HISTORY As early as World War I, food waste has been recognised as a nationwide problem. At this time, rationing was introduced in the UK to mitigate the risks of food shortages caused by potential attacks on imports to the UK. During World War II, legislation was passed making food wastage an offence for which one could be imprisoned, and posters such as the one in Figure 1 (right) encouraged citizens to keep any unwanted food for the feeding of pigs, chickens, and other poultry.
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS Since rationing's end in 1954, households' enthusiasm for preserving food seems to have dwindled. In fact, the government-funded Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that households in the UK create 8.3 million tonnes of food waste, weighing in at almost 1.5 million elephants! The results become even more disappointing when one looks at the distribution of this food waste, with as much as 64% of this waste being avoidable, such as through better meal planning and using food within its use by date. Types of food waste, with examples, are shown below.
Avoidable (64%): Perfectly edible, but still disposed of - Too much food prepared, cooked or served - Food was rendered inedible through burning - Food not used in time (e.g. before use by date, wilted salad) - Other indiscernible reason for disposal
Potentially Avoidable (18%): Food which is edible but may not always be used - Potato skins (e.g. when potatoes are boiled) - Bread crusts (e.g. removed through personal preference)
Unavoidable (18%): Food or parts of food items which are inedible - Egg shells, meat bones - Pineapple skins, fruit stones - Tea bags, coffee dregs
The increasing amount of food we waste may also be a by-product of our growing desire for a healthy lifestyle. Shunning ready meals and processed foods in favour of perishable fresh produce, paired with poor knowledge of storage may mean we are increasing demand for, and wasting more fresh produce. Whilst households do make a significant contribution to food waste, other examples include supermarkets/food retail, restaurants, catering, food manufacturing and agriculture, with food retail alone contributing to over 1.6 million tonnes of food waste in 2008.
IMPACT In the current economic climate, the effect of food waste on families' finances is ever more pressing. The cost to each family in the UK is estimated at between £250 and £400 per year, however this is not the only problem. Local councils must bear the brunt of collecting and transporting this waste from our homes, and the cost of removing food and drink from our sewerage is also a contributing factor. Other costs embedded within food waste include its packaging and the transportation, all of which filter down eventually consumers, through council tax, water rates, and retailers' lost sales.
However, the financial cost of food waste is not the only drain on our country, nor indeed our world. Of ever increasing importance is the detrimental effects which food waste has on the environment, including: Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Food waste in landfill releases methane, a greenhouse gas between 25 and 72 times more damaging than carbon dioxide (CO2). Energy is also required to produce food, as well as to transport and dispose of it when it is wasted, which also contributes to CO2 emissions. As CO2 emissions are linked with climate change and global warming, reducing food waste will have an ever increasingly important role to play in lessening the damage we do to the environment. Water Pollution - When left in landfill, food waste releases toxins into the soil. These toxins may then wash away into water sources such as lakes and rivers, adversely affecting organisms living in these waters. Food Shortages - With both an increasing population and increasing strain on the world's resources, the impact of continuing to waste food could lead to food shortages. There are those in the world who have nowhere near enough food to feed themselves, yet a report by the UN found that a third of the food purchased in the UK is never eaten! Other sources of food waste include fish being thrown back into the sea and crops destroyed by pests, all stemming from poor management of the human food chain. Water Shortages - A considerable amount of water is required to grow the food we consume. Thus it is obvious that wasted food is wasted water. One study calculates that throwing out 1 kilogram of beef wastes the equivalent of 50,000 litres of water! Given the recommendation that one should drink 8 glasses of water per day, that's enough water for more than 65 years!
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE? Several things are being done in order to reduce our food waste. Varying degrees of responsibility exist across the spectrum of consumers, retailers, suppliers and producers. Collection - Separate collections of food waste and general household waste have been in place (albeit in few areas) for some time now, and whilst this does not directly reduce the amount of food wasted, it does help prevent it from going to landfill (resulting in fewer environmental detriments). The food waste can then be put to more practical use such as in anaerobic digestion plants, producing useful compost and combustible gases for energy production. Unfortunately this method of disposal has been rolled out by few local authorities in the UK, estimated at a mere 2% of available food waste being disposed of separately. Reduction - It may sound obvious, but the amount of food wasted can be reduced by simply reducing the amount of food we produce. By carefully planning meals and sticking to a shopping list we can reduce the amount we buy, which in turn reduces demand to retailers, suppliers and eventually producers. Education - Several campaigns aimed at advising the public have been introduced. Households have been urged to plan meals prior to shopping and to better understand food labelling to avoid food
expiration and over-purchasing. A two-pronged campaign of education of food storage and optimising packaging to extend shelf-life has also been proposed to help reduce waste. "Leftover" cookbooks have also begun to teach consumers how to "up-cycle" leftovers into another meal. Local authorities have also promoted home-composting of food waste, which can then be used or sold. Redistribution - With so much food going to waste, and an estimated four million people in the UK going without sufficient food, several charities, such as FareShare, are redressing the balance by redistributing surplus food. Perfectly edible food which is left unsold in supermarkets owing to its shape, size or proximity to use-by date is being given a second chance to feed the homeless and vulnerable. Several supermarkets (Sainsbury's, M&S and Tesco) are working with the charity to reduce the amount of food they send to landfill. Taxation - Whilst possibly a slight cliché, the old saying goes that "nothing is certain but death and taxes". But if a tax were to be introduced, how much should it be? And on whom? Taxes on supermarkets, suppliers and restaurants would simply filter down to consumers, and would most probably be viewed as "just another tax", rather than prompting a favourable change in behaviour. But should some kind of levy be placed on the wasting of food? Korea thinks so. Plans this year to introduce a charge dependent on each household's food waste (by weight) are hoping to give rise to reductions of 20% in 2013. One South Korean city has already managed to reduce its food waste by 30% by implementing the scheme, which will be rolled out over the entire country in 2013.
SO WHAT CAN I DO? With almost two-thirds of food waste being completely avoidable, a significant way to reduce one's contribution is to make the most of the food you buy. Many foods go to waste simply because they aren't used before the best before date or because too much was purchased, and a key way of tackling this is PLANNING! Meal Planning - Knowing what you are eating and in what quantities will help immensely in reducing food waste, ensuring that you only buy what you need. Impulse and "buy one get one free" purchases are also shown to increase waste and should be treated with caution! Watch Your Waste! - For one week, keep a note book next to the bin and write down every single item which goes into it. At the end of the week you can then look at ways of how you can reduce the amount. By counting up every single item it becomes much easier to see where waste is coming from. Re-use Leftovers - Leftover food can easily be "up-cycled" into new meals. Leftover meats and vegetables from roast dinners can be refridgerated for up to 2 days and made into stews or soups. Give Vegetables a Second Chance - Vegetables which are about to expire need not be thrown away! Soft tomatoes, bendy carrots, floppy broccoli, crusty cabbages and wilting greens can all be put into soups, curries and vegetable stews. Make one day of the week "clear the fridge day", using up every perishable item before they expire, or simply don't go shopping until you have used up everything in the house! Freeze your leftovers - You may not want to eat the same meal two days in a row, so why not freeze it? Sealing leftovers in airtight boxes and freezing them is a great way of preventing waste. You can even use up all of the "about to go off" food in your fridge this way by cooking it and freezing your home-made "ready meals" for another day!
By Ben Hughes