Useful waste

Andrea Segrè, dean of the agricultural faculty at Bologna University, is one of the founders of Lastminutemarket. The association was established in 1998 with the scope of recovering waste and turning into an opportunity. It does this by withdrawing food products close to their expiry date but still on the shelf from chain stores and other sources and freely redistributing them for poor relief. But its ambitions stretch further; it’s planning to extend its activity to books and is currently lobbying for the enactment of a waste prevention bill by the Italian Parliament.

One clear advantage in this is you can minimize pollution and make life sustainable for the next generation.  I was reading this on a website related to the environment.  Mostly we tend to throw away things without realizing that it can collectively create large trash and also the fact that we are wasting things.

In itself, waste may be deleterious, but it’s also a by-product of the prevailing economic system. Thanks to the idea inspiring the Lastminutemarket in the food sector, inevitable waste gets turned intro an opportunity for undertaking important projects.

We started out by analysing waste, and that’s where our idea came from. That’s not to say that waste isn’t still a bad thing. To a certain extent waste is physiological in our society and it isn’t necessarily to be interpreted as a failure of the market as such. On the one hand, today, there’s a glut in production, on the other an attitude and behaviour by consumers that lead to waste. Products with an upcoming expiry date or with an unappealing label or packaging are left on the shelf, for instance. Waste is very much typical of Western 
and affluent societies.

Lastminutemarket is an attempt to minimise such waste, whatever the cause, when products are still useable.

The chief causes for the kind of waste you’re tackling seem to be two, then. On the one hand consumers are health-conscious and hence wary as to the expiry date, on the other they’re enticed by appearances, which leads them to assume that what looks good must be good.

The association of “good-looking” and “being good” is very strong indeed, even if it needs to be explained on a case by case basis. The contents of a dented can are identical to those of an undented one. The same applies to food safety: the closer a product to the expiry date the “less good” it becomes to the average consumer, and hence it gets left on the shelf. The expiry date should be properly understood as a recommendation. In fact, the text reads “best before”, and anything before that is perfectly safe. It should also be remembered that different brands of the same product may have different expiry dates simply for marketing reasons, depending on how fast each brand sells or on the distributor’s store management policy and logistics. These are the products the Lastminutemarket picks up – “good leftovers”, as the project is called in Bologna -, and then redistributes to non-profit charity organisations.

Of course, not that this is the solution to the problem.

So, you reckon recovering “cast-aside” food products to hand out to the poor is a way of partly redressing the situation?

Precisely. We live in an affluent and very wasteful society and yet the number of individuals falling below subsistence level is rising. Clearly, something’s got to be fixed up in the economic system. Waste recovery and redistribution is a way for helping the system to regain efficiency. But it’s not the solution to the problem.

Approximately what fig ures are we talking when it comes to food waste?

A domestic estimate based on data collected from stores that have gone along with the initiative located in thirteen Italian cities sets the figure at about 238 thousand tons a year. We’re talking of food that’s still perfectly edible despite being sent off for disposal, and that could be potentially collected and redistributed. In terms of potential meals, considering that about 500 g of products costing about 3.50 euro are used on average for each meal, recovery of discarded food could yield up to 476 million meals, equal to around 1.7 billion euro. That doesn’t take into account school, factory, and office canteens, as for the moment we’ve managed to involve only a few in Verona and Bologna.

The figures are flabbergasting! Even recovery of but a hundredth part of all this would be overwhelming! 
Last year, one supermarket alone in Bologna managed to hand over as much as 170 tons of perfectly edible food products, including yoghurt, cheese, and meat. That meant three full meals a day for 250-300 persons for the year, plus food for a good number of pets as well.

What about non-food products, where do they end up?

Unfortunately, in Italy products on which there’s not even a return on V.A.T., such as detergents, toilet paper, and even bikes, are disposed of for good. In July last year a Lastminutemarket-inspired “fight-waste” bill was brought before both Houses of the Italian Parliament. If enacted, it would allow for the recovery of even this merchandise, which would allow us to fully satisfy all the requirements of the needy.

What do stakeholders get out of all this?

Lastminutemarket works because all stakeholders stand to gain by saving. Associations receiving donations of this sort don’t have to go out and purchase them, and what they save gets used for other services offered to its clients. In Bologna there’s an association that helps children who have problems adapting. Well, with what they saved on food they managed to set up a basketball court and have braces put in for children who needed them. Benefits to the needy are first and foremost better health, thanks to better and more varied food. This in turn translates into less expenditure for the national health scheme.

What about corporate donors, where’s the advantage to them?

Corporations make up V.A.T., save on disposal, and improve their marketing and merchandising strategy because they learn from their mistakes. They also stand to gain image-wise as they turn waste into resources, for some at least. Not surprisingly several major food chains have already adopted the idea and are indeed exploiting it for their marketing and communication purposes.

Socially, as recovery of these products entails a physical exchange between donors and beneficiaries, the profit and no profit worlds are given the opportunity of meeting with each other.

There’s positive fall-out and indeed spin-off for the environment from waste recovery. In several towns, such as Ferrara, waste disposal rates are determined on the basis of the amount of waste produced. Low-waste producing businesses can save up to thirty-nine percent on the variable part of the local environmental hygiene rate. With what they’ve saved (and the amount is considerable), these shopkeepers have decided to set up a charity fund to pay for the construction of a children’s hospital in Tanzania. So, it may be said that a local donation has reached out and crossed borders.

It’s worth noting that Lastminutemarket has turned into a job provider. In fact, a co-operative has been set up to offer the project as a service. Its customers include retail stores, town council departments, and multi-utilities. The young people of the co-op are paid (very little, to tell the truth!) by these organisations to get the project going with them. It should be stressed, though, that it’s difficult not to be professional in these matters given that hygiene and sanitary, and tax and logistic/organisational problems have to be tackled.

What sort of priority is given to ethical and moral values on a corporation’s agenda?

I must say, there’s strong corporate social sustainability-awareness. A good number of firms quite earnestly strive to give themselves an image in line with the principles of so-called corporate social accountability.

I’m rather dubious, though, when I come across private concerns or public agencies that view this solidarity project only as a marketing opportunity and profile booster. You can’t just bowl in and create expectations in a sector like this without delivering the goods. If you promise food you’ve got to collect and deliver it for real.

Ultimately, the project’s scope is educational. The underlying question to meditate on is whether we consume to live or live to consume. Today, the economic system isn’t running all that smoothly because our consumer propensity can’t keep up with our production capacity. Then again, a bit more moderation could help.

Can you explain to us the concept of “proximity” underpinning Lastminutemarket?

Time- and space-saving are important prerequisites for the economic efficiency of any enterprise. When overproduction is consumed locally, logistic and organisation processes are optimised. What’s more, proximity makes for a closer and more direct contact between donor and recipient, thus strengthening the local community. Environmental sustainability also stands to gain, as products don’t have to travel long road distances, thus relieving infrastructures of this additional pressure.

Aside from the fact that Lastminutemarket is a highly original idea in itself, what else is innovative about your project?

The project’s quite complex; the logistics and organisational side is really the most innovative. 
They’re both geared to space and time minimisation thanks to proximity.

Operators also need to be fully acquainted with the contents of the HACCP self-control manuals and require skill to manage relationships with the local sanitary authorities and with donors and recipients. They of course need to be familiar with prevailing laws and standards governing the sector, as well as with tax requirements. As I said, it’s an activity that can’t really be improvised. Here at the university there’s been a lot of commitment and effort in analysing how to best run the operation. But results have paid off, and I’m happy to have involved so many students and to have created new useful job opportunities that are increasing day by day.