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Smarten up and address food waste

11 November 2018

Philip Simpson highlights the steps that food manufacturers should be taking to reap the commercial benefits of tackling food waste. 

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) 1.85 million tonnes of food is wasted during the manufacturing process every year. This equates to £1.2bn per annum of direct cost affecting the bottom line of the UK’s food manufacturing sector. 

If we were to achieve zero food waste to landfill nationwide by 2020 it would be possible to generate over 1.1tW of energy, 27 million fewer tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, return over 1.3 million tonnes of nutrient-rich fertiliser to farmland and save the public sector over £3.7 billion – a huge economic benefit which is currently being overlooked.

Today, the vast majority of food waste is still being sent straight to landfill – at a huge cost, that is passed on to consumers. Of course, diverting it from landfill should be the goal for all unavoidable food waste. But what about the avoidable food waste that is costing the manufacturing industry millions? 
The first step in eradicating, or at least minimising waste is to identify where it is occurring and then, where possible, preventing it. There will be certain hotspots within every production process that are the key culprits. 

Firstly, there is product specification. There has already been some traction here with supermarkets now actively encouraging consumers to embrace ‘wonky vegetables.

Uniformity and consistency often results in waste of good quality produce, when rejected products could and should be diverted from bins for re-use in other products. 

If these opportunities don’t exist internally, then new channels should be sought, either through product development or seeking out commercial partners who can use viable products in soups and fillers, for example, where aesthetics are less important. Similarly, trimmings, ends and peelings can find homes in soups, relishes, sauces and fillings, ensuring they are fully utilised. 

With the increasing use of robotics and automation in food production, there is still no room for complacency, with production errors still accounting for 12% of food manufacturing waste (according to WRAP). However, with automation comes information derived from data and this should be fully exploited to identify and deal with issues quickly. 

Automation can increase the accuracy of weighing and measurement as well as quickly identifying contaminants – especially where X-ray equipment is part of the process, scanning for foreign bodies, or faults with packaging. 

Similarly, when data is used more effectively up and down the supply chain, it can help identify and eliminate overproduction and ensure supply and demand are as closely aligned as possible, especially for perishable goods. 

The role of technology
Technology is playing an increasingly pivotal role in helping to eliminate avoidable waste in the following ways:
• Delivery – Stock is automatically controlled and ordered.
• Cooking – More precise cooking means perfect timing and minimal waste.
• Storage – Automatic control of temperature results in less product spoilage.
• Packing – Products are made and packaged on demand. 
• Distribution – Automated robots are used to pick and pack products to order.
Where a company is dealing with unavoidable food waste streams such as shells, gristle and bones, or even contract losses, then the waste hierarchy is clear. If you have lost a contract, redistribute the food. If you are left with unavoidable or inedible waste, even out of date produce, never send it to landfill, always recycle it.
Industry 4.0 is offering manufacturers unprecedented opportunities to plan, deliver and monitor food production in a way that is more responsive to demand and that eliminates contamination and food recalls. A new era of ‘smart factories’ will enable accurate and precise production, on-demand packaging and labelling, and help to minimise waste by finding new markets for surplus outputs. 

It might seem complicated, but properly addressing food waste could save the industry hundreds of millions of pounds, as it prompts leaner and greener processes. The finances stack up, as do the benefits. It’s easier than you may think to embrace Industry 4.0 technology and zero waste thinking. 

Philip Simpson is commercial director at ReFood.

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