I watched a documentary this week aptly entitled “What a Waste” about how in the UK alone we throw away almost 7 million tons of food each year. I had actually read this headline previously in the newspaper following a campaign run by the Government called Wrap (Waste & Resources Action Programme) which revealed the extent of Britain’s throwaway food culture.
It hardly seems possible does it when you think of the millions of starving people in the world and then we have so much food that we just throw it away! Even in terms of waste in relation to our own food budgets, with food prices being set to rise about 5% this year, why is it we are so quick to throw food away? What a waste this is indeed!!
According to the documentary the average British family throws away £680 worth of food per year. When I heard this I immediately thought to myself, no not me, I don’t waste any food. I then proceeded to casually monitor our family food waste over a few days. First of all I threw out the leftovers of my morning cereal because I had poured too much into my bowl and couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t convince my other half to eat my soggy leftovers and couldn’t keep it so into the bin it went. My son didn’t eat the yolk of his boiled eggs this morning so they went into the bin, along with half a slice of his jam toast which he couldn’t finish and I couldn’t eat as I was already full. I saved some fried rice from one dinner a couple of nights ago, put it in a tub and into the fridge. Two days later it was still there and didn’t smell very edible so that went into the bin. This is just a brief example of how easy it is to waste food without even realising it. I was brought up in a household where we absolutely had to finish EVERYTHING on our plates. Wasting food was simply NOT an option. I guess my mum was a very good judge of portion sizes though because none of us ended up overweight and all the food got eaten. It actually took me a long time to feel okay about leaving anything on my plate, even when I was full. In our society where obesity is a growing problem amongst children and adults alike, you have all the “diet” people telling you that you don’t have to eat everything on your plate but now I’m not so sure this is a good habit to learn. The answer would be to dish up smaller portions so as not to overeat and not to waste any food either.
As the main “cook” in the house I try my very best to give out the right sized portions for my family and there is not usually much left on the plates that I dish up (other than my 5 year old son whose attention span never seems to last the length of a meal!). However, I do regularly overcook when it comes to things like pasta, rice and potatoes and then I am happy to store the leftovers to be used up the following day. The only problem with doing this, however, is that you really do have to make sure these leftovers actually get eaten otherwise – hey presto – there is your family food waste and money in the bin!!
But it isn’t just families who are contributing to all this food waste, other culprits include farmers whose crops might be wasted on account of not meeting the “specifications” of the supermarkets whom they are supplying, for example, a farmer on the documentary estimated that 25% of his crops were being wasted for this very reason. In addition, the supermarkets themselves generate approximately 300,000 tons of food waste each year which I guess must be attributable to overstocking of food and then having to throw food away that is past its sell-by date. Another of the main culprits are restaurants who contribute to the tune of 600,000 tons of food waste.
While supermarkets and restaurants have to come up with their own ways of reducing this waste, we do have control over our own contribution to this total. Tips suggested in the documentary included planning shopping trips better, making lists so you only buy what you go in for and not getting overly distracted by all the “buy one get ten free” offers!! Another tip was to keep a closer check on use-by dates. Interestingly the documentary highlighted that there is a marked difference between a “best before date”, which has no implications for food safety, and “use-by” dates, which must be followed. From what I can see in my own fridge, “use-by” dates seem to appear on things like meat and dairy products where there might be a risk to health if products are eaten beyond the date given. “Best before” dates might be more on things like pasta, vegetables, etc. I know, for instance, that I cook vegetables that are beyond their best before dates and am still alive to tell the tale! I think paying attention to the portions that we serve up and making sure leftovers do not go to waste are also simple tips that would help as well. If you are no good at using up leftovers perhaps weigh things like pasta, rice, etc. before use so you know exactly what each person will need and only cook that amount. Even just being aware of the food being wasted is the first step in the right direction. I know my eyes have now been opened.
On a positive note, more and more local authorities are working towards turning our food waste into energy, using a process called “anaerobic digestion” which also thus helps reduce the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere. I’m no scientist so I’ll let Wikipedia provide a basic explanation:
“Anaerobic digestion is widely used as a source of renewable energy. The process produces a biogas, consisting of methane, carbon dioxide and traces of other ‘contaminant’ gases. This biogas can be used directly as cooking fuel, in combined heat and power gas engines or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane. The use of biogas as a fuel helps to replace fossil fuels. The nutrient-rich digestate also produced can be used as fertilizer.”
Obviously the better solution is to reduce waste at the outset but seeing as we are a long way off from reducing this entirely, then any solution that is better for the environment has to be a step in the right direction.