraging circular economic thinking. But better Central Government Policy and sustainable business models are needed to facilitate movement in this direction. Public and private bodies at the regional and national level must navigate the tensions involved as a matter of urgency.

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