The Inconvenient Truth That's Hard to Swallow

If I said there was a source of pollution that, if it were its own country, would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world- could you guess what it is? Here’s a clue- It’s the wilted lettuce at the back of your fridge.

The environmental and economic impact of food waste has reached outrageous levels, and this year has risen to the top of the global agenda. When world leaders sat down to ratify the sustainable development goals in September 2015, they agreed that one of the targets (12.3) would be to halve global food waste by 2030. Six months later, leaders from the business, political, and NGO community created a task force pledging to achieve that target by whatever means possible.

It’s fair to say that food waste is having a bit of a moment right now. Celebrity chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall can be seen standing on top of a mountain of discarded parsnips, shouting on national television about waging a “war on waste”, whilst Michelin star holder Massimo Bottura is penning articles for the wall street journal about the future of food being a more resourceful use of discarded foods.  And of course Jamie Oliver is all over the conversation

Just a few weeks ago, a law was passed in France which forbid supermarkets from discarding food, forcing them to donate all unused items to charities. And supermarkets in the UK are lining up left, right and centre to show how good they are on the issue.

Why is there suddenly such a scramble to reduce the amount of food left on our plates? Is it really that much of a pressing world issue? 

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a third of human food production is lost or wasted globally, at around 1.3 billion tonnes per year. That’s a hell of a lot of food that could be doing better things than sitting in landfill. And if we all stopped wasting food that could have been eaten, the benefit to the planet would be the same as taking 1 in four cars off the road. The irrigation used globally to grow food that is wasted would be enough to meet the domestic needs (200 litres per person per day) of 9 billion people.

Not only is food waste bad for the environment, it’s also a huge, unnecessary waste of money. Food waste costs an estimated $940 billion a year. When you look closer, that's the same as the average UK household with children throwing £700 in the bin every year. And the most startling fact is that 75% of this waste is entirely avoidable.

So how do we go about avoiding food waste?

The sad truth is that a whopping 50% of food waste in the developed world comes from our homes, so it's not like we can really point the finger at big business. But the silver lining is that there is a lot one can do as an individual to prevent food waste. 7 million tonnes of food and drink are thrown away from UK homes each year due to picky eating and poor meal planning. Dr Wayne Martindale from Sheffield business school predicts that Food waste could be slashed by almost 50%, equivalent to three million tonnes of household waste per year, through better meal planning and by eating more frozen food. Bagged salad is the worst offender- with 68% of total production wasted. Baked goods comes next, as 47% of baked items are thrown away before being consumed. The guardian has created a nifty pie chart showing exactly what we throw away the most. 

We've put together a few tips to help you avoid wasting food in your home:

  • Be flexible and creative. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, did a study that showed more than 50% of thrown away food items were purchased for a specific meal or occasion that never happened. I get a lot of inspiration from typing specific ingredients into foodgawker and seeing what comes up. Sainsbury's also has an app that gives you recipes when you type in an assortment of ingredients you have lying around in your pantry. 

  • learn the language. Confused by the difference between "use-by", "expiration", and "sell by"? Me too. I did a little recon and here's what I found: "use-by" is just an indicator that the product will have maximum freshness, flavour and texture if it is used by this date. It's not an indication of safety, and can definitely still be consumed after the use-by date. "Expiration date" means what it says. If you haven't used the product by this date, you unfortunately need to throw it out or there's a likelihood you might get ill. "Sell-by" is a date used to indicate to grocers when to remove the product from their shelves, but there is certainly some leeway here. Milk, for example, can be used for at least a week after the "sell-by" date- as long as it's kept refrigerated. 

  • Learn how to pickle. No idea what to do with the lonely zucchini in your fridge? pickle it! Here's a super easy guide on how to pickle leftover veg

  • Freeze leftovers. If you've made a meal or you have some food that you know you won't be able to use before it passes it's expiration date, stick it in the freezer for a later date. Note that once you have defrosted food, it's a general rule of thumb that you should not refreeze the product once it's thawed. This is not only because it results in a loss of moisture and the food won't taste as good, but it is also a safety issue- Thawed food is more susceptible to developing harmful bacteria, especially uncooked meat and seafood.  

  • Plan ahead. You will probably waste less food if you shop for small amounts often, so you know exactly what you will need in the immediate future- but not everyone has the time to do this. If you do go for a big weekly or fortnightly shop, make sure you plan ahead to know what meals you will be making in the future so as not to have too many leftover spare ingredients. 


And in case you're now fired up and inspired to become a foot-soldier in the 'war on waste', here are a few initiatives and organisations campaigning on food waste:

Image source: Francisco Bonilla/Reuters