New to the mini-series? Check out Wasted (I) on farming and post-harvest waste in the North-American context, Wasted (II) for the same level of analysis in the Tropics, and Wasted (III) for the retail sector!
Yay, we finally got to the end of the food supply chain – our own plates and (hopefully) stomachs. In this last part, I’ll again be focusing mainly on the industrialized world, as household food waste in lower-income societies is much less common (for example – the average American consumer discards 10 times as much as the average Southeast Asian).
As pointed out last time, household and food service waste make up for a huge part of the problem – Household food waste in Europe is estimated to be between 78 and 100kg per capita per annum, and 19% of all retail-level food supply in the US is thrown out during this last step!
Depending on the particular study, 25% – 50% of food purchased is wasted, and 2/3 of this household food waste is preventable and amounts to food that is still safe to eat. These judgement calls also cost the average (U.S.) household $1,365 to $2,275 annually. What leads to this astounding figures?
First of all, the relatively low monetary value of food has contributed to a culture of plenty much in contrast to the past hardships (see above a poster during World War II), where disposal of food is seen with little ethical or economic second-guessing. Bulk-promotions and huge purchasing sizes contribute to the problem as we saw last time by luring consumers into making on-the-spot purchasing decisions of quantities that they later cannot consume in time.
Then, there is a huge confusion about food labeling (e.g. “best before”, “use by”, “sell by”, “display until”). Quick tip: “Best before” means it will still be safe to consume after that particular date, just not as yummy, whereas “use by” labels should be adhered to because they are directly linked to food safety (though note that in the US, neither label is publicly regulated). One study found that over 20% of avoidable food waste in the UK is linked to date label confusion – which means that, if extrapolated correctly, a EU level date labelling coherence policy (which was one of the main policy recommendations of the study) could save a huge amount of food waste.
Restaurants and the food industry are equally guilty – on average, diners leave 17% of meals uneaten since often restaurant portion sizes are too big. Taking leftover food home is also not customary in some countries, particularly in Europe. It seems that people eat more of their food if they plate it themselves, but buffets have problems too, since customers expect that all food is available until the end, so restaurants cook considerably more than is eaten. Customarily, the catering industry throws out one-third of its food as restaurants routinely order too much out of fear that they will run out.
But people at home also buy and cook more than they can consume – what hit me in particular is that especially single, one-person households and young people generate more waste – which is basically everyone I know at this point. This figure was explained partially by the socio-economic set-up, and partially by the lesser knowledge about meal-planning and greater propensity to eat outside of the house. However, if our generation can’t turn around the trend in food waste, who can?
Fortunately, there are several things we can do, starting with awareness-raising. Love Food Hate Waste, a U.K. project, gives a great overview of the story of food, gives you tips on how to manage your food better, and even has nifty recipes to make with left-overs.
Also, a brand-new campaign, Think.Eat.Save, was launched a couple of weeks ago in partnership with the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the UN Environmental Program. The website also has a ton of handy tricks on how to stop food waste.
On another avenue, political awareness can change policies and simplify consumers’ lives, for example by simplifying labelling regulations. Just recently, the issue inspired an opinion of the European Social and Economic Committee: “Food waste prevention and reduction are important aspects in the wider context of food security and resource efficiency. … The proposed own-initiative opinion should give impetus to draw up at the European level a coordinated strategy, combining EU-wide and national measures, to improve the efficiency of food supply and consumption chains and to tackle food wastage as a matter of urgency.” The EU has set itself the goal of halving its food waste by 2025! In addition, it is disseminating information, selecting best practice examples (great resource for anything from campaigns to research!), and declared a European Year Against Waste in 2014.
TEN things you can do: Check out the European Commission’s suggestions to reduce food waste in your own home! Here they are in a neat little list:
- Plan your shopping!
- Check the dates! Here is a handy overview of the difference between “best before” and “use by” labels.
- Consider your budget! If you buy too much and throw it out later, you might as well throw out your hard-earned Euros directly.
- Keep a healthy fridge! This can prevent spoilage.
- Store food right! Ditto.
- Rotate items in your fridge to the front!
- Serve smaller amounts of food and second helpings!
- Use up your leftovers!
- Freeze big batches and take out of the freezer as you need!
- Compost! That way the tiny amount of food waste left after all these tips won’t develop methane gas and contribute to global warming 😉