Imagine a stack of pallets full of surplus food – 4.1 million tonnes worth. And imagine you could stack those pallets on top of each other one at a time. Now, imagine that once stacked, these pallets would reach all the way from Earth to the International Space Station – 14 times over. That is how much commercial food waste there is every year in Australia alone. Remember, that is only commercial food waste, and doesn’t include household waste, which makes up another 34 per cent.
It’s a staggering statistic that still amazes Katy Barfield, who set up the Yume marketplace because she knew that there must be a better way of utilising surplus commercial food waste than throwing it away. It is not Barfield’s first foray into food waste recovery having started food rescue organisation SecondBite back in 2006. Although the organisation does a great job, Barfield soon realised that SecondBite, along with other food rescue organisations OzHarvest, Foodbank and Fareshare, only managed to move less than two per cent of that 4.1 million tonnes.
Barfield knew there had to be a better way. Therefore, Yume was born. The interactive website offers a platform where food and beverage manufacturers and processors, who would usually throw away production runs for a variety of reasons – wrong labelling, batch over-runs, cancelled orders – can put it on the site to be sold to interested third parties. When the idea was first mooted, Barfield thought it sounded pretty simple.
READ MORE: Australian food waste bill hits $10.1bn
“It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire career,” she said at a speech she gave at the Waste & Recycling Expo held in Sydney recently. “Because when I came up with the idea of doing this – whereby big brands and farmers could put this stuff onto the platform – and put it up for sale to a new cohort of new suppliers, people told me I was mad. They said, ‘no one will go for that. You’re cuckoo. Bonkers. Think you better start again’. Their reasoning was, ‘who was going to buy products unseen off an online platform?’”
It was a fair point at the time. In theory, the idea was great. Who wouldn’t support an initiative where food waste was lessened – it sounded like a win-win. The manufacturers and food processors get money for products that they would have to pay to get rid of, and third-party vendors get a quality product they can on-sell or utilise. However, Barfield also knew that, especially with some of the bigger name manufacturers, branding is more important than being seen to be eco-friendly. Barfield and her team found a way around it.
“Suppliers can white label their product on our platform,” she said. “You might not know who the brand is, or the history of the brand, but you will have all the history of the product you are receiving. It might say “quality cream cheese from South Australia”. They have to show you the certificates of analysis, so you know it is absolutely edible, and has passed food safety standards. It is quite hard to be a supplier on the Yume platform because we do need to protect everybody in the process including the people who sit on the other side, the buyers.”
And you would be surprised who has turned up on the site to buy produce. Accor is one company that has bought food via the platform, plus a number of industrial catering companies. Barfield admits it wasn’t easy to convince the bigger brands to come on board.
Once she gave them guarantees that the items would not appear on any of the major retailers, they began to list items on the site.
And what sort of dent has the site made on the food waste mountain? There is still a long way to go, but with more than 400 suppliers and 2,500 buyers registered on Yume, Barfield is confident that the site will only grow. Then there’s the environmental impact.
“The amount of embodied water we’ve moved through the platform is more than 86 million litres. That’s nearly 2500 tonnes of CO2 that hasn’t been released into the atmosphere,” she said. “There has been a trifold growth for Yume in the past 12 months.”
Sometimes it takes some lateral thinking to get rid of a product. Barfield cited an example involving cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s where the company had 7.5 tonnes of dried fruit that was at risk of being dumped. It came about because the company changed one of its cereal recipes and no longer needed the dried fruit. Kellogg’s specialises in making cereals for the mass market, and therefore didn’t have a ready market for left over ingredients.
“They put the dried fruit onto the Yume platform and that product sold within 48 hours to a whole raft of other, smaller manufacturers who could use that in the manufacturing process. It was a win-win-win,” said Barfield.
And just because it is a platform for foods doesn’t mean those who buy from the site aren’t thinking outside the square on how to move on similar products and find an end use for them in the marketplace.
“A lot of the companies we work with ask us if we could try and find a solution away from the norm,” said Barfield. “One of my personal favourites was about a substance called Maltitol, which is an artificial sweetener.
“We were asked to help find a home for it and we weren’t too sure. However, it was eventually sold to a pharmaceutical company that used it in coating some of its pills to make them easier to swallow. It was 14 tonnes worth of product that would have been wasted if it hadn’t found a home.”
One aspect that Barfield is pushing, and she thinks needs to be amplified, is that just because a product appears on the site, it doesn’t mean it is not of high quality. Yume recently facilitated the selling of some top-branded salmon to an industrial caterer because the salmon missed its delivery window by a day. Because it missed the delivery, it no longer met the requirement to have a shelf life of 10 days. However, it was still top quality and was consumed well before it’s use-by date.
One issue that Barfield had to think about was the impact of those that already supply to some of these areas. After all, if you’re a regular supplier to an aged care facility, but the chef who is in charge of the kitchen decides to buy cheaper food from Yume, where does that leave the regular supplier?
“We have thought about that. We knew that when we went into the market we had to think about what we were displacing. There is always some displacement that happens,” she said. “Yume is what I would call an opportunistic marketplace. You couldn’t rely on it to supply all your needs because it is part of an irregular supply chain. You can’t hop onto the platform and buy your entire shopping basket from Yume every week because the nature of surplus is that it changes all the time – sometimes hourly.”
Barfield said that Australia is leading the world with this technology and that the country needs to get more people wrapped around it and talking about it. She also believes that the government could do its bit to reduce food waste.
“The biggest change that can happen is to engage with the government,” she said. “The government is the largest procurer of food in the country – if you think about defence, education, aged care, health care, corrections facilities. That is taxpayers money that goes to fund the food for these institutions. Day in, day out, three times a day. If they just mandated that a certain percentage of product that was surplus had to be bought through a platform like Yume, we would significantly impact the amount of food currently going to waste. We would return more money to Australian farmers and manufactures. We would save taxpayers money.”