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Matthew Unerman Food Waste Recovery

Matthew Unerman Food Sustainability Manager Discusses Food Waste Recovery

Food waste recovery refers to the process of reclaiming and repurposing food that would otherwise be discarded. It is a sustainable approach aimed at reducing the environmental and social impacts of food waste. Through various methods such as composting, anaerobic digestion, and food redistribution, food waste recovery helps minimise methane emissions from landfills and alleviates the strain on natural resources.

Matthew Unerman Food Waste Recovery


And because retailers don't want empty shelves. They always have food there. They have way more food than anyone possibly buying. So this inevitably causes the accountability of that returned food waste from the retailer goes back to the producers or to the farmers


Hello and welcome to Rethink What Matters, the podcast dedicated to aligning the economy, with the ecology and everyone for improved business performance, stronger families, and a greener, cooler climate.

And today I'm joined by Matthew Unerman, Food Sustainability Manager at Compassion in World Farming. We're going to be discussing food waste recovery.

Great stuff. Great stuff. And you know, I came to you through your Embrace the Waste TED Talk. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey then that brought you to embrace the waste?


I'll give you two versions. I'll give you the one I told people and the BBC and whatnot when I had the interview. And then also the truth.


Okay. We get the exclusive. Thank you. Thank you.


The version that I tell was that I was at university, attended Durham University studying anthropology. And at that university, you've got a collegiate system. And most colleges, their first year students are catered for. And go, you know, you pay however many thousand at the start of the year, and you can get three meals per day. When you're a second or third or fourth year, you don't get that anymore.

So, I was in college revising for my exams. At the end of lunch, I see this huge amount of food waste being thrown into the bin and this ignites a fire in me. And I know I have to take action to solve the issue.

Now, this is what I'll tell you - the truth. Most-- All of that was true. The key thing was, when I was a second year, I wanted some free lunch. So I went to the end of lunch a saw all of this extra food and I said, look, you know, can I have some of these chips that no one's eating then? And they said no, and in front of me, put it in the bin.


So at that point, I was hungry and angry. So that's what I thought, right, let me take some action. So I went home that day. I drew on a little bit of cardboard I had, messaged all my friends. I said, guys, we need to protest. This is ridiculous. There's an abundance of food, students are hungry, it's a very expensive city to be in. And I said, come join me for a protest.

So I rock up the next day with my placards, and no one joins me. So I sit down and I think five days, six, seven days, I was protesting every lunch. Getting some petitions, getting general support.

No one sat with me, but I had the words of encouragement until the kitchen manager finally agreed to work with me to implement this initiative. For the final ten minutes of the meal second, third or fourth years could come pay a charitable donation and get food if there was food left over.


Right. Okay. No. It's a huge thing. And so you started to research it more and you got more involved with it, I should imagine, and understanding the bigger wider impact of food waste. It's not just what we put in the bin, is it? I mean, it's a much bigger problem. It's much bigger problem than the chips that they throw in the bin in front of you.


Exactly. Yes. Back then, when I thought I understood food waste, now being able to look back years later, and I'm sure in however many years I'll look back at myself now and think to say, you know, “How naive.”

But having worked in sustainability and being a food waste consultant, co-chairing a B corporation food waste working group, I've come to understand and not more how food waste occurs all across the supply chain and has-- I don't know if it's made me more optimistic or more pessimistic. I definitely fluctuate between them.

But it's been an interesting journey to get myself to being on this podcast, I guess.


Can you just give us a little insight into why you might be pessimistic and sometimes why you might be optimistic.


I'll start with the pessimism actually because then I can end on the more optimistic note. I think just seeing the numbers and understanding the drivers, seeing the slowness in policy. And just-- I think stepping out and seeing how people interact with the world. It's something that I think will take a huge amount of wealth and legislation and money to solve.

And when you've got a million other problems in the world, it might slip through the gaps. And we've seen that. We've seen that with mandatory food waste reporting. It just keeps getting pushed on.

And I think when you ask people, do you care about food waste? They say yes. It's a visceral feeling when you see food being thrown in the bin. No one's happy with it. But then when you look at how people live on a day to day basis. That concern for food waste doesn't necessarily translate into action.

Now, why am I optimistic? I'm optimistic because people are talking about it. It's become very trendy, I'd say, over the last five years. People are doing podcasts on it.



(Laughs) Really?


Founders in this space are getting headlines you've got too good to go. You've got Olio. You've got Winnow. All of these businesses, which are looking to tackle nuance as a food waste to getting a lot more press.

I think AI is helping a lot.


What is helping a lot? Sorry. I missed that.


Artificial intelligence is helping a lot. I think you've got greater consumer buy in. But I'm hoping it's not a trend, like, deforestation, like plastics.

These things, they get the spotlight, and then it'll all sort of tails off. And a lot of the great work that was done falls to the wayside and they change and pivot the focus. So I hope that doesn't happen with food waste.


I'm hoping that Awardaroo can be part of your optimistic picture because, you know, what we're about at Awardaroo is a part of it is education and really spreading the word. And it's about it is about mindset, and it's very much about behaviours. And it's about identifying simple things that we can all do that are, like, form the domino where all the other dominoes fall over. So just, you know so basically, there are there are three.

First one is litter. You know, if we all pick up litter, then we empower everybody else a pickup litter that drives a community-based sort of view of things, and it's very powerful. It doesn't go into-- it doesn't become pollution.

And the second one then is food. Food waste. But actually, it's expressed as cooking from scratch. You know, because if we all cook from scratch, we solve so many problems. First of all, we solve the food waste problem, and that's all of the energy that goes into the food waste, not just what goes into the bin.

But also, you know, we take away all the packaging that goes with it, which is another huge issue. And we also get rid of all of the ultra-processed food, which is so damaging to everybody's health. We also create stronger families because it's nice to sit around a homemade meal. Right?

I mean, nobody ever says, “Thanks Dad for the Chicken Kiev that you've just taken out of the box.” But they might say, “Thanks Dad the Chicken Kiev that you've just spent half an hour making, and, you know, you probably have done a very good job of it.” So it actually builds families as well. So it's definitely a big part of what we might say, you know, we want to do at Awardaroo, what are the areas that we like to encourage at Awardaroo.

Now what is this anthropological view of food waste. Could you give us a bit more of an insight on that, please?


I can. So I think I mentioned earlier that studied anthropology at university. And for those that don't know, the headline anthropology is the study of humans. In particular, looking at the evolutionary aspect of that. And when I was studying this and doing my food waste work, it was very interesting to start to piece those together and help understand why humans have food waste because most animals don't create food waste.

So I want you to imagine humans fifteen thousand years ago. So the agricultural revolution was about twelve thousand years ago. So we're still hunter gatherers. We remember large geographic ranges because we're nomadic. So we don't stay in one place for very long. We're amazing at geography, but because we don't stay in one place, we don't have a lot of stuff because it's a pain to trip stuff miles across the savannah.

Then all of a sudden, across the world pretty simultaneously, we start to develop agriculture. And if you plant a crop, you need to stay there in order to care for it and harvest it. So we became a lot more sedentary. And because we were staying in one place, we could have more stuff.

And over the course of the next twelve thousand years to where we are today, we got more and more industrialised. We accrued more and more stuff. And it's a real mismatch with our brains. We're not used to that. So if I said to you, picture your route home from work or from your closest train station.

I'm guaranteeing in your head, you can visualise that route. Where you know an area well.

But if I said to you, tell me how much food you have in your fridge at the moment, or how many pieces of paper you have in your house. You can't. Because we don't-- we can't comprehend that scale.

So when it comes to food waste, we're very bad at one, remembering how much food we've wasted. So you say, oh, I don't waste a lot of food, you know, maybe a pizza crust here, banana there. But when you put it all together, it's actually a staggering amount of food.

But then also, when you're shopping and you think, what do I have in the fridge? You know, some people agree to this, but most people have no idea. And in this society we live in where we have everything at (our) fingertips. We've got a bunch of stuff. It really impacts our ability to portion properly and eat the food we have. And understand our impact.



Okay. Understood. Understood. No, I could definitely relate to that. Still finding things at the back of the fridge. Yeah. So, you know, it is a it is a huge problem. What are we going to do about it, Matthew? This whole food waste recovery.

I mean, where are you at the moment with it? I mean, there are various, you know, is it about policy? Is it about regulation? There's obviously people's habits. I do remember watching a video by Tristan Stewart, I think it was.

And he said, “There's four times the amount we create, four times the amount of food globally that we actually need because of all food waste. And there's twice the amount of food on the shelves in the supermarkets than we actually need as well.” So, you know, it is a massive problem. There is all the energy that goes into that as well as all the you know, the pigs and the livestock and all the rest of it there.

Obviously, being weird that we don't need to. So where are you on this journey at the moment then in terms of, what can we do to address it?


I think the key thing before looking to address it is to understand where it comes from and why it comes from. And in the last couple years, my view of food waste has shifted away from the household and the retailer, which is where a lot of focus is spent, a lot of blame is put. Somewhat quite rightly. But if you look further down and you look at farm stage food waste and manufacturing and production food waste, it's huge. And I want to start this by saying, don't blame the farmers. It's not the farmer's fault that there's food waste on farm.


But let's start with farm stage food waste, and we'll work our way up.

So you've got direct drivers of food waste. You've got biological and environmental factors, flood, drought, pests. You've got agronomy, animal husbandry and fishing practises, disease, poor animal welfare, by catch, poor handling and harvesting techniques.

And then you've also got technology and infrastructure, inadequate storage, faulty machinery, a poor connection to the marketplace. So these are some of the direct drivers. These are somewhat easier to solve.

If you've got pests, you know, you can put a net above your crops. If you've got outdated technology, you can replace it. I'm not saying it's easy, but there are solutions to that.


When it comes to the indirect drivers, so you've got citizens.

Let's take Halloween. Everyone wants pumpkins. And then all of a sudden, no one wants pumpkins. Causes a huge amount of food waste.

Governments, depending on their policies, their subsidies, it can really impact what farmers grow and their ability to get food that they grow onto place.

You've got other supply chain actors. One of the examples that really sits with me is we were looking at farm stage food waste. And this farmer had this whole field of, it was cabbages. Well, no. Sorry. It was cauliflowers. They couldn't harvest because the cost of harvesting was more than the price they would get from selling it. Whereas there was a huge influx and retailers were spoilt.

So there's the direct drivers and the indirect drivers.

I'd say to recover food here, there needs to be local partnerships with food banks and charities, smaller supply chains. So you've got these… Odd Box, for example, where they take the wonky vegetables that might not pass the aesthetics, sell those to customers.

You need more labour. That was a real issue resulting from Brexit that we just didn't have the people to help harvest. And just supporting farmers for subsidies to help them move foods away. And I think it's Fare Share. We've now got this fund where if a farmer's grown food, perfectly edible, but it's not profitable to grow. They'll pay the farmer to harvest that food and donate it to charity.


Right. Right.



We can then move on to manufacturing waste where a lot of the waste in this stage is attributed to damaged food. So if food doesn't look nice, most of the time, it won't end up on the shelf even if it's perfectly edible.


That's a very much an education part of it, isn't it? And I think we can get we can educate people, I think, about you know, how ridiculous this is.

And people I'm sure that would not associate the look of it were necessarily how healthy it is. It's still exactly it's still a potato. Right? Even if it looks a bit weird.


Exactly. And there's opportunities that a lot of retailers and producers aren't doing, where let's say there is ugly bench. You know, the wording varies wonky, ugly, and perfect. But they can take that and then use that in their ready meals for example, which I know you probably won't advocate for because it's processed and whatnot. But it's a way to valorise that food waste.

And it's a huge cause of food waste. You've also got lack of buyers, kind of what I alluded to earlier, where you might have a bunch of peanuts but if no one wants the peanuts, you can't eat all of them, so it will have to go to waste. So there's miscommunication in the supply chain as well.

And then if we move on to retail food waste, there's a few key things. And there's one that I've coined myself. So I'll start with the indirect drivers, which is seasonal products like we mentioned earlier, Easter eggs. You've got your pumpkins, brussels sprouts, all of this stuff, the turkey - has a huge demand for a few weeks’ time and then doesn't. So after Halloween, no one buys pumpkins. All of those aren’t going to get sold, get wasted.

You've got people’s shopping habits where they buy the same thing. I saw this interesting statistic from a talk I went to, where the average shopper looks at seven words in the supermarket because they're so ingrained just to, hummus, not those kind of habits.

And then another indirect driver, which I'd like to think I've come up with. I haven't seen it that I called described like this before, is this myth of abundance.

Where you go into a supermarket and the shelves are always stocked. You know, if they're not stocked, you get societal panic. Think back to COVID or last year when we had empty shelves, made headlines, you know. We either we don't have enough food, which is scary, or we've got just enough food that actually we've got some empty shelves. And because retailers don't want empty shelves, they always have food there. They have way more food than anyone could possibly buy. So this inevitably causes food waste.



Okay. So there's a lot the guests returned. We probably don't see.


Yeah. And then the accountability of that returned food waste from the retailer goes back to the producers or to the farmers and they have to show, to front the cost of that.

And other drivers in the retail space, you've got date labels.

So, “best before”, which is now being pushed away from the EU and other countries. But “use by” damaged packaging could mean that the food gets thrown away even if the food fine. You might have faulty fridges, you know. I'm sure you've walked into a supermarket, seen the fridge broke and all of the food gets thrown away. And you say to them, “Can I buy that? You know, I've just seen the fridge break. Surely, it's fine.” But they're not allowed to because of health and safety concerns. So I'd say those are the main retail causes.


Okay. It's a complicated process, isn't it? So it's a complicated process, which we and we need to find actions that people can take when they go shopping to help address this. So I think if we can all see it as two halves, you know. One is before it gets to the plate and the other one is after is on the plate, you know. Once it's on the plate, you know, we need to kind of eat it, obviously.

But before it goes on the plate thinking about how it got there and, you know, did it actually ever need to arrive there in that way? So I mean, have you got any hints and tips for people? Any advice for people as to-- I mean, obviously, you know, eat our peace, finish our plate, don't put it in the bin.


I think the most power that people have is in the hope. And we're going to be talking to people. And there's a few easy things people can do whilst listening to this to reduce their food waste. The first thing, check your fridge and freezer. Are they set to the correct temperature? Your freezer should be zero degrees, and your fridge should be between like one to four degrees, one to three degrees. If you do that, your foods will last so much longer. Not only is beneficial for the planet. It's beneficial for your bank account because you're not throwing your money into the bin.


I think another thing that resonates with people is a thought experiment. Where if you think about your food, how did it get there? So you've got the farm.

The farmer goes, they have the seeds, they have the fertiliser, they have all of these inputs, they've got the space, the water, the time. They grow this food. They've got the machinery, the fuel to make all of this happen. Then it gets harvested, transported, processed. Again, all of these inputs are going in packaged, stored, transported again, put in the retail shelf. All of this energy, put in your car, driven home, put in your fridge. If you think about how much has gone in to getting that onion, into your fridge.

I think that helps people place more value on their food because then it's not just the 17P for the banana, which if you think about all of those inputs, it's crazy how you can get a banana for 17P. But it's not just the money. It's all of that energy and all of those things.



Yes. Right. Absolutely. And all as I say, the packaging that goes with it, I think we have to remember, it creates a lot of packaging.


Yeah. And something that I know you'll be began for is cooking and understanding how ingredients work and being creative and utilising all of the food. So something I only started doing a couple years ago, I eat cauliflower, chop the head of the cauliflower, throw the leaves in the bin. I thought to myself one day, let me try and cook these leaves and I'll tell you what, put some oil and salt on, stick them in the oven it’s delicious. And it's just one way of utilising the food, freeze your vegetable scraps and make a vegetable broth. There's all of these things you can do, so that (you) minimise the inedible food waste. But also, when you're creative and cook your food, it's easier to portion. You can use up a range of vegetables. You can eat locally, and you've got a lot more control over your food.

I'll give you an anecdote, which ties all of this together quite nicely. So during the pandemic, my mom and I were thinking, “What can what can we do to help?” We both like cooking, we were aware of a new food bank that was set up. So we go over, we’re volunteering. And I'm seeing this huge amount of fruit and vegetables and ingredients being donated.

And we were speaking to the volunteers and they were saying that people just don't know what to do with this. You know, if someone gave me a scenario, I'd be lost. Lucky my mom knows what to do. But if I got given that in a parcel, I wouldn't be able to cook it.

So you-- it was salvaged foods from a supermarket and then it would just go in the bin later on. So what we did was we got all of the vegetables, we went and perused, thought of some recipe ideas, took the vegetables from the food bank, cooked, however many you could meals, and whether that was a dessert, a soup or creole or whatnot. And then went and donated those to the food bank users. And the food we've actually got, they said, firstly, it was really nice that people are taking the time to do this. But also, it was yummy. So nice. And then we also put the recipes in as well, so they could try and do that themselves.



Right. If we cook from scratch, we solve a lot of these food waste problems. And yeah, you know, there's so many recipes online now, isn't it?

You know, the local council does want us to take our organic waste now, don't they? And put it into these separate little, you know, little separate little black boxes. For them to take it off separately. What is the driver behind that then? Why don't they just want us to thread in the bin with everything else?


So they'll say environmental reasons. And that is a key part of it. If the food goes into the general waste, most of the time in England, that will then be burnt for this process called energy from waste. We don't have many landfills here. Other countries do have landfills. So they'll say environmental reasons.

One of the key reasons is the money, because general waste costs are not. The disposal cost is high. When you separate your food waste and other organic matter, you've got the opportunity to send it one or two ways. One of two ways. Sorry.

You can either send through composting, which not a lot of the country has access to, and something we can cover another time, which is why compostable packaging isn't the silver bullet that's made out to be. But if it doesn't go to composting, it goes to an anaerobic digestion plant where it breaks down and releases methane, but this methane is captured and converted into energy. So that way, you can then create income and usefulness and finalise this food waste rather than just sending it to landfill or to energy for waste.


Okay. Got it. So it's better for the actual packaging and the processing packaging, and it's also better for the food as well that we're disposing of it. So kindly understood.

Matthew, it's been real a real pleasure having you on this podcast. And giving us your insights into food waste and food waste recovery.


It's been great chatting with you and talking about a subject that I'm so passionate about and find so interesting. So thank you.

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