Waste not, want not: saving resources and protecting the planet

Food waste blog Rosie Gillum

People are known for different things amongst their friends. Within my friendship group, I am the one who hates waste. Passionately, vocally, perhaps obsessively. And friends have admitted to feeling bad throwing away food in front of me. As an advocate for justice, I count this as a victory in and of itself in beginning to see the tide change in a nation which throws away nearly 10 million tonnes of food waste each year.

I was at a conference last week. It was catered (very nice on my On Purpose salary) but it was also well over-catered. I felt slightly sick after lunch, not because I had overeaten but instead when I pondered what was going to be done with all the leftovers. Enough platters of sandwiches, caramelised onion quiches, salmon skewers, mini desserts to feed us all again were whisked away from the dining area. I hope it was to be shared amongst workers in the community building where the conference was being held, but I know too well that all too often surplus food from events goes straight in the bin. Even the thought of that causes something in the pit of my tummy to tighten and makes me more passionate to be a part of the change.

One of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals includes the commitment to halve global food waste per capita by 2030 (#12 Responsible Consumption and Production). But why is current food waste such a pressing issue in need of urgent action? Here are a couple of my thoughts to get started.

It is causing unbelievable harm to our planet. Food production requires significant natural resources, including that of land, water and energy, which does not come without its environmental repercussions. Food gets transported all over the globe, and these ‘food miles’ generate additional emissions. 

The least we can do to food that has been produced is use it and not let it be thrown away. Yet, tragically, it is often wasted. When food waste ends up in a landfill site (which the majority does) as it breaks down it releases a large amount of methane gas. Methane is believed to be 25 times more harmful than carbon monoxide because it traps heat within the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and the erosion of the ozone layer. To put the impact of food waste in perspective, if it were a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases behind only the USA and China. This is scary, but maybe not surprising when we learn that a third of food produced globally goes to waste.

While there are different provisions in place to try and reduce food waste in the UK, we produce the highest rate in Europe. Yet we also find ourselves in the midst of a cost of living crisis which is forcing people across the country to food banks for the first time in their lives. It makes no logical sense that 8.4 million Brits currently find themselves in food poverty, struggling to buy enough food, while at the same time we are throwing away almost 10 million tonnes of food as a nation. Not to mention the reality for millions globally who are dying from starvation. We might complain that there are no tomatoes on the shelves in our local Co-op, but we forget that not everyone has access to any food full stop. This isn’t OK, yet we continue to throw away perfectly good food.

Yes, the issue is huge and it will require an enormous commitment to change behaviours across the globe. I am not naive to the reality of some entrenched systemic issues around food waste as well, including some very unsavoury supermarket and restaurant waste practices which will require solutions at a higher level (be that from governments, manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants). However, we cannot let that mean we do nothing individually, because we would see change if we all did something.

We have to start somewhere so here are a few suggestions of some easy ways for you to change your habits.

  1. Plan better. Knowing what you're cooking before you go to the supermarket means you will buy the ingredients you will actually use, and hopefully the right quantities. If you will have surplus, think about what other recipes you can make to use up the extra ingredients while they're still fresh. Moreover, meal planning can help inspire your recipes so you have a more interesting diet. Also consider when you're going away so that you use up supplies before you go and you won't have to throw away half the contents of your fridge. 
  2. Make use of your freezer. If you have more than you will be able to eat, or you simply don't want that bolognese for five meals in a row, let it fully cool before popping it in a Tupperware in the freezer. I'd recommend labelling it with what it is and the date you cooked it, and don't forget it's there! There's nothing more welcome than remembering you have a delicious home-cooked meal ready to be defrosted and enjoyed immediately with very minimal effort.
  3. See 'best before dates' as a guide not a hard and fast rule. You'll be able to tell if something is no longer edible, but don't be scared or ashamed of eating something technically past that date. I slice mould off cheese and cut bruises out of older fruit and veg, and I'm still alive.
  4. Consider signing up to companies like Oddbox, who deliver boxes of 'too wonky' fruit and veg. There is nothing wrong other than supposedly its aesthetics, but I actually think imperfect is more how nature intended it to be. Shops are getting much better at stocking these imperfects too, and it's normally cheaper, so I see it as a win-win.
  5. Save food and money with apps like Too Good To Go, which reduces commercial food waste by linking up customers (i.e. you!) with various shops/cafes/restaurants to buy their surplus food at a huge discount. You have to order in advance as it's not unlimited, and you do not know what you’ll get because it all depends on what's not been sold at the end of the day, but typically you get a lot of high quality food for your money.
  6. Look out for community initiatives and organisations redistributing food waste, such as REfUSE, which was started by some friends of mine up in Durham. They rescue around 12 tonnes of food each month that would otherwise go to waste and they then redistribute it to people through: their community cafe in Chester-Le-Street (check it out if you're ever around there), weekly themed 'Restaurant Nights', partnerships they have with other organisations, and their Waste Not Box scheme.
  7. And finally, when going away, share leftover food with friends. This is something I’ve stolen from a friend of mine. He had been on a weekend away with mates and they had unsurprisingly over-ordered on the supermarket shop. Don't worry, don’t we all. However, on the Sunday afternoon, all leftover food was gathered onto the kitchen table and before anyone was allowed to leave they went round and round one by one picking an item to take home with them until everything had been taken. I love that, and I’ll definitely be implementing it on my next weekend away!

Although food waste is a catastrophic issue and we need to see a dramatic shift in how we approach food, I hope you are encouraged that there are simple steps you can take. And even those small steps will be making a difference. All revolutions start somewhere.