A third of the food that is produced in South Africa is destined for landfill sites, which are fast reaching full capacity. According to statistics, South Africa produces 10 million tonnes of food waste every year and reportedly, has the largest proportion of food wastage in Africa. Yet, an average of 14 million people go to bed hungry every night and 2,5 million of these are children. The recent pandemic has fuelled the food crisis, by increasing the level of food insecurity in the country, placing an even larger emphasis on the management of such food waste, and making sure that – where it can’t be mitigated, it should be repurposed through useful innovation.
The uncomfortable truth
Food waste occurs early in the supply chain during production and handling, from the moment it is farmed all the way into retail stores and ultimately into consumer’s homes. At production level, food waste results from various challenges such as climate changes, soil quality, diseases and / or not having enough labour to harvest an entire crop, or retailers placing a premium on quality and deciding to turn away produce that might not be ‘attractive’. This food that is produced, but never consumed, ends up in landfills including; fruits, vegetables and cereals which alone account for 70% of this waste.
If we consider that World Food Day provides an occasion to highlight the plight of 870 million undernourished/impoverished people in the world – evidently, we simply cannot afford the amount of food waste produced. This is especially given the fact that global warming and the biofuel boom are now threatening to push the number of hungry individuals even higher.
On an even darker side of the food waste crisis, over and above the struggle to divert waste from landfills, food waste carries components that lead to the production of methane gas - a greenhouse gas that is even more potent than carbon dioxide.
Addressing food waste through innovation
As the world commemorates World Food Day on 16 October 2020, the theme this year calls for ‘smart solutions’. The waste management industry is continually investigating alternative strategies to manage food waste and exploring technologies to divert waste from landfills. Much of the waste produced has some sort of value and, in today’s environment, food waste is certainly no different – with the potential to be converted into an alternative resource such as energy; another crucial area for discussion locally.
Other provisions which offer sustainable solutions around different ways to recover and renew food waste include composting, anaerobic digestion, and animal feeds.
Natural gases and anaerobic digestion
Waste related natural gases that form as a result of landfills and anaerobic digestion, and the breaking down of any organic matter, are rich in Methane and are therefore combustible. This means that this type of gas presents a key opportunity where, through sound waste innovations, waste management companies are able to flare this gas (destroy the methane) to ensure it is not hazardous to the environment, as it is an ozone destroying gas. Furthermore, this type of gas flaring can also be financially beneficial as carbon credits can be claimed or traded. This type of saving is essential for business – especially now – as government institutes carbon tax.
Through anaerobic digestion (the process used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste or to produce fuels, through microorganisms breaking down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen), food waste can form a fundamental part of the fuel value chain, reduce reliance on coal-powered electricity for smaller entities and ensure a more sustainable model for electricity supply.
For example: Interwaste supplies organic waste to a 4MW anaerobic digestion plant in Gauteng. The gas currently being generated from this plant is being used to generate electricity which is then “wheeled” to a car manufacturer’s plant in Rosslyn, Pretoria. As a result, the anaerobic digestion plant supplies up to 30% of the manufacturer’s plant energy requirement from renewable sources.
Natural gases and the food waste that supports this, play a fundamental role in driving down the use of fossil fuels and can present alternatives to fuel, an opportunity for municipalities to operate 100% off the grid. Additionally, if converted to compressed natural gas (CNG), this can be sold to market or be used as an alternative to vehicle fuel, for converted or hybrid engines. Another potential avenue and to affect a positive influence on further reducing human exposure risk - by both food waste that would have otherwise gone to landfill and reducing reliance on fossil fuel by-products such as petroleum and diesel to power vehicles.
South Africa has stringent waste management legislation compared to our African counterparts, and as more waste types are being banned from landfill sites each year, businesses, retailers, manufacturers as well as ordinary South Africans will be compelled to look for alternative waste solutions. The process of collecting waste and converting it into energy can be costly, but with the changes in legislation and carbon and landfill taxes being implemented, the costs of managing and disposing waste will increase, making alternative uses of waste more viable and beneficial for the environment and society at large.
The South African Government has made a global commitment to halve food waste by the year 2030. To reach this goal, food waste will need to be restricted at production and supply chains levels, including, post-harvest losses as well as retail and consumer levels.
In support of this, new laws have been legislated and regulations are being rolled out, aimed at ‘cleaning-up’ South Africa, and reducing the negative environmental and health impacts caused by waste.
If we were to realise zero food waste to landfill, this would certainly have a positive impact on food security, natural resource use, and climate change. The good news is that this is something we can all actively take part in by making small changes in our purchasing habits and daily lives. When waste can’t be avoided, we need to recycle food waste into products or energy sources – such as compost, animal feed, or biogas – that benefit not only the society but the economy as well.
There is a lot more that must be done in terms of addressing and effectively reducing food waste in the country. Part of this challenge, this World Food day, is embedding this knowledge within government, businesses, and households through education – especially around how to manage food and food waste appropriately – of which all stakeholders play a crucial role if we hope to see a real change.