Are Grocery Stores the Solution to Food Waste?

In Ireland, food waste accounts for over one million tons of trash every year, according to the Department of Communications, Climate Action, & Environment. As individuals, our waste accounts for one out of those million. With the numbers only rising, it may seem hopeless to prevent food waste from becoming an even bigger problem. Despite that, one major supermarket has been instrumental in leading the fight against waste in its facilities: Tesco. 

The major UK grocery store chain started its initiative to be more conscious about their trash in 2009, as stated on Tesco’s website. Spearheading it’s No Time for Waste plan, Tesco’s first focus was to stop food going to landfill. As reported by Environment Victoria, this initial step is important, because when food is put into landfills, the compression creates the greenhouse gas methane, a damaging component to our ozone. 

The grocery chain then moved onto repurposing food through donations to local organizations. Through the organization FoodCloud, Tesco donates food they can no longer sell. FoodCloud operates Monday-Friday to collect stores’ surplus food and puts it to use the same day. Most of what they collect are fruits, vegetables, and bread, all things that spoil easily. This organization makes a difference because it takes the liability off facilities. Previously, Tesco couldn’t donate food due to the possibility of food poisoning, which could lead to potential lawsuits. However, once the food is obtained, FoodCloud takes on the responsibility, making it simple for a store to give away food that would be otherwise thrown away. There are still limitations to this partnership. FoodCloud can’t accept any fresh food or chilled items due to health issues. Unfortunately, this is the type of food that does still go to waste at Tesco facilities. On the bright side, Tesco claims to have donated over 4 million meals, averaging 40,000 meals a week to local groups in need due in part by the work done by FoodCloud.

Even though Tesco has been audited by a third party to ensure they’re doing their part to prevent food waste, others believe it isn’t enough. This could partially be because of the instinctive urge to have distrust in large cooperation. Ironically, in this case, it’s the one making a large difference in how the UK views food waste. On the other hand, when talking to some employees at the Galway Tesco, one man noted that he “hadn’t seen much of a change in [his] four years” while working there. From his perspective, he saw the employees as having more of a passive role when it came to food waste. “We just sort things into bins” he explained. “We still throw away a lot of food”.

Some believe that supermarkets are trying to get rid of the blame by pushing it on to consumers. Near the beginning of Tesco’s reform, they claimed that most waste occurs in households. While it’s true that households do play a role in preventing food waste, grocery stores are a hotbed for food waste. This is only exacerbated by sell-by and expiration dates. Supermarkets are legally not allowed to sell a product that exceeds the sell-by date, being forced to bin tons of products that may still be decent. These dates also affect households, most throwing away food that has passed the expiration date for fear of contamination. 

However, not all people think Tesco’s efforts have been for nothing. I got in contact with the store manager who had been working for Tesco for ten years. “It’s got a hell of a lot better” he recounted, when asked if he had noticed a change with food waste. Before the campaigns Tesco began implementing, any food that was in surplus would simply be thrown away. “We weren’t allowed to give away food, no matter what”. The manager praised FoodCloud for this reason, giving most of the credit to Tesco’s partnership with them. The frequency with when they donate paired with their willingness to take most of the surplus food seems to be making an enormous difference in the battle against food waste. 

Despite being the top ranked UK grocery store when conserving food, Tesco still has a long way to go. Even though they are taking measures like reducing the price of their food when it starts to near expiration, there is a bigger issue at hand. Consumers have an unrealistic expectation when it comes to “good-looking” produce. As a result, many grocery stores will turn away perfectly good produce because it looks odd. The Waste and Resources Action Programme found that 15% of food is lost as an effect of this. Faults in food may include bruised products or even food that is misshapen. This has inspired many companies, including Tesco, to begin to sell these “imperfect” veggies at a reduced rate to try to combat this issue. By doing this simple act, tons of good products that previously would be thrown away can be put to good use. 

Even with many solutions being provided for combating the wasting of food, there still are issues at place. In the Tesco manager’s closing remarks, he admitted that there is still room for improvement. “There still is a good bit of waste, so we can do better”. When questioned what he would change in Tesco’s waste management, he raised his hands and shrugged. “There are just some things that we’re not allowed to do”. Even with organizations like FoodCloud and Cope, Ireland’s policies around food limit the number of options for supermarkets and restaurants. “You’re legally not allowed to give food away”. This makes it hard for business owners, giving little choice other than to just throw it in the compost or trash. 

With all the fingers being pointed at the supermarkets, people sometimes forget that food is being wasted in households as well. According to Stop Food Waste Ireland, the average household will build up one ton of food waste each year. 80% of that food waste is either avoidable or potentially avoidable. Stop Food Waste has many resources for individuals who need assistance with cutting down rubbish. One easy change that can be implemented in everyday life is to freeze fresh produce that may not be needed right away. As individuals, we have a moral and environmental duty to combat the food waste that we can control. If everyone, from household to supermarkets, makes an effort to reduce food waste, hopefully the rest of the world will follow.

Callie Carlstrom