Food waste: Exploring the modern throw-away culture

Read Time:   |  19th January 2017

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Charlotte Willis explores the modern day throw-away culture in her two-part exposé…

As a child, I wonder if you were coerced into finishing that last piece of broccoli, mouthful of peas or piece of water-saturated cabbage after being told by your parents not to waste the food that was on your plate. If only that principal was true of modern life. It has been estimated that around 50% of all UK food waste originates from our own kitchens. From that bag of liquidised spinach to the avocados that are slowly browning in the fruit bowl, this waste is costing the average household £470 per year – money that is quite literally being thrown away! What can we do to minimise this waste and how can we shop and prepare foods smarter?

What if I stood at the checkouts at a supermarket, grocery store or farmer’s market that you usually frequent and threw away 25% of the bread you’ve just purchased, 20% of your fruit and half of your bagged salad? You may or may not be surprised to know that, as a nation, we discard over 4 million tonnes of good food each year. This equates to just over 80 million wheelie bins worth, with the average household throwing away an entire day’s worth of food in just one week. Bizarre. Despite the price of food being at an all-time high, it seems that many of us are quick to waste and replace rather than keep and create with our foods.

The Rubbish Truth

The level of food we waste in the UK is the highest of all countries in Europe, and this amount is set to rise by 2020 if no further action is taken. There are many government-led campaigns to help promote the recycling and conservation of water and household materials such as paper, plastic and cardboard, but it seems the very sustenance of this great country has slipped under their scrutinising campaign radar. Dealing with all of our household food waste places a massive strain on the refuse collection services and is contributing heavily to landfill saturation levels.

Furthermore, an estimated 10% of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK is attributed to food waste and its disposal. In fact, if we all stopped wasting as much food as we do, the benefit to the planet would be the same as taking one in four cars off the road. Possibly the most shocking statistic is that 60% of all food thrown away comes straight from the cupboard or fridge and could well have been eaten, i.e. not past its use-by date or contaminated. So what exactly are we wasting and why are we doing it?

Want not

There are many contributing factors to the UK’s growing food waste issue. One of the main and quite obvious reasons as to why a large proportion of our weekly shop ends up in the bin is simply because we buy too much in the first place. But with supermarkets enticing us with such deals as Buy One Get One Free and Half Price Special it’s hard to resist piling the trolley higher and higher. So much so that one of the big five supermarkets, Tesco, has now vastly reduced its multi-buy and special offers on fresh and baked goods.

With a supermarket or convenience store on almost every corner offering us an abundance of fresh produce within easy reach, it’s easy to see how a wilted bag of salad might not seem as appealing as the crisp new bag that you find on the shelves. This often encourages us to replace produce that is perfectly edible (and with the right cooking methods, delicious too) with newer items. 

The same can be said for bread, baked goods, fresh fruit and vegetables – they are all too easy to replace at the first sign of ageing. It’s time we changed our ways.

There are many simple adjustments you can make to the way you treat your ageing and unwanted foods that involve minimal effort, will save you money and will heighten your nutritional gain from your daily diet – what’s not to love? The website is a fantastic resource for anyone who is conscious about their food footprint. It has a suggested meal plan, shopping list and handy tips for how to maximise your food’s benefits with minimal effort.

Smart shopping

Shop smart and eat smart. Step away from the two-for-one avocados and bargain bag salads – food items with an infamously short or temperamental shelf life should only be bought in quantities that you need in order to prevent over-buying and wastage.

Choose items with a longer use-by date. These are often buried at the back of the shelves meaning vertically challenged individuals like myself have to utilise an organic cucumber as an arm extension to reach the long-dated spinach holy grail! Failing this, simply ask a member of staff or your market stall holder where the newest stock is located.

Make a list. Check it twice! You’d be surprised at the number of people who go shopping without a list – you may be one of them! Making a list doesn’t just assure you don’t forget that jar of tomato purée, but it may also save you money. Those who make a shopping list based on their current kitchen supplies are far less likely to impulsively and/or bulk buy foods that are easily wasted or that are already in the cupboard.

Be realistic with your quantities. If you live alone, is it likely that you’ll get through that entire family pack of satsumas in one week? Don’t be fooled by pre-packaged bags of fresh produce or baked goods, if you require a smaller quantity then buy the items separately. This way you’ll save yourself a lot of money, plus reduce your packaging and food waste all in one.

In The Kitchen

Take stock of what you have and practise a little kitchen mindfulness. Spend a few minutes thinking about what you have left in the fridge, cupboard and freezer and how best you can utilise these ingredients first to reduce any waste.

Take the packaging off your items when you get home. This will prevent items such as bread from sweating and going mouldy, and fresh produce will keep longer in the refrigerator than in a larder or cupboard (with the exception of avocados and bananas). Open bags of salad to allow them to ‘breathe’ and keep baked goods out of the fridge to ensure they don’t go stale.

Designate one or two meals per week as ‘whatever I’ve got left to use up’ meals. This could be as simple as making a tofu scramble with mixed vegetables, turning stale bread into breadcrumbs for a savoury crumble, or clearing out the salad box and make a warm roasted veg salad – this way you won’t notice the slight wilting.

Become a freezer addict and make large batches of hotpots, curries and pies that you can easily divide up into portions and place into the freezer for an easy meal. Peel and freeze your over-ripe bananas as a base for a decadent nice-cream or smoothie. Even fresh herbs can be frozen and then later added to dishes to heighten and enhance flavour without the need to waste and replace.

Compost and Grow

Composting is a fantastic solution for what to do with all the smaller pieces of food that you can’t use in your cooking, or if anything does happen to go out of date. Limited to fresh produce only, composting of your kitchen waste will not only reduce the amount of rubbish that is transferred to landfill, but can also be used for healthier plant and crop growth. Not a green-fingered soul? There are many local allotments and farming projects that will be more than happy to take those scraps off your hands. Just search online for a local grower or ask your neighbours or friends.

Get the App!

It comes as no surprise to me that modern technology has come up trumps once again! There is a whole array of new and exciting food waste minimising apps available for consumers to use, ranging from meal planners (CookSmarts), recipe creators using ingredients that you select that are already in the fridge (SuperCook), and even apps that let you buy food from local restaurants and eateries that have made surplus food for a discounted price. One of the most exciting is Olio, a new app that connects local people with each other, businesses, stores and eateries to share surplus food for discounted prices to minimise local food waste. The future of preventing food waste is most definitely heading into the technical and online world, promising to help raise awareness of this issue across many different generations.

The Future of Waste

During the course of writing this article, I have become more motivated than ever to really reduce my food wastage. I’ve become more conscious of where my food comes from and how it is produced – something I think we can all be guilty of taking for granted. As consumers, we have a responsibility to ensure we use our resources responsibly. This is so often mentioned in conjunction with recycling materials, water and greenhouse gases, but I can’t help feeling food waste is being overlooked. I hope I have managed to open your eyes as to the wasteful nature of our food supply chain, and motivated you to make some small changes to the way you treat your food waste. It’s in all of our interests to be more mindful, responsible and economical.

Save the date

A common mistake with food waste occurs when distinguishing between use-by and sell-by dates. Sell-by dates are governed by the supermarkets and manufacturers. These are the dates by which supermarkets and shops are lawfully allowed to sell you their products. After this time, the products are not legally allowed to be sold and therefore must be discarded. However, these only apply to shops, and consumers are still fully able to use these products after the sell-by date has been reached.

Best-before dates are purely done as a product recommendation by manufacturers. These dates are based on when companies feel their product quality begins to diminish. However, these dates have nothing to do with food hygiene and safety. It would be fine for you to consume a product after it has exceeded its best-before date. Use-by dates are the ones that we should be more aware of as consumers. If a product reaches and exceeds its use-by date, it is recommended that the product be disposed of suitably. However, fresh produce can still be composted and recycled past the use-by dates.

Find out what it’s like to live a zero waste vegan life in part 2 of Charlotte’s exposé

Written by

Charlotte Willis

Charlotte Willis is an Assistant Psychologist at the University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and has a MS degree in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from Kings College London. Charlotte is also a marketer for ethical brands, author of Vegan: Do It! A young person’s guide to living a vegan lifestyle, and a regular contributor to sustainability and plant-based publications.

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