November 25th, 2016
Copenhagen’s second ‘Wefood’ surplus food supermarket opened on Monday 7th November. Products in the shop are donated, for example due to damaged packaging or being close to or past best-before dates, and sold at 50-70% below the market price. The expansion builds on the success of the first Wefood, which received more than 25 tonnes of donations in the first three months after it opened in February. Both stores are run by DanChurchAid and staffed by volunteers.
Denmark seems to need all the help it can get in getting to grips with food waste. The country has the dubious honour of being top of the EU class in per capita production of municipal solid waste (MSW). Denmark produced 759 kg of MSW per inhabitant in 2014, with households responsible for an incr(edible) 50 kg of food per person; that’s 17% more than the (estimated) EU average of 43 kg per person. According to data collated from 2012 and 2014, avoidable food waste amounts to 720,000 tonnes annually, with households, services/retail and food production each contributing around a third of the total.
The Danish government committed to continuing to reduce avoidable food waste in its 2015 waste prevention strategy and is prioritising seven initiatives targeting different sources of waste. These include “food waste hunters” in the food services sector, working at an EU-level to exempt more products from shelf-life labelling and somewhat woolly “analyses” and “assessments” of avoidable waste from vegetables and potatoes and resource inefficiencies in the fisheries and aquaculture sector.
Furthermore, the Food and Environment Ministry recently announced that 13 projects have been awarded a total of 5.6 million DKK (£650,000) from the national food waste prevention fund. The diverse projects include national consumer-facing information campaigns and apps, innovative sensors to detect spoiled food and initiatives working with the service sector to increase their use of less-than-perfect vegetables. The Ministry has also hosted a third annual conference on food waste, specifically billed as having given stakeholders the opportunity to influence the future of food waste prevention in Denmark.
The Danish government therefore appears to be looking for a diversity of solutions to make a dent in food waste. Even before the government took interest, though, the last ten years saw numerous solutions sprout – and they continue to do so, mostly without specific government support. Many of them are exciting and all are beneficial, but if you consider their profusion, their overlaps and their blindspots, this “thousand flowers” approach seems rather less than ideal.
There have certainly been successes, including one of the earliest arrivals on the scene – the consumer-led movement, Stop Spild Af Mad (‘Stop Wasting Food’). Since 2008, it has worked with householders, shops, restaurants and the food production industry to coordinate a number of initiatives, such as free “goodie” (doggy) bags in restaurants and canteens, the redistribution of surplus food from music festivals and other events and persuading supermarkets to end multi-buy discount. Stop Spild Af Mad is credited with raising food waste’s place on the agenda in homes as well as in Borgen, and counts almost 1 in 100 Danes (50,000 people) as members.
A number of smaller “start-up” type initiatives have also popped up recently, which, like Wefood, aim to create a more direct path to redistribute surplus food to consumers. My favourite is Too Good to Go, recent winner of the Nordic Council Environment Prize. This app and website was launched in Copenhagen, but is used across Denmark as well as in Norway, Germany, France and the UK (Brighton, Leeds, London, with more to come). The app has been downloaded more than 700,000 times already and the company claims it has prevented 700 tonnes of food waste since launching in late 2015.
The concept is simple: using a map or location search, consumers can identify participating cafes and restaurants with (expectations of) surplus food available at closing time. Portions are purchased through the app and collected after or around closing time that same day, usually within in a set 10-20 minute window. Prices are kept low, between 20 to 39 DKK (£2.50 – £5.00) for a box of buffet food, salad, sushi or a bag of bread and pastries.
It is a here-and-now solution and therefore only suitable for those consumers flexible enough collect their food at the time when it is available. As reviews on the app stores testify, it only works if there are enough options within a local area to make the app worthwhile to download and use, but the tonnage of food waste it has prevented in just its first year shows that it can be effective.
YourLocal is a similar app but extends to shops. Participating businesses can post notices of special offers – typically around half price – on items that are nearing their expiration date or likely to be left over at the end of the day. This includes fresh products, cheesecake, a lunch menu and even beer! Sometimes non-food items, such as flowers, also make an appearance. Items are purchased directly at the shop during opening hours, making it more flexible than Too Good To Go. It is also open to businesses selling services such as photography, singing lessons, theatre tickets and massage treatments, where last-minute cancellations allow the businesses to offer a discounted rate for a ‘here-and-now’ booking.
Yet another initiative is the up-and-coming Foopla, an app and web-based portal where green grocers can advertise special offers, including produce that is nearing the end of its shelf life. The initiative aims both to reduce food waste and also to support smaller shops that are threatened by encroaching supermarkets. It is perhaps the most flexible and convenient of the options, allowing consumers to shop online, buy both reduced and regular priced goods, and collect their shopping during opening hours.
There is something right about employing innovative, engaging and bespoke solutions to tackle the pervasive problem of food waste. Each of these initiatives is tech-based, making them easy for many in the smart-phone generation to use. They make discounted, surplus food readily accessible on the high street. However, while the number of slightly different initiatives is in some ways encouraging, it also poses problems.
The variety of systems risks creating confusion and inconvenience for users. All require a degree of flexibility, and each offers a rather random selection of goods; it would be practically impossible to feed yourself while relying on just one, but sifting through the various apps, stores and discount offers demands a degree of dedication to the cause that even the darkest-green consumer might lack. Perhaps most importantly, most of the focus is on food waste in stores and cafes, where only a third of avoidable waste occurs.
If Denmark is to put a real dent in its six-digit avoidable food waste problem, government must take more of a lead. There scope for more co-ordination to help make more surplus food accessible through a single platform. Perhaps there is even a role for the stick of regulation alongside the carrot of initiatives – the apps might be even better used if businesses producing more than a certain tonnage of food waste were required to sign up to one.
Government could also consider regulating to tackle other aspects of food waste such as:
- Mandatory sorting of organic waste fractions would force both householders and businesses to face the reality of the amount of food waste they produce;
- A ban on businesses macerating and disposing of food waste through the sewerage system would again force businesses to face up to (and pay for) their food waste; and
- Providing incentives for food processors to investment in new, more efficient equipment or business practices, which might not otherwise be prioritised where short-term profits are the focus.
Ultimately, however, I would also like to see a more cultural level of change – a move away from the expectation that every kind of food is instantly-available year round, straight off the supermarket shelf or restaurant menu, as waste is inevitable within this system. I also believe that where we feel a closer link with the producers of food, we are less likely to waste it. Copenhagen’s food co-operative, Fødevarefællesskab, enables members to pre-order bags of fruits and vegetables, which are then directly supplied by local farmers. If you know by name the person who pulled your carrots out of the ground and your co-members who packed them in a bag for you, you’re less likely to let them turn to orange mush at the back of the fridge.
For the time being, helping link consumers with surplus food is a reasonably beneficial sticking plaster, but it will take a lot more than this to truly prevent the great majority of Denmark’s avoidable food waste.