September 27, 2021

Engineering’s role in reducing waste in food production

It is an unfortunate fact that food waste remains a major issue in the UK. Here, Ian Hart is Business Development Director at adi Projects, discusses the impact of food waste and the role engineering can play in reducing the 1.5m tonnes thrown out by British manufacturers each year.

We’re all guilty of it. To different extents, we all chuck out mouldy bread or those last few slices of bacon after we’ve taken a cautious sniff or looked at the Use By date.

Some of us police it more than others, taking a regimented approach to meal planning to minimise our waste, and others are a lot more laissez-faire. But the stats don’t lie. Households are responsible for fully 70% of all food wasted in the UK.

But manufacturers, the people you’d perhaps expect to be right on top of every scrap of food and every drop of drink, come in second by some distance, wasting 1.5m tonnes each year. A mind-boggling metric.

So, while public education is required to decrease the eye-watering amounts of food wasted by British households significantly, food manufacturers have a real responsibility to lead on an issue that has serious economic, moral and environmental impacts. And engineering has its part to play.

Waste not want not

You might ask why food waste matters. Well, when food decomposes, it gives off a lot of methane which is a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

When you throw away 1kg of beef, given the amount of water used in its production, effectively you’re pouring 50,000 litres of the stuff down the drain.

And, in a world where one in nine people go undernourished, food waste is terrible from an ethical perspective. It is a moral imperative that we change our ways.

Although there are scores of great ideas and initiatives around improved labelling and messaging and smaller packaged portions, as an engineer, I believe people in my field can and should make a substantive contribution, simply by making food production cleaner and more efficient.

We are, after all, charged with designing food production facilities and the processes through which ingredients are put. If we can drive change from the front in our own factories, it will reduce food waste in homes the length of the country.

Extending shelf-lives

The biggest way engineering can reduce food waste, in my view, is to design and integrate higher tech, cleaner manufacturing environments that enable food producers to extend the shelf-life of the products they take to market.

Sounds counterintuitive, right? A layperson would be forgiven for being suspicious of food hanging around in our fridges for longer. But there are a number of ways engineering could easily elevate food production standards to the point where we routinely reduce the risk of contaminants spoiling food and drink as fast as they often currently do.

If we committed to doing that as a matter of course across the industry, just imagine how much impact we might have on domestic food waste. And the place to start, for me, is automation.

You may have noticed recently that people are walking bundles of potential infection. So, the more you can take us out of the equation and automate contact with ingredients, the less they will be exposed to the human-borne bacteria and other contaminants that lower product longevity.

Addressing multiple issues

Now, I’m not calling for everyone in food production to be replaced by robots per se. But shifting industry employment away from the production line and into higher skilled, better paid jobs overseeing production processes, we can help address the UK’s projected need for a further 140,000 minimum wage food and drink workers by 2024.

If we are to get serious about reducing food waste, we could do worse than invest further in technologies that often lead to manufacturers making significant efficiency savings, alongside important quality control and traceability benefits.

The absence of humans also enables production to be conducted in atmospheric conditions unsuitable for people, such as ozone and UV, both of which can enhance food safety and lengthen shelf-life, be used to disinfect whole facilities and sanitise listeria harbouring drains.

And, while I’m on the subject, ozone can also be introduced to food packaging in the form of a cold plasma that actively destroys contaminants without the need for chemicals or additives and significantly extends shelf-life.

In some scenarios, of course, automation is not possible. In those cases, we need to adopt a mindset akin to that of the pharmaceutical industry, where minute changes to the quality and purity of final products can have serious consequences for patients.

As things stand, the consequences of food waste at the levels we see around us are serious enough. So, automating processes as far as we can or requiring that staff wear pharmaceutical standard garments is a small price to pay.

Cleaning up our act

Another way to ensure food production facilities are sterile is to control and cleanse the air circulating inside them. If there are no contaminants floating around in these environments, the product has every opportunity to live a long and healthy life.

So, there is an opportunity to deploy an existing technology in support of greater site cleanliness and apply the type of HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters commonly used in the airline industry to food production.

In a similar vein, ice pigging, a pipe cleaning technology that pumps ice slurry through production pipes to clean them more quickly and effectively than water flushing, should also be considered to safeguard against different products contaminating one another and causing further waste.

Magnetic resonance imagery (MRI) is emerging as a technology that allows the structure of a food product to be examined in a 3D and non-destructive or invasive manner, and showing great potential for big waste savings in terms of food safety and quality.

Silver ion materials are another technology I’d like to see enjoy more uptake. Nanoparticles disrupt DNA replication, making surfaces anti-microbial. Imagine that applied across an entire production facility.

Put simply, if you make life difficult for the bacteria, yeasts, moulds and contaminants that cause food to spoil from production and packaging environments, it will last longer in our homes and we’ll consign less of it to domestic bins and landfill sites.

And, then, of course, there is vertical farming, a topic I addressed at length recently. It is promising in its capacity not only to reduce the food miles that can often spoil food but also to achieve higher density growth and yields for less waste at the very start of the food chain.

Ian Hart is Business Development Director at adi Projects

A call to action

Oxfam maintains its prediction that Earth’s population will exceed our food growing capacity around the year 2050. And, with millions in the Global South already experiencing food poverty on an ongoing basis, the time for Global North to act on food waste is now.

There is no silver bullet. Such a fundamental issue calls for a broad range of solutions to be implemented faithfully in a number of settings and at all levels of society.

Nonetheless, engineers and food manufacturers must work together to apply existing fixes and to discover innovative, new answers. The problem isn’t going away and, without concerted action, things can only get worse.

I will, however, leave you on a brighter note. The news isn’t all bad and many of the technologies are out there. When we do finally get a handle on food waste, we will begin to engineer a brighter future for our fellow human beings, our environment and, let’s not forget, our bottom lines.

Do we need any more incentives?