In an increasingly image and lifestyle-oriented society which at the same time is witnessing obesity levels it has never previously seen, we are constantly reminded about the importance of dieting and moderation, if not restriction, in eating. When every little piece of cake left on a plate is a reason to be proud of yourself and applauded (envied!) by others, it often escapes us to think about how much food we don’t actually eat (read – throw away) and what happens with whatever is left on the dinner table or in the fridge. A recent news story made me reflect a bit on the issue. Now in some of the restaurants in Europe customers not only have to pay the bill, but may also face a fine for having food left on their plates. The trend comes from a Chinese restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania, where all-you-can-eat deal comes with a clause: customers who literally bite off more than they can chew have to pay a fine which will triple the cost of their eating experience. The owner of the restaurant says the initiative is driven not by profit-seeking, but by respect for food. Interestingly, in China the fines are being imposed not on the customers, but on the owners of the eateries where people are allowed to turn food into waste. In a country where, according to some estimations, 200 million people could be fed with the food that goes to landfill every day, it is waiters’ responsibility to ensure that customers correctly match their appetites with the size of their stomachs.
Having heard the story in a news report, I was curious to learn some food waste facts – an unexplored terrain for me so far. That was eye-opening. I was amazed to learn that we currently throw away from one-third to more than half (estimations vary) of the produced food, while nearly one billion people are going hungry throughout the world. Frustrated about the inefficiency of the food production and distribution system? Then you’ll be curious to know that your own household is likely to throw away about 1/3 of purchased food. While throwing leftovers is somehow conceivable, discarding whole, untouched and unopened products seems to be a food crime, and here are some crime statistics:
Every day in the UK we throw away:
- 1.6 million whole untouched bananas
- 1.3 million unopened yoghurts
- 600,000 whole uncooked eggs
- 1.2 million untouched sausages
- 20 million slices of bread
Interestingly, an ever-present divide between developed and developing world tells here too – although both western and third-world countries are responsible for inexcusable amount of food waste, there is a principal difference in how exactly this waste is generated and who bears the ultimate responsibility. So, in the developing countries food losses mainly happen at early stages of production and are due to financial and technical limitations, such as poor harvesting techniques and improper storage facilities. In the western countries, however, most of the food is wasted at later stages of the food chain, including through not being “admitted” for sale in supermarkets (more on this below) as well as being sent to waste bins at homes. You can hardly find anyone who would throw away anything edible in, let’s say, Africa. So while financial and managerial support to the farm and food industry is what would relieve the problem in the developing world, rethinking cultural values and approach to consumption is what western people should be pre-occupied with.
Another problem I have touched upon elsewhere in my blog is the cosmetic standards that are privately imposed by supermarkets on fresh fruits and vegetables which results in the rejection of up to 40% of “ugly” produce whose size, shape and skin finish is deemed unfit to please consumer’s eye and touch (although much of this “not so perfect” fruits and veg is second to none of their more aesthetically appealing counterparts in terms of taste and nutritional value).
The food waste problem is more complex than it seems and is not just about poor management of resources and economic inefficiency. Environmental damage is a big issue since food waste dumped in a landfill generates methane, a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 and a significant contributor to global warming. In fact, it has been estimated that discarded food is responsible for as much as 10% of greenhouse gas emissions Western countries generate. Besides, wasted food means wasteful use of water, land and fuel resources as well as unnecessary exacerbation of ecological degradation with agrochemicals and transportation emissions.
Although it is apparent that there is still much way to go towards a zero waste economy, might the restaurants’ initiative to turn the “eat as much as you like” into the “eat as much as you need” bring us just a step closer? That reminds me of quite an old news story about a young woman who was arrested for taking food from waste bins outside a Tesco store. The food was thrown away because it had been unrefrigerated for too long, but the woman thought she could “put it to better use” and feed her and her family for a couple of weeks. While this particular act of freeganism was not driven by a commitment to environmental sustainability, minimizing food waste should clearly be high up on the food industry’s agenda and a part of our consumer ideology too.