We live in a world whose population; food, water and energy consumption; industrial production; pollution and waste are increasing due to human activity, while natural resources diminish. We Finns participate in this by adding 400 million kilogrammes a year to the food waste mountain. A tenth of such waste is made up of vital proteins. Protein is precisely the nutrient whose scarcity people will suffer from first, if there is not enough food for everyone.
The current volume of waste would meet the protein needs of the entire Finnish population, plus the protein supplement needs of Finland’s livestock, each and every day, if recovered before it entered the waste bin.
Dumped food is a sheer waste of dwindling natural resources and money. It’s Iike throwing hundreds of millions of euros down the drain.
The circular economy needs solutions for minimising food waste and harnessing its value
Waste is a substance, material or item that has come to the end of its lifecycle and is disposed of. Such a concept is alien to the circular economy. Instead, there are only raw materials, which a huge variety of processes continuously transform into products. There are no end points, combustion plants or landfills in the circular economy. This is a highly ambitious goal and every effort is being made to achieve it. We need to, since the waste mountain is growing but natural resources are dwindling faster than they can be renewed.
When will rapeseed and mash proteins appear on the shop shelves?
Side stream and waste protein is generated by agriculture, the food industry, retail and consumption. Industrial sidestream protein is in bran, brewers’ spent grain, oilseed presscake and slughterhouse side-streams. Most of this could be processed into high-quality, delicious foodstuffs, before ending up as feed – or fertilisers generated in compost or biogas plants.
Sidestream protein winds up smoothly on our plates in baked goods and protein-rich dairy products, or as a treat for pigs in the form of rapeseed press cake pellets or brewers’ spent grain. So far, so good.
Innovative, sustainable, protein enrichment technologies and the related skills are in demand in industry. Separating protein from other sidestream components is not enough. Skills in processing vegetable proteins into a form with an attractive texture and taste are particularly needed. Proof of such skills has already appeared on the shop shelves: You can now fill your shopping trolley with vegetarian ‘pulled’ and processed products made from first-class ingredients – oats and horse beans. But ‘rapeseed’ and ‘mash’ protein products have yet to appear.
The progress of waste protein to wiser end-use will get a little harder from now on – or will it?
We have now reached the stage in the food chain where some basic and processed ingredients have been blended together to form food or even meals. We are shopping for groceries.
The retail sector wastes 70 million tonnes of food per year, around ten percent of which is protein. The amount of waste determines whether a shop makes a profit or loss. So waste must either be reduced or made profitable. Reducing waste would be the easiest way to do this, and the retail sector has taken this path in compliance with the waste hierarchy principle of the circular economy: first minimise and only then recycle. Food waste can be halved and the financial results improved when retail waste management programmes dovetail with other systems and logistics.
Viable solutions exist for the effective minimisation of waste, but it will never be completely eliminated. So what will happen to foodstuffs still on the shelf, but with today as their ‘best before’ date? Recycling and use, right? This is where the circular economy begins. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
Most food waste from shops ends up in landfill rather than with those who need it. This is not due to an uncaring, callous or cruel attitude but legislation, which requires that food safety be ensured. The law does not permit food beyond its ‘best before’ date to be given to those in need, no matter how high-quality and edible such food may be. So some healthy common sense and reasoning are needed. A law is entering preparation to enable and require the distribution of food loss. Until the law is enacted, the valuable protein in food loss will reach the end of its lifecycle in supermarket skips.
We throw out 150 million kilogrammes of food each year
The bottomless pit of waste protein lies in households in particular, as well as in communities such as schools and kindergartens. We consumers throw 150 million kilogrammes of food into the bin or biowaste each year.
We Finns are good at recycling paper, cardboard, glass, metal, plastic and clothes. We can only recycle food by eating it, or throwing leftovers into our garden compost or bio-waste containers to become fertiliser. This is just fine, but a much more sustainable and economical solution would be to minimise leftovers, just as shops do in relation to loss and waste. It’s very simple and highly profitable: Eat all of the food you buy and cook.
So let’s go through it one more time: Let’s process sidestream proteins from production and industry into new products, utilise retail food loss efficiently, distribute retail food loss to those in need, make compost from leftovers and, again, eat whatever we buy. That is how we can be save the environment and half a billion euros each year.
Raija Lantto is a Principal Scientist in VTT’s Biotechnology and Food Research.