Each year in the UK, we waste around 15 million tonnes of food – 7 million of this is from households which equates to 1.2kg a week per person1. Statistics suggest that by 2050 we will need to roughly double the number of crops we produce2 in order to sustain our population and this poses a huge challenge for us to overcome. In theory, it would make sense to reduce this burden by simple decreasing the staggering amount of food we waste each year before we start to tackle increasing food production. A large amount of focus is placed upon reducing household waste, but with bargain bulk buys and ever increasing convenience food, is it fair to lay the blame largely on consumers? Or do they problems start higher up the supply chain? I tested this by challenging myself to not waste any food for one week, provoking much thought into why and how we waste the food we do.
Day 1 – food shop
In order to minimise waste, it is important to plan meals and I find it quicker, easier and cheaper to cook in bulk for the whole week.
- 1kg onions
- 1kg carrots
- 1kg wonky peppers
- 750g wonky mushrooms
- 2kg bananas
- 500g grapes
- 500g pasta
- 1kg porridge
This is rather a lot for one person but ALDI sell most of their vegetables in large quantities only, so already this is placing a lot of produce upon me.
ALDI sell a ‘wonky veg’ range which is a positive step forwards in food waste reduction, however they only sell these in much larger quantities compared to non-wonky vegetables and also at a much lower cost per kg. As rational consumers, many of us may choose the value option even if we know we are unlikely to consume all of it. People may think they are making an ethical choice by choosing the wonky vegetables in the first place, and in some way, this offsets the unethical practice of throwing some away.
Day 2 – Cooking
I made a vegetable pasta bake using all of the mushrooms, half the carrots, half the peppers, a bit of pasta and a couple of onions, hoping the rest should keep for the following week. Ironically, I struggled to understand how most of the mushrooms and peppers were classified as ‘wonky’ seeing as they looked just as average as their more expensive counterparts! When chopping the vegetables, I take care to ensure that I am only wasting the bare minimum when it comes to the stalks and peels. In the end, I am surprised to find I end up with more non-recyclable packaging than I do food waste, though this is another issue all together.
For the rest of the week I am able to waste significantly less on a day to day basis, only leaving a few fruit peels from breakfast.
On the penultimate day of my experiment, I planned on staying in the library all afternoon, however I would have no access to a microwave to heat up my pasta dinner. So instead, I bought a baguette and made a sandwich. Unfortunately I didn’t get through it all and had to throw it out once it went stale.
On the final day I had to throw away a little bit of my pasta bake as it has started to go off and because I didn’t get to finish it the other day. This totals my waste for the week to be 750g of food compared to the UK average of 1.2kg a week. However, eating a diet heavily based around fruit and vegetables, I can put most of this in the compost bin which further reduces my waste to 150g, just leaving half a baguette.
Statistically, I waste a lot less food than the average person and with a little more forward planning, I believe most households can reduce waste without much effort. Food is now so cheap and readily available we have lost the understanding of where it comes from, making it more easily disposable. Policies largely focus on trying to ‘nudge’ people into better habits, for example through better storage information, preparation techniques and how to use leftovers. These are important but they do not tackle the wider contextual issues that push all this waste upon us in the first place. I found the biggest reason for my waste was due to how food was packaged, and the trade-off between value and waste since it is almost always better value to buy in bulk. Wider issues such as the availability of microwaves to heat up food, or access to a compost bin can also influence the amount of food waste, yet cannot be solved through simple changes in household behaviour.
This image portrays the popular policies aimed at ‘nudging’ households to reduce waste. Source
Supermarkets such as Tesco appear to be ‘doing their bit’ by generously using wonky vegetables in their mashed potatoes and by donating their leftover food to charities. But does this solve the real issue? Perhaps supermarkets should make more significant changes by altering their packaging, weekly offers and pricing strategies which favour higher quantity purchases. It may be more profitable for them to operate in this way, but it promotes a dangerously wasteful culture which is hard to change in the short run.
There is a lot of focus on developing new farming methods or GMO foods in order to feed the 9 billion, but I believe if we just made better use of the resources we have available to us now, it can drastically reduce this problem. In addition to mitigating household waste, governments should also pay more attention to the supply side production methods and implement policies to reduce waste before it hits the supermarket shelf.
1 – WRAP (2008) ‘The food we waste’ available at http://www.ifr.ac.uk/waste/Reports/WRAP%20The%20Food%20We%20Waste.pdf
2 – http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/feeding-9-billion/
Unless otherwise stated, the images used in this blog are owned by the author.