Food waste: where does it come from and how do we stop it?

People in the United Kingdom waste  £23 billion worth of food every year, the equivalent of around 18 million tonnes. A third of this comes from households, which means we are throwing away a staggering 6 million tonnes of food. Between the money we waste in the process and the increased campaigning against food waste, why is this still such a problem?

Double cost

Waste prevention officer Katherine Winrow says a lack of education is at fault. “The average family currently throws away 50 pounds a month worth of food, with 25 per cent of that not even out of its packaging. We’re trying to say ‘look at the money you’re literally throwing down the drain!’”

She also highlights the ecological impact of food waste. Some residents assume that if the food waste is going to landfill then it’s not a problem as it will just break down. In reality, it breaks down without the use of oxygen, and it’s not the same as composting. This produces a lot of methane, which is ten times worse for the environment than CO2.

Winrow, who works for the North London Waste Authority says: “People also don’t realise they’re paying twice. They’re paying for the food they throw away, and they pay to get it collected by the council. It’s a double cost to them.”

The zero waste business

Alex Smith, the founder of Alara Wholefoods, operates a zero waste policy within his business. Smith started out selling fruit and vegetables thrown away by retailers on the South Bank, and now runs a business where everything is recycled, reused or repurposed. The food waste is used for off-site anaerobic digestion, with plans to build their own facilities in the future.

He says the amount of food thrown away is “staggering”, and speaks about his own experience living in a squat without any money for a year before starting up Alara. “The water that I drank came from the rain and that was just going into the gutter and going to waste. All the food I ate I got from dustbins and that was all going to waste.”

The amount of food waste he found in London was enough to live on, and enough to start a business. “I used to cycle down to a fruit and veg distribution depot and go through their dustbins, and the amount of fruit and veg thrown away there was absolutely outstanding. I started my business going through their dustbins, picking up thrown away fruit and veg, and selling them in a squat.”

The supermarket predicament

While Alara may operate a zero waste policy, supermarkets are in a different situation. They have a legal responsibility for their food waste, and also a financial interest in not giving it away for free.

Smith says: “If Tesco released any of their food product that was going out of date and that caused any sickness, it’s likely that they’d be held responsible for it. They also don’t want to undermine their own sales.”

The absolute requirement for supermarkets to boost their cash flow as much as they possibly can has an impact on both the food waste they produce, and the food their customers throw away. Buy one get one free deals could influence people to buy more, and impulse purchases also cause people to deviate from their shopping lists.

Winrow says: “We are trying to work with supermarkets to get single shoppers to be able to have as good offers as people who buy in bulk.”

She wants to see more supermarkets selling single portions or smaller loaves of bread instead of the big bags of apples or sacks of potatoes we now see on the shelves.

Smith says one of the solutions to this problem would be online shopping. It would “reduce the temptation to buy those extra things because they catch your eye”.

Food sharing

The way we shop is not the only factor influencing the amount of food we ultimately throw away. Cooking and storing the food we buy can be a problem. The concept of food sharing has been growing stronger and stronger across Europe as a solution for many issues, including the lack of access to actual home-made food but also as alternative to food waste.

The home-made takeaway project Eatro currently operates in East London, with plans to extend to nearby City University’s student halls through the Green Dragons. Eatro aims to put consumers in want of a home-cooked meal in touch with chefs who want to share their food.

One of the founders, Daniel Kaplansky, says that what’s standing in the way of reducing food waste and sharing more meals is the British and American mentality. “It’s just imprinted in our brains – a consumerist American dream. Me for myself, my neighbour is my enemy, I need to buy and accumulate as many things as I can.” He blames it on habit and the idea that  “it’s been one day, I can’t do anything with it, just bin it”.

Who signed up to share their food through Eatro then? A few of the chefs are striving food entrepreneurs that also sell to local bakeries and don’t mind selling some more from home. But a lot of them are just passionate people that want to get engaged with their community.

“They’re usually stay at home parents, full time mums. They care about these kind of things and someone who joined Eatro is probably also involved in similar kinds of projects of the sharing economy, like FoodCycle or AirBnb. Half are doing it because they’re trying to start their own little business, and half are doing it because of the sustainable and social aspect.”

The confidence factor

Sofia Larrinua Craxton, the manager of Central Street Cookery School, says people seem to struggle with a lack of confidence when it comes to putting a dish together.

“Many feel they don’t know how to create a meal from what is available. Think that there is no more food in the world except what you have in your house and creativity will kick in”.  This should set people to cook more and throw less.

She says people need to connect more with food and try to be wise about how to shop, how to store, and most importantly “how to cook with what we have”.

Food waste at home

According to the North London Waste Authority, there are a few small changes people can make to their food shopping and food storing habits that would reduce food waste.

1. The “display and sell by” date are for supermarkets only. You should only be going by the “use by” date. “Best before” on things like bread or cakes is about quality, so use your judgement with that.

2. Use recipes that make the most of your leftovers instead of putting them in the fridge and not using them.

3. You can freeze anything. For instance, you can put raw meat in the freezer, defrost it, cook it into a meal, and then refreeze it.

4. Even if you open something like cream or yogurt you can still freeze it, you don’t have to throw it away.

5. Be careful with “buy one get one free” deals, especially on products that go off like fruit and veg. Market shopping is ideal because you can get exactly what you need.

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