As with so many other environmental issues, more and more people are becoming aware of the environmental strain created by food waste, and the good news is our overall waste is decreasing: between 2007 and 2012 there was a reduction in post-farm food waste of around 12%, which equates to 1.6 million tonnes of food waste. Yet still more than a third of all food produced never reaches a table. Articles and campaigns often compare food waste in western countries to the lack of provisions in other places: the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations describes how consumers in economically richer countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa produces (230 million tonnes). For the average person, this feels like a larger-scale version of your mum telling you to ‘eat all your vegetables; think of the starving children in Africa’ – it doesn’t give much practical guidance for people trying to reduce their environmental impact. Indeed, the way information is presented in many articles and campaigns leads to an unhelpful approach to reducing food waste. When faced with these facts, consumers are encouraged to see themselves as shamefully wealthy and wasteful, destroying the planet and causing people in poorer countries to go hungry. Of course, no one wants this as part of their identity, but waste is so ubiquitous that the lifestyle changes required to reduce food waste can be made to seem impossible.
Admittedly, practical opportunities for waste reduction have increasingly been made available. New apps have been created to help reduce food waste, such as ‘Too Good to Go’, which allows people to buy leftovers from restaurants at a reduced price, or ‘Olio’, which functions like eBay for spare food. I’ve tried both, and they can be a great way to get cheap or even free food that would otherwise go in the bin. However, they can also reinforce an unhelpful way of thinking about food waste. The apps invite you to become a ‘food waste warrior’, and offer badges for ‘saving meals’. You earn points which quantify your ‘total impact’ and which you can compare with others to see how successful an eco-warrior you are. A similar message is spread by Silo, the new zero-waste restaurant in London. The restaurant aims to demonstrate that sustainability in the food industry can be financially viable; however, they do so by promising ‘purity’ to their customers, offering a ‘primitive diet’ which also happens to involve expensive and unrealistic food, including ingredients such as ‘rhubarb snow’ and ‘egg fudge’. Silo and the apps may have very effective marketing, and it’s easy to agree that their goal of reducing food waste is a positive thing, but they use unnecessary moral language to talk about food and make reducing waste seem far more difficult than it actually is. Instead of moralising, the food waste discussion should focus on educating consumers.
You don’t have to be flawlessly zero-waste or a ‘warrior’ to reduce food waste; it’s better to be realistic about your lifestyle and to make small, unglamorous changes. It’s important to think about the causes of food waste in your life: for example, special offers or online food shopping may cause you to over-buy. Perhaps you buy more than you need because it’s reassuring to have full cupboards? Or maybe you don’t make a shopping list when you go to the supermarket and end up with a lot of extra food? Studies have found that those with more time available for food-related activities generate the least waste. Lower levels of waste are also linked to behaviours such as meal planning, cooking the right amount of rice and pasta (which must be a superpower!), list-making and cooking with leftovers. But fundamentally, it comes down to not buying more food than you need, which increases food demand in supermarkets and has a knock-on effect, leading to agricultural overproduction. If consumers prioritise waste reduction, supermarkets and policy makers are more likely to include it as a factor in their decisions. Hopefully, by buying only what we need, we can create an industry in which farmers, supermarkets, restaurants are rewarded for sustainable practice without resorting to gimmicks and overpricing.
Realistic tips to help you reduce food waste:
•Learn how to store food so that it stays fresh for longer, including what food should be refrigerated – for example, bread, garlic and avocados last longer in the cupboard than the fridge
•Learn what shouldn’t be stored together – some fruit such as apples, tomatoes, bananas and melons produces ethylene gas which leads to a loss of chlorophyll, meaning food ripens faster – cucumbers and leafy greens are particularly susceptible to ethylene, so should be stored separately
•Transfer food and liquid into smaller airtight containers where possible and make sure caps are on tightly
•Check that your fridge is set to the right temperature
•Learn which best before dates are fine to ignore and don’t just throw food away as soon as it passes that date, and to make this judgement by smelling and tasting – your senses are there to stop you eating dangerous food, and most of the time ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates don’t mean the food is inedible
•Try to use up all the food you buy – for example, you can cook and eat and eat broccoli stems, and grate orange and lemon peels to use as zest in cooking