Brazilian companies and citizens are among those that produce the largest amount of organic waste material in the world. This article gives an overview of the current situation and how this is handled in Brazil.
There are many ways to waste food: throwing leftovers in the trash, losses during transportation and distribution of the products or perishable goods that spoil without ever leaving the supermarket.
The combination of the above leads to a shocking amount of food being literally disposed every day. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one third of the total global food production is wasted. This is equivalent to 1,3 billion tons of food, an amount that could feed more than 870 million people, according to the United Nations.
Brazilians are truly concerned about food waste. Or, at least, 96% of those who answered surveys published by the World Menu Report, developed by Unilever, shows. This rate is higher than what is seen in other countries like the United States, Germany and Russia, where the concern level is 79%, 77% and 69% respectively.
But even with so much concern about the subject, Brazil is one of the world leaders of food waste. According to Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária, Embrapa or Brazilian Company of Agriculture Research, around 40.000 tons of food go in the trash everyday in the country, an amount that could feed 19 million people.
Where the waste happens
Data from Embrapa shows that the largest waste of food in Brazil happens during handling and logistics; nearly 50% of the food wasted is lost in factories, during processing procedures or while being transported.
From all the food wasted, 30% is lost in supply centers and around 10% of all the food losses happen during the harvest, at the farms and producers.
Another 10% of the losses happen directly in the consumers’ residences. This amount does not represent only what spoils without being cooked, but also leftovers and parts of products that could be used for cooking, like vegetable leaves, for example.
What leads to waste
The causes of such waste in Brazil can be explained by multiple factors. In the supermarkets, for example, many products - especially fruit and vegetables - spoil before being sold; many customers buy products and they also spoil before being served; and a considerable part of what is served is not consumed.
The dependence on road transportation is an impacting factor as well. Trucks and similar vehicles are used to cover long distances, which encourage food waste since they are subject to accidents or simply have leaks that lead to a gradual loss of cargo.
There are also specific causes for the food waste. Brazil is not particularly well known for the presence of cold chains, for example. Combined with the logistics conditions that could be better, this results in more spoiled perishable food.
Solutions being developed
The maths is simple: if Brazilians are concerned about food waste, but lots of food just keeps going to the trash bin unnecessarily, solutions must be proposed to change this scenario.
Since food waste happens at every single stage, from the producer to the consumer, the Brazilian government defends that there must be a mutual cooperation between each one of them. The problem is, as the government itself claims, there is not an immediate, single solution, but many ideas that will be useful if they work together.
A few viable options that could work in this sense are already being used, while others are still lacking implementation. Some examples are:
- Improvement of the pre and post-harvest treatments of fruit and vegetables
- Standardization of the packaging dimensions
- Improvement in transportation of food
- Better communication between producers, retailers, wholesalers and consumers
- Investment in cold chains to store products for longer periods
- Strengthening of awareness campaigns, to encourage the reduction of organic waste and re-use of some products or food parts
There are also small initiatives that aim to reduce the simple waste of food that could be consumed. An example is the existence of “food banks” in a few cities, like São Paulo. Some organizations go to feiras, as open-air markets that sell food are known in Brazil, and accept the food that would be thrown away at the end of the day as a donation; this is then directed to entities that serve food for the homeless, for example.
However, there is no legislation to regulate food banks, so actions like this are especially limited, since they depend on individual agreements with each seller or producer.
Food waste collection and recycling
The collection of organic litter itself is more complicated. Unlike other materials, food waste can not be stored for long periods, since it starts to smell, allow the proliferation of bacteria and also attract insects and rats.
In Brazil, most food waste collected from residences, factories and commercial facilities is sent to landfills. This solution might lead to unwanted environmental consequences, as leachate and other remainings may pollute the soil and water. On the other hand, some landfills have a system capable of transforming organic waste into energy, as the decomposition of this material generates methane.
A solution being encouraged by some entities and Brazilian municipalities is composting, which consists of boxes with earth and sediments, where worms transform organic waste into fertilizer. That is used by some companies and rural producers, since it is a low-cost solution that can be used in agriculture.
Also, there are projects directed at residences, like the one proposed by the city of São Paulo, for example, which selected 2,000 families to participate in a composting pilot project, sending the necessary equipment for them so they can do it at home.
One of the most delicate issues related to food waste is not specifically about fruit and vegetables, but about oil.
Disposing of cooking oil used in the kitchen requires some precautions, as just throwing it down the sink, for example, may cause huge environmental damages. One single drop of oil can contaminate up to 1.000 litres of clean water.
The oil waste is not just a domestic problem; factories, restaurants and other facilities also have to deal with it.
One of the solutions found was the use of oil to produce biodiesel. The relevance of this action is still shy: in 2012, only 1% of the biodiesel produced in the country was made from kitchen oil. But, fortunately, the number of collection points in big cities is growing, for both companies and individuals, and most supermarkets offer areas where it is possible to take oil waste to be correctly disposed.