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To Reduce Food Waste, Tweak the Food Supply Chain, Researcher Says

Research from Sweden says there are certain improvement actions wholesalers, producers and retailers can take to reduce "criminally" huge food waste in Europe and its impact on the environment.

Jan. 31, 2017
By Stav Dimitropoulos

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Each year, around 88 mil­lion tons of food are dis­carded in Europe with ensu­ing costs esti­mated at €143 bil­lion, says the web­site of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. This is a tremen­dous waste when 795 mil­lion peo­ple around the world are expe­ri­enc­ing food inse­cu­rity.

In the devel­oped world, it is pri­mar­ily the well-fed inhab­i­tant that throws away food. There is, how­ever, another cul­prit that comes in close sec­ond: the food sup­ply chain and its three stages of pro­duc­tion, whole­sal­ing and retail­ing, as Kristina Lil­jes­trand, an expert in sus­tain­able food logis­tics and researcher at Chalmers Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Swe­den, revealed.

By tweak­ing the logis­tics sys­tems, we can ensure that the food main­tains good qual­ity and lasts as long as pos­si­ble when it reaches the store,” Lil­jes­trand said.

In her research titled Reduc­ing the Envi­ron­men­tal Impact of Food Prod­ucts Logis­tics Sys­tems,” Lil­jes­trand attempted to study how both food waste and the envi­ron­men­tal impact at the food-sup­ply-chain level can go down. Through an exten­sive study among Swedish pro­duc­ers, whole­salers and retail­ers, she iden­ti­fied nine improve­ment actions by divid­ing them into four types.

First, there is Visu­al­iza­tion,” which con­cerns under­stand­ing where and why envi­ron­men­tal impact occurs with the help of frame­works, tools, and processes. In the study, it mainly involved whole­salers and retail­ers,” said Lil­jes­trand.

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Sec­ond comes Flow.” Changes to the flow imply long-term adjust­ments to the mate­r­ial or infor­ma­tion flow in order to reduce the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the logis­tics sys­tems and, coin­ci­den­tally, make the logis­tics sys­tems more effi­cient.

Such changes were often made by joint deci­sion-mak­ing between the stages in the food sup­ply chain. These solu­tions were often tra­di­tional logis­tics oper­a­tions that the actors in the study exe­cuted in order to reduce food waste. For exam­ple, good solu­tions were col­lab­o­ra­tive fore­cast­ing and make-to-order flows, which applied to all three groups of actors,” explained the researcher.

Third, the food sup­ply chain ought to think of Chang­ing Per­for­mance Pri­or­i­ties.”

Chang­ing per­for­mance pri­or­i­ties is linked to alter­ing logis­tics per­for­mance vari­ables used to describe the objec­tives of the logis­tics sys­tems — that is, to ques­tion­ing the effec­tive­ness of logis­tics sys­tems. The main per­for­mance vari­ables that were altered in order to reduce food waste were assort­ment, ser­vice level and lead times.

One exam­ple is to lower demands on assort­ment or ser­vice level dur­ing lim­ited time peri­ods with large amounts of food waste, for exam­ple at the end of a sea­son (e.g. Christ­mas hams at Christ­mas Day). This group of solu­tions was mainly applied by whole­salers and retail­ers.”

Last, Lil­jes­trand said, Emer­gency solu­tions are applied in response to an imme­di­ate risk of food waste not mit­i­gated by other iden­ti­fied solu­tions. This could, for exam­ple, be done by reduc­ing the price of food prod­ucts with short shelf lives. Emer­gency solu­tions were used by all stages in the food sup­ply chain.”

In the sec­ond part of her research, Lil­jes­trand focused on the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the activ­i­ties of the food sup­ply chain. She exam­ined aspects like the load fac­tor (the opti­mal use of space in pal­lets, crates and trucks) or the pro­por­tion of inter­modal trans­ports. This resulted in two frame­works that pro­vided great help in the quest to reduce trans­port emis­sions.

The Trans­port Port­fo­lio Frame­work (TPF) is a tool for sup­port­ing deci­sion-mak­ing that scru­ti­nizes logis­tics sys­tems from the per­spec­tive that they encom­pass many ship­ments with dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics that impose require­ments for transport’s impact on cli­mate. Actors, there­fore, need to under­stand which ship­ments have a strong poten­tial for improv­ing the key vari­ables of modal split and load fac­tor.”

Kristina Liljestrand (Photo Caroline Örmgård)

The Matrix for Eval­u­at­ing Improve­ment Actions (MEIA) eval­u­ates how dif­fer­ent improve­ment actions affect transport’s impact on cli­mate and trans­port costs.”

The Chalmer Tech­nol­ogy the­sis found that both frame­works com­ple­ment each other: The TPF can be applied when actors want an overview of their entire logis­tics sys­tem, while the MEIA can be applied when they want to com­pare improve­ment actions,” con­tin­ued Lil­jes­trand.

Her research clearly showed that there is money to be made by increas­ing the load fac­tor and focus­ing more on inter­modal trans­port, and that col­lab­o­ra­tion plays a key role in how food is dis­trib­uted.

Inter­modal trans­port is thought to decrease both trans­port costs and impact on cli­mate, since a large part of all trans­port, dubbed the long leg,’ is car­ried out at high capac­ity, which makes it cost-effec­tive and envi­ron­men­tally ben­e­fi­cial to reduce each load­ing unit’s impact on cli­mate.”

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On the other hand, an impor­tant find­ing of the study was that no solu­tion involved only one stage in the food sup­ply chain. Three of my logis­tics solu­tions tran­scend all three sup­ply chain stages, whereas the other six solu­tions include two stages.

My find­ings imply that col­lab­o­ra­tion is impor­tant and that reduc­ing food waste with­out col­lab­o­ra­tion is dif­fi­cult,” con­cluded Lil­jes­trand, who hopes that her research can inspire the var­i­ous actors in the food sup­ply chain to under­stand that in order to suc­cess­fully reduce food waste and tackle envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges, they need to col­lab­o­rate.



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