food / travel

A Profit-Minded Quest For Reducing Food Waste

With half of the world's food tossed out, how can we be less wasteful? For starters, looking for smart new ways to earn money by decreasing waste.

Volunteers at a Danish market that seeks to eliminate food waste
Volunteers at a Danish market that seeks to eliminate food waste
Lien Hoang

HO CHI MINH CITY — Here's a novel idea: To improve your health and looks, use chicken. Not to eat. But to rub on your skin ... well, sort of.

A team of Malaysian researchers has been trying to find a use for chicken skin, which contains high levels of elastin — similar to collagen — and can be turned into such beauty products as anti-aging lotions and cosmetics. It can even be used to make health drinks.

Salma Mohamad Yusop is part of the team, which is receiving funding from the Malaysian government. The senior lecturer at the National University of Malaysia's School of Chemical Sciences and Food Technology offers a nice little catchphrase for her scientific experiments: "Creating wealth from waste."

Chicken is a case in point. It is one of the most popular foods in the world, and yet a lot of the bird gets tossed out before ever reaching a dinner plate. Yusop notes that as consumers are becoming more health-consciouss, they associate the poultry skin with cardiovascular disease, and thus the skin is increasingly discarded. "It's at the food service and industrial levels too," she adds. "You can see it in the marketing of skinless chicken parts."

Malaysia isn't the only country where the "wealth from waste" approach is taking root. Just this year, France became the first nation to ban supermarkets from disposing of food that hasn't gone bad yet. And in Denmark, a new store called WeFood recently started selling products past their expiration dates.

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Wasted food — Photo: Steven De Polo

Then there's the Philippines. Leif Marvin Gonzales, a research coordinator at Capiz State University's College of Agriculture and Fisheries, noticed that a tremendous amount of cabbage was being lost between the time a farmer harvested it and the time it was sold to Filipino shoppers. Eager to minimize the waste, he and his team tested out a number of new techniques. Their findings are promising: a 5-10% cut in losses between the farm and retail level.

Cardboard solutions

How did they do it? The researchers had four methods. First, they kept the outer leaves on the cabbage to protect it. They also transported the vegetables in plastic crates, rather than in sacks. They mixed aluminum with water and spread it on the cabbage to control bacteria. And finally, they used plastic film to reduce exposure to oxygen.

The issue of packaging also came up at the recent International Conference on Environment and Renewable Energy, in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Hiroko Seki, a postdoctoral fellow at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, compared Styrofoam to cardboard as a means for transporting tuna. She found that cardboard is cheaper during the manufacturing and transit phases. Plus, it decomposes, so is better for the environment.

Researchers are currently working on a prototype of corrugated cardboard that will survive in the water, which could significantly reduce waste in seafood logistics in the future.

Gonzales, the researcher who focused on cabbage, says there are other benefits to reducing waste: self-sufficiency, food security — even higher earnings. "Farmers, retailers, wholesalers, as well as consumers must adapt this technology so that we're able to increase our profits," he says.

Advocates say that on the consumer level, there are everyday things people can also do to help reduce food waste: don't overspend at the grocery store; and don't obsess too much about being sure your apples or carrots look like they do in the movies.

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