Worldwide, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is thrown away every year. At a price tag of $640 per household, Americans rank first in the average amount of money that’s wasted on food that ends up in the trash. The EU comes in second place, collectively throwing out over 89 million tonnes of food each year.
Food waste also takes up over 20 per cent of all landfill space, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, while it decomposes, is transformed into an even larger source of methane gas than if it had been composted. The organisation Harvest Power states that when food waste “goes into landfills (via our trash bins), it sits under piles of trash indefinitely. This effectively creates a vacuum and the organic waste breaks down without oxygen. When food breaks down like this (anaerobically), it creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23x more environmentally damaging than CO2.” Food waste generates around 8 per cent of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
The Worst Offenders
In 2015, Britain was the EU’s worst offender for food waste, topping the list of all EU members. While some boroughs and towns in the UK do have curb side compost pick-up, it’s not a national mandate, nor is it law that supermarkets must donate unsold items or sell ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables. As cited earlier though, the USA is the world’s biggest food waste offender. According to the Guardian report released this past summer, approximately 50 per cent of all produce in America ends up in dumpsters, and it eventually sits in landfills, decaying anaerobically.
Why food waste should matter to you
Sure, all of that sounds like a big problem. But what constitutes food waste, and why should it matter to you?
Food waste is more than just throwing out half of your lunch or a couple of the veggies you bought but didn’t cook this week. It uses cropland space that’s equal to the entire size of China and is thought to consume up to 25 per cent of all water used in agriculture. That’s like running your shower for eight minutes, but only getting in it for six minutes! And don’t forget that annual $640 figure per household.
What’s being done about Food Waste?
As evidenced by recent laws, business moves, and public efforts, Europeans in particular seem very concerned about the distressing global stats on food waste.
FRANCE: After a successful grassroots campaign run by consumers, the French government banned supermarket food waste earlier this year. Unsold items nearing their expiration date must now be donated instead of binned in France.
ITALY: By simplifying and streamlining its food donation requirements and offering tax breaks on food donations, Italy aims to reduce its waste by 1 million tonnes annually. This move also incentivises the nation’s businesses, farmers, and restaurants to actively get involved in fighting food waste. Consumers will also find they have easier access to ‘doggie bags,’ letting them bring uneaten meals home from restaurants.
GERMANY: In Germany, Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt is on a mission to halve the nation’s food waste by 2030. Schmidt’s goal is to introduce ‘smart packaging’ made with computer chips that can indicate when the food inside is not edible any more.
DENMARK: Denmark leads the way with initiatives against food waste in Europe – from awareness campaigns, citizen initiatives, partnerships to government subsidies for food waste projects. Stop Spild Af Mad – Stop Wasting Food – a lobby group set up by graphic designer Selina Juul has been instrumental in driving the change.
US: In the US, laws such as the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Food Samaritan Act and the US Federal Food Distribution Act of 2008 seek to encourage food donations and tax deductions. In 2016, a Bill has been introduced in the US Congress to combat Food Waste, invest in storage and distribution programs to help food banks maximize their resources, strengthen connection between schools and farms, create an infrastructure fund to support construction of large-scale composting and food waste-to-energy facilities in states that restrict food waste going to landfill.
UK: The Felix Project, a new London charity connecting food about to be thrown out with charities in need, launched in 2016. During that time, founder Justin Byam Shaw stated, “Our supermarkets and the food industry throw away more than four million tonnes of food each year, while many of our fellow Londoners don’t get enough to eat and many eat no fresh food at all.”
A new food app called Too Good To Go is connecting Londoners looking for a bargain with restaurants who are about to close up shop for the day and want to sell off their remaining stock at a discount. In the San Francisco bay area, a local business named Imperfect Produce is delivering, well, imperfect-looking produce to city residents at a discounted rate, and a similar business called Wonky Vegetables is now operating in certain parts of England’s Midlands as well.
The Beauty of “Ugly” Fruits and Veg:
Cosmetic standards often send edible produce into the reject pile even before they get the chance to sit on display at supermarkets. However, in the spring of 2015, Intermarché, France’s third largest supermarket chain, worked with Paris-based agency Marcel Worldwide on the Inglorious Food campaign. The beautifully crafted strategy aimed to raise awareness about the tonnes of “ugly” fruits and vegetables which are snubbed en masse by shoppers and thrown out as a result each year. Their message? That a misshapen pepper (or carrot, or lemon, etc) is just as tasty and nutritious as symmetrically shaped ones. Intermarché then went on to purposefully stock “ugly produce” in its stores and the wonky fruit and vegetables (sold at a lower price) soon sold out faster than their pretty predecessors. London’s Design Museum also awarded the campaign graphics the 2015 “Design of the Year” award.
Produce With Personality: Earlier this year, US-based supermarket chain Giant Eagle introduced the Produce with Personality programme, becoming the largest American grocery store to start selling ugly fruit and veg. It will get sold at 20-25 per cent of the cost of ‘regular’ produce. Just a few months later, Whole Foods followed suit and announced their own plans to offer discounted, imperfect-looking produce in America.
With more and more European governments taking action to combat food waste, many people hope that these efforts inspire both a regional and global trend. Simona Bonafe, who authored a 2016 Food Waste Report published by the Guardian, has said: “While 800 million people in the world go hungry every day, nearly 100 million tonnes of Europe’s food is wasted each year. This is a paradox of our time that is no longer bearable. At last, we have the opportunity to structure our legislation to prevent food waste.”
How Supermarkets Can Make an Impact
Founded in 1982, New York charity City Harvest is the world’s first food rescue organisation. They shared insight with Ecophiles about what can be done within the supermarket industry to make an impact. Their suggestions below align with actions recently seen in Europe:
- Grocery stores and food retailers can make unsold, surplus, fit-for-consumption food available to City Harvest and other hunger relief organisations that will put it to good use by feeding people in need.
- Supermarkets can sell “ugly” produce (produce that doesn’t meet aesthetic standards for retail use, but is still perfectly good to eat) and stop causing farmers and suppliers to waste perfectly good food on account of cosmetic buying policies.
- Supermarkets and manufacturers can agree to a uniform date labeling system to replace the confusion around “best if used by,” “sell by,” “expires on” labels that lead consumers to discard good food.
How YOU can help
So, what can one person do to be more eco-friendly about food? Here are some simple tips that can enable (and empower!) people on an everyday basis.
- Be mindful of which foods, when wasted, are possibly the most shameful to throw out. Setting aside the ethical issues and environmental issues surrounding meat production, animal products could very well be the worst items to chuck out, simply because they require the most resources to produce, and farm animals also result in some of the world’s largest contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Throwing away meat is also throwing away all of the food and water that animal consumed during its lifetime, and means all of the methane that animal produced and sent into the atmosphere was for nothing.
- Considering product packaging while shopping or preparing to throw food out. You might also end up throwing out plastic, cardboard, or other environmentally-sensitive packaging as well. These items’ packages take energy and resources to produce and ship. (And if need be, you’re better off trying to recycle them anyway)
- Start collecting your compost. Herb, fruit and vegetable scraps (rinds, peels, seeds, and the like), spent coffee and tea grounds, eggshells, oats, rice, paper napkins, decaying flowers, are all items that can be added to compost piles. If there’s no curb side composting pick-up in your town or city, contact the local government about it, and/or look for farmers markets and other nearby drop off points in your area.
- Have re-useable containers or packaging on hand, whenever possible. Pack your lunch (and if you have kids, theirs too!) in re-useable containers: bags, sandwich tins, water bottles, and so forth. And while you’re at it, why not throw in a cloth napkin as well? Also, more people are bringing their own to-go mugs into local coffee shops – there’s no need to feel awkward about not wanting to create more rubbish! Before going grocery shopping next, find out which supermarkets offer bulk bins for eco-friendly shopping. In America, Whole Foods, and even Giant often have these, but they aren’t as common in the UK yet.
- Infuse water with ageing or misshapen fruits such as citrus, berries, apples – even cucumbers and some herbs like mint are lovely in water as well. Freeze other items you can’t finish before they’ll go off: herbs, uneaten loaves of bread, homemade desserts, and so forth.
- Shoppers can urge their local grocery stores to take action for ugly fruit and vegetables, recommends City Harvest.
- Before going shopping, make a list and pre-plan meals. Many shoppers tend to buy more than they need at the grocery store. Planning ahead will help shoppers buy only the amount of food that is needed, so nothing goes to waste, recommends City Harvest.
At Ecophiles, we’re not advocating that anyone eat mouldy food(!) – but the next time you consider tossing out food, consider what else you’re possibly binning: water to nourish the plant or animal (water being a scarce resource in many parts of the world), grain or other items used to feed animals (which took land and water to grow, not to mention the possible pesticides), gas (for transporting the food) and so much more. Your rubbish bin, the world’s dumpsters, and Mother Earth just don’t have room for any of it.