What do we mean by food waste?
Food waste refers to food discarded at the retail or consumer level of the food system, such as produce failing to meet size/shape standards required by retailers. Food loss occurs before the retail system, for example arising from inadequate storage or poor handling processes. When it comes to food waste, the headline figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations report, 2011, are often cited. Worldwide, about a third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost per year, approximating 1.3 billion tonnes. In medium/high-income countries, significant waste occurs at the consumption stage; this is not the case for low-income countries. It means that individuals and families in the UK and other wealthy nations can make a significant difference.
Why does food waste matter?
Food production uses many valuable resources, such as land, soil, seeds, water and energy. Consequently, when food is wasted, all these resources are wasted too.
Food systems also account for about one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions; yes, those chemicals that are warming up the planet! These emissions are produced through a variety of processes, such as fertilizer use, methane emission from cattle and refrigeration during transport. So, reducing food waste means we can help lower our carbon footprint and assist in mitigating climate change.
Some ideas for reducing food waste at home
1. Meal planning – not to be pious, but this activity plays to my strengths. I like lists and planning; it makes me feel in control of at least some stuff in the world. I don’t like thinking every day, “what are we going to have for dinner tonight?” (is this just me?). So, once a week, I do all the brain work for the week, write a menu, list the ingredients and go shopping. This doesn’t mean I completely ace eliminating food waste, but it does help. Life happens, doesn’t it? We might not feel like cooking one night and get a take-out instead, or we might end up with some family members eating elsewhere. In part because of this, I think it can be helpful to plan meals for 6-nights and use up whatever is leftover in the fridge for the 7th night.
2. Buy what you need – this may seem obvious, and if you are doing a meal plan, it definitely helps. However, multi-buy deals such as 2-for-1 can be tempting, as highlighted by Joy Carey in her podcast episode. Also, some food items aren’t sold in the quantities you want to buy them in. For example, organic vegetables are typically packaged in plastic to prevent contamination from non-organic foodstuffs, preventing you from buying the exact number you are after. If you only require 1 leek, but you have to buy 3, what do you do with the other 2? I guess, if you are a super, meticulous type, with a photographic memory for supermarket/greengrocer packaging, you can account for this at the planning stage. Alternatively, you can consider freezing the veg you know you won’t use. I do this routinely with garlic, chilli and ginger, but other vegetables can be frozen too. Those likely to stick together can be frozen on a tray first before placing them in a reusable tub. Some veg will require blanching first before freezing, such as broccoli, cauliflower and green beans, while others will not freeze at all, such as root vegetables and kale.
3. Cook for the number of people eating – again, perhaps this is obvious, but it is easy to overestimate how much to cook and end up with leftovers, particularly I find, if you are catering for more than the usual number you cater for.
4. Keep checking what’s in the fridge – sounds ridiculous I know, but I can’t be the only one surprised to find something decomposed at the back of the fridge! Be aware that passing the ‘best before’ date doesn’t necessarily indicate the food needs to be thrown away; look at it and smell it – you will soon know if it’s inedible. “Use-by” dates, on the other hand, do signify when the food is safe to eat. Perhaps do a fridge audit (sound like fun, huh!), at the point when you are doing your weekly shop, so you don’t end up buying food you already have.
5. Dealing with leftovers – I personally will happily eat leftovers the next day for lunch (a win in my book, as it’s one decision less to make in the day). Alternatively, use your leftovers as an ingredient and concoct something new (not something I am especially good at); take a look at the Love Food hate waste website for ideas. If you’re not in the creative headspace, many leftovers will freeze.
6. Recycling food waste – if you can, compost inedible food waste, such as vegetable peelings and eggshells. Some councils in the UK offer food waste collection, where it is mixed with garden waste and composted at higher temperatures than a typical garden composter, for repurposing as a soil conditioner. Alternatively, it may be added to an anaerobic digester, producing biogas to generate electricity, heat or transport fuel. I don’t live in one of these areas, but I am fortunate enough to have a garden with sufficient space for a garden composter, in which I also add grass clippings, shredded paper and empty toilet rolls. The aim is to avoid placing food waste into the non-recyclable bin, destined for landfill, where it emits methane, yes, one of those greenhouse gases causing climate change.
Something we can control
Many of us have a degree of control over household food waste, giving us scope as individuals to make a difference. Producing less food waste is an area I can certainly improve upon, and I will definitely attempt to reduce it.