Our capitalist society and culture is a shockingly energy intensive and wasteful one. The indirect relationship between producer and consumer (all the extra layers on top of the producer) means most people have no idea how much energy goes into making the product. With food for example the farmer is the first level where the food is grown (and modern farming is extremely energy intensive), the raw food then gets transported to a factory to be processed, then it is packaged and finally transported to a supermarket before the consumer finally sees it. This cycle involves a lot of fossil fuel consumption, the pesticides and fertilisers are derived from fossil fuel, the farming machinery runs on fossil fuel, so does the transport to the factory, the factory itself, the plastic packaging, the supermarket and freezers and the consumers car. (not forgetting that during this process transportation could include being shipped / flown halfway round the world several times)
The tragedy of all this is that despite all that energy used \ CO2 released, a sizeable portion of it will be needlessly wasted. In the UK we throw away 7.2 million tonnes (£10.2bn) of food from our homes every year. It is estimated that this costs the average household £400 a year which accumulates to £15,000–£24,000 over a lifetime. £1bn worth of food wasted in the UK is food that is still “in date”. Going back to the food \ energy cycle which accounts for about one fifth of UK carbon emissions, if all this waste were to be cut out it would be the equivalent of taking 1 in 5 cars off the road.
Once the perfectly good food is thrown away it will end up in a landfill where rather than just decomposing as many people think, it rots and actually releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and leachate, a toxin capable of considerable groundwater pollution. In fact one third of all food grown for human consumption is wasted and ends up in a landfill.
Why is food wasted?
In households the two main reasons are 1) cooking or preparing too much so there is food left at the end of the meal and 2) not using the food in time so that it goes bad.
The food industry also produces large amounts of food waste, with retailers generating 1,600,000 tonnes of food waste per year. For such reasons as the packaging is slightly dented, one piece of fruit is bad in an otherwise perfectly good bag of fruit, the food needs to make way for newer food, or it is thrown out in the warehouse because it had ripened too soon
An example of how crazy the whole thing is; until recently (2009) when EU policy was changed, all misshaped or ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables could not be sold by retailers and were required to be thrown away.
The catering industry throws away a third of its food, ordering too much to prevent it running out.
How can we cut back on the amount we waste?
Plan ahead – Before you go shopping plan what you want to buy and what your going to need over the next week and try not to buy any special offers such as buy-one-get-one-free as you’ll end up getting more than you need and wasting a lot of it. Also its best to buy as much locally grown food as possible as this cuts down on the energy used to transport it.
Try to avoid packaging where possible, this cuts back on plastic used and has the advantage of being able to choose the exact amount you need rather than it being pre-packaged where the amount could be more than you want.
Use leftovers – If there is any food left over after your meal save it (in fridge) and use it again the next day – be creative on what you can do with it. Scraps and cuttings from carrots, potatoes onions etc. can be made into vegetable stock.
40% of the average household waste is compostable. This is a great option because once you’ve built up enough compost you can use it to start growing your own food and by-pass the supermarket and all the other layers completely. This cuts out all extra energy that goes into producing food, plus it tastes better! A lot of packaging can also be recycled.
Food co-ops are when a group of people buy products in bulk from a wholesaler usually with strong ethical and environmental principles and redistribute it among its members, cutting out the supermarket. They usually provide affordable, good quality, locally sourced and healthy food and avoid unnecessary packaging and waste. In Birmingham there is the South Birmingham Food Co-Op
Best before – these dates refer to quality rather than food safety. When the date is passed, the food won’t be unsafe but it might begin to loose its flavour or texture. One exception is eggs – never eat eggs after the ‘best before’ date.
Use by dates – Food can be eaten up to the end of the ‘use by’ date, but not after even if it looks and smells fine.
Bin diving – A lot of perfectly good and edible food is needlessly thrown in the bin every day, so why not take what is not wanted? You’ll be preventing good food ending up on the landfill whilst saving money by getting free food. It’s best done at night undetected, avoid opened packets of processed food, avoid anything that looks bad or has a mould, as with normal shopping avoid getting more than you need or can freeze. Clean up after yourself, there’s no reason to leave a mess behind and it will alert the shops to what you’ve been doing. Another thing to watch out for is some shops, who clearly don’t want the food as it’s in the bin, try to prevent other people taking it by pouring bleach and poison on them.
At Food Not Bombs we try to prevent food being wasted by redistributing it to the hungry and homeless.