The Corporate Conscience: Channeling Food Waste for Social Benefit

There is a painful paradox at play in our backyard. An estimated 13-million people go to bed hungry every night in South Africa. And yet, just outside their reach, approximately 10.2 million tonnes of harvested, produced and processed, and imported food rot in the ground every year. This reality falls tragically short of the freedom that Mandela so tirelessly fought for, a freedom that “is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs…”

Even the average middle-upper class South African suburbanite would liken grocery shopping to a game of Tetris these days – choosing and replacing items on the shelf until the selected few satisfy the tight squeeze and fall within the confines of the budget. How much more do the poor suffer in the wake of this economy’s insatiable appetite? It is unthinkable to consider that, adding to the financial vice currently gripping our cash flow by the throat, we are paying for wasted food.

In 2013 the total cost of food waste in South Africa amounted to R75 billion per annum, or R5922 per tonne. That’s over 2% of the GDP that year. This is a hard pill to swallow, especially considering that over 95% of this wasted food falls off the proverbial wagon before it even makes it to the consumer’s kitchen (Oloefse, CSIR, 2013).

Much could be said on the gaps within the harvesting-to-processing chain that contribute to this reality. But today we want to speak to the 5% – the restaurants, the supermarkets, the hotel chains, the over-consumers like you and me who have the time and resources to read this article.

If the #cliche can be overlooked, then we at the consumer level must heed the overused email signature and “be the change we want to see.” This is not only a call to arms on the individual’s conscience. It’s an active appeal for collaboration and cross-pollination of service within the business sector. It’s a bold invitation to work together, because smart people know that what’s good for social responsibility is inevitably good for business.

WastePlan seems to agree. In 2013 they teamed up with YWaste to take the waste management portfolio of Hilton Hotel International in Cape Town one step further. Thanks to this partnership, the hotel has adopted an ancient composting methodology, known as Bokashi composting, to speed up the decomposition process of their waste and convert used commodities into valuable secondary resources. Now, because of this collaborative effort across specialised spheres within the business sector, approximately 6000 tonnes of wasted food is composted on site and diverted from its dumpsite destiny every month.

But the conversation doesn’t stop here. Tina Krynauw, PR and Communications Manager of WastePlan, is asking the hard questions. “Composting the food waste is an essential and innovative solution. But generally on a social note, it seems that there is a lot of food that is actually edible – yet wasted. With rising food prices these days, it becomes so expensive to have institutions like old age homes and shelters running on their low budgets. I believe that, with Iike-minded partners such as the Hilton team, we could explore the possibilities of reaching these local institutions, by carefully monitoring, packing and distributing the uneaten food to the right beneficiaries. The progressive work we see taking place at the Hilton Hotel International is really hopeful – if we can make a considerable impact on an environmental scale we can truly make a difference on a social level as well.”

The potential for synergy across private and public, business and non-profit camps, to optomise food streams is still relatively untapped. Food re-distribution companies like Feedback and the Robin Good Initiative work nationwide to channel edible foods into the hands of credible NGO’s and institutions. But the onus falls too much on the shoulders of these organisations to get these downward streams flowing. Social upliftment not only dangles cash-back carrots in the form of tax rebates for business; it speaks to the deeper sense of moral responsibility that fuels a healthy democracy and economy.

“If we really want to effect real change,” says Bertie Lourens of WastePlan, “we have to think beyond the boundaries of our expertise and see collaboration as key. Our job is not just to recycle more waste in better ways. Our primary job is to change the way people think. At the end of the day, waste management isn’t really about waste. It’s about preserving basic freedoms for future generations. With that in mind, we have to innovate and initiate financial, environmental and social solutions. We have to own the big story before we play our small part.”

Please read next month’s article for continued discussion on food waste and social responsibility. 

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