Winning the war against food waste

Governments need to hit the play button on actions that were paused by the pandemic, including the fight against food waste, writes Jeff Olling.

Jeff Olling

The coronavirus pandemic has created the most difficult challenges ever faced by state and federal leaders. Keeping people safe and healthy, vaccine rollouts, supporting small business and keeping the workforce intact has been a difficult balancing act. From an economic and social point of view, even if our response is the envy of the world right now, the future is uncertain.

But one thing is certain: we need to hit the play button on actions that were paused by the government because of the pandemic. One item that should be top of the agenda is our fight against food waste, given its significance to a sustainable future.

The problem

To put into context how big a problem food waste is in Australia; let’s put it into figures. We waste more than 7.3 million tonnes of food every year, which is equivalent to filling 9,000 Olympic swimming pools. We are the fourth highest contributor to food waste per capita in the world (behind US, Canada and Belgium), to a cost of $20 billion to the economy each year. The scale of the issue is not widely known. In a recent survey we commissioned through YouGov, only six percent of consumers estimated the cost of food waste to the taxpayer. The majority thought it was around $5 billion.

When food is disposed of in landfill and decomposes, it produces methane which is 28 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. So food waste is estimated to contribute around 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It has been overlooked when it comes to its contribution to sustainability. Food waste didn’t feature high on the list of environmental concerns for consumers in our research. It took sixth place to be exact, lagging behind issues of water scarcity and pollution, deforestation and recycling. There is an opportunity to join the dots and help Australians understand how food waste is part of both the climate emergency and our economic recovery.

The response

To tackle the issue, businesses and consumers want support from their governments. The majority of SMBs we surveyed said they are encountering barriers to reducing food waste and more than six in ten SMB owners believe all levels of government can do more to address the issue.

The National Food Waste Strategy established a framework to support actions that work towards halving Australia’s food waste by 2030. Momentum behind that strategy has been slow, but recent signs suggest momentum is building. Minister Ley’s recent announcement of a new body called ‘Stop Food Waste Australia’ to the investment of $4 million also indicates government urgency on the issue. Similarly, the landmark Recycling and Waste Reduction bill introduced by the government in August was also a positive development. The initiatives are stepping stones, but to develop fundamental change, a unilateral framework which businesses can follow is essential to securing the sustainable future we crave.

Commonwealth framework

Commonwealth, State and local governments are all seeking a sustainable future. It is the states’ and territories’ responsibility to administer benefits from sustainable practices. However, this is vastly different across Australia. In many parts of the country, local councils also administer state regulations and provide their own interpretation to those regulations. This creates uncertainty for businesses and a disincentive to participate in sustainable initiatives, which leaves more food waste going to landfill.

What is required is a uniform, consistent regulatory framework that is robust but flexible across all Australian jurisdictions. For example, many businesses operate across state lines or even local council lines. Different frameworks mean there are vast differences in regulations and tools to help you reduce waste. This is counterproductive and doesn’t encourage firms to reduce waste. A country wide framework would provide much needed certainty and confidence for many types of businesses to realise their sustainability vision and to participate in the circular economy. This will provide Australia with the opportunity to generate significant economic and jobs growth. The framework is even more important for the federal government in its response to economic recovery.

The next phase

It is difficult to look beyond the challenges COVID-19 has brought upon us. But our research shows Australians want businesses to adopt more sustainable practices to aid economic recovery following the pandemic. These practices can only be achieved if we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. Unless we adopt a framework where all businesses can adhere to the same standards, we will ultimately fail to achieve our targets of reducing food waste. As we approach the year ahead, cautiously optimistic, we must reset our approach. If we were to rate our performance so far, the scorecard would read ‘a lot done, more to do’ in the fight against food waste.

By Jeff Olling is Chief of Stakeholder Relations at iugis

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