Innovation That Matters

Our Relationship With Food and How to Stop Wasting It

Better Business

How to best encourage food waste reduction at home, within businesses and at the office.

A maths teacher in Dublin recently made headlines after it was reported that she lived for two months entirely on food salvaged from supermarket bins. Determined to do her part to reduce the shocking amounts of perfectly edible food going to waste, she would forage under the veil of night, taking home a bounteous yield: fruit, veg, meat, pizza, croissants, quality chocolates, you name it.

“Some people were really disgusted about it,” she said.

But aren’t these people missing the point? Of course, sitting down to a dinner of “dumpster-dived” produce may not exactly whet your appetite, but the current stats about food waste are far more difficult to digest.

In the UK alone, 3.6 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry every year. Over 2 million tonnes of that food is still edible. That’s a whopping 1.3 billion meals wasted annually. And while 2.6 million slices of bread are thrown away every day in London alone, 8.4 million people in the UK (roughly the equivalent of the entire London population) are struggling to afford to eat

As the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen puts it, “starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat. It is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.”

Organizations like the UK-based FareShare, who like Springwise and Re_Set are members of 1% for the Planet, are vital in addressing this disparity by redistributing this surplus food to people who need it most. To date, an army of 1,500 volunteers has helped to save a remarkable 24,074 tonnes of food which, dispatched to charities nationwide, has provided the equivalent of 57.3 million meals to vulnerable people. Their mission is simple: “We believe that no good food should go to waste”.

Which begs the question, why does good food go to waste? 

According to a recent FoodPrint report, of the estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food that goes to waste every year, much of it is perfectly edible and nutritious. Of course, the food retail industry has a lot to answer for, regularly endorsing wasteful practices as part of a good business strategy, such as over-stocking, and misleading sell-by-dates. But personally, I was surprised to find that 40 to 50 per cent of food waste happens at the level of the consumer. 

This throw-away culture permeates our lives, both at home and at work. “How many times have you opened up your refrigerator at work to face a wall of half-full Tupperware containers and week-old to-go boxes of food that will eventually be thrown out?” asks Joanna Widner from the B Corp-Certified produce provider The Fruit Guys. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. But in order to encourage waste reduction at the level of the household and the office, we need to consider the individual motivations and habits that inspire people to waste in the first place.

Exploring Emotional Attachment

“Finish what’s on your plate. There are children starving out there.”

I’m sure my parents were not the only ones who utilized the effective guilt-trip method to get me to eat my greens. But this well-worn cliche actually highlights the important role that emotion plays in food waste behaviour since emotions signal the importance of an issue and therefore provide an impetus for action”.The 6-year old me was motivated to clear my plate because I felt guilty and sad if I didn’t. 

However, guilt as an impetus for action has its limits. In a 2015 food waste survey, 77 per cent of respondents said they felt guilty about wasting food but over half of those participants stressed that it would be difficult to further reduce household food waste.

People often feel guilty as a result of knowing what is right and not following through but I would argue that it is just as easy to bury those feelings under one’s food detritus in a black bin liner to be carted off at the end of the week never to be seen again.

The problem might be that unless one feels personally passionate about the issue, better habits have more difficulty gaining traction. But in today’s world, where the relationship with food — for many of us — starts and ends at the supermarket checkout, it is hard to attribute personal value to the things we buy. 

In this case, how can we change mindsets across individual households when food is too often perceived as disposable, unprecious, and in abundance?

Getting Educated

One way to go about this is to ask a simple question: Why should I care?

FareShare’s Head of Marketing and Communications, James Persad, sees an enormous opportunity in food waste mitigation. At a recent Springwise-sponsored event in support of 1% for the Planet, he made the point that getting food to its intended destination can actually reduce a massive burden placed on taxpayers. 

“Eating well leads to one less trip to the dentist or the doctor,” Persad said, and according to the IFPRI, nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables have the highest loss and wastage rates of any food products, which leads to Vitamin A losses and other micronutrient deficiencies. 

With more consumers suffering from hidden hunger and undernutrition as a result of food wastage, more people demand medical attention which places further economic strain on our healthcare system. Imagine how much we could save if we chose to eat rather than toss out our 5-a-day?

Aside from potential financial incentives, there is growing awareness of food waste’s role in accelerating climate change, but the extent of the damage being done may need more attention. 

As it rots in landfill, food waste decomposes anaerobically and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As a result, the decomposing organic waste disposed of into landfills is responsible for 17-18% of greenhouse gas emissions

Not only that, but food waste also exhausts our natural resources. Of our global freshwater resources, 70 per cent is used to irrigate, harvest, package and transport our food. So when food is wasted, water is wasted also. This amounts to a shocking 170 trillion litres (or 45 trillion gallons) of wasted water per year. 

Taking Action, at Home and Work

Ashley Zanolli of the US Environmental Protection Agency, says that people tend to fault others for throwing away food, without actually measuring their own food wastage. “And unlike recycling, where you can create some peer pressure by noticing whether your neighbour has their blue bin down at the end of the driveway, it’s a little different with household behaviours.”

When I reflect on the conversations I have with friends and family, we’ll often bemoan the issue of single-use plastics, or share notes on our latest refill centre excursions, but we never talk about the food we waste. It’s just not part of the currency.

Determined to set the wheel in motion, I began by asking my colleagues at Re_Set and Springwise about their own food-wasting habits.

Poor planning emerged as the most popular reason for food waste at home since lack of foresight about how you intend to use food can result in over-buying, cooking too much and having to throw out uneaten food which has gone off. 

Freezing leftovers, growing herb gardens, and making “whateverisleftinthefridge” risotto are all practical and creative ways to cut down on food waste, and could be a first step towards turning the tide against food waste’s negative impact.

Technology can also provide a helping hand. The Springwise-spotted UK-based app Kitche contains various features to help stop users from producing waste and keeps track of the food they have at home. Users create a digital food inventory by scanning receipts and are notified as items near their expiration date. 

There’s also the Swedish app Karma, which connects consumers with businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores wanting to sell their unused food at a discount. The company also developed a smart refrigerator that food retailers could store their surplus food in for users to pick up. 

“Sustainability has to become effortless,” Karma’s co-founder and CEO Hjalmar Ståhlberg told Springwise. “That’s why we talk about ‘Saving food with a tap’. We want people to understand that they can have an important positive impact, simply by rescuing food from their cafes and grocery stores.”

There are so many incentives to reduce food waste, not to mention solutions. The good news is that every individual can play a part in this cultural change, and doing so is becoming easier. Once you know the how, the what, and the why of food waste, then you can put a plan in place to tackle these issues efficiently.

Written by: Tabitha Bardsley

Our Better Business series aims to provide actionable takeaways for companies and entrepreneurs looking to bring more purpose to their work and create positive change within and beyond their sectors.