A third of the world’s food eventually ends up in landfills. That’s 1.3 trillion tonnes of food. My question is: For how long can we afford this?
Although world hunger is still very much a worrying and unresolved problem, society continues to waste mind-boggling quantities of food. And although the world (mostly the Global North) has been spoiled and oversaturated in the past decades with an abundance of food choices and the luxury of always being able to buy more, this indulgence has remained largely permitted and uncriticised.
According to statistics produced by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) back in 2011, in Europe and North America, 95 and 115 kg of food per capita are thrown away each year, while in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia food waste only amounts to 6 to 11 kg per year per capita. So it’s clear that the main culprits in terms of food waste are countries where food is perceived as an infinite resource.
Why is food waste such an urgent problem? Because globally we waste more food than it would be needed to properly feed everyone on the planet. Because we waste the work of millions of farmers and workers in the entire food supply chain. Because we waste our own and only resources. Because we forget that all the produce we have on our plates grows by using loads of water, fertilizers, land, energy, time and money. And the problem doesn’t stop here.
Once waste reaches global landfills, it decomposes in a toxic manner due to the lack of oxygen, thus generating unbelievable amounts of carbon dioxide which contribute to the greenhouse effect and implicitly to the worsening of the climate crisis.
In Western Europe certain measures against food waste have already been implemented, however, in Romania, this problem still does not receive enough attention. Thankfully, there are loads of best practice examples we can draw inspiration from. In 2016, in Oslo, Norway, a new type of supermarket was opened. Best Før sells food products that are past their best-before dates (yet still safe to eat!). These products are usually sold for less, which helps lower-income communities to buy perfectly edible items. To continue with another Norwegian example, a new company called SNÅL frukt & grøn sells fruit and vegetables in slightly odd shapes or off-white eggs with a 30% discount. This way wonky carrots, slightly bruised apples or softer bananas can get a second chance at being bought and eaten. In another side of Europe, France has already passed, with great acclaim, a new legislative project which bans supermarkets from destroying unsold food. Moreover, stores larger than 400 square meters which do not sign a partnership with a relevant charitable organization or food bank risk being fined up to 3750 euros. The Netherlands already hosts one of the most well-known food-rescue restaurants, namely Instock, where the menu changes almost daily as different ingredients come from supermarkets’ surplus food. Perhaps the most popular food waste initiative to take over Europe and North America is TooGoodToGo, A Danish company aiming to connect food excess from bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants and hotels with people looking to get food for less money.
As proven by these initiatives, there are countless ways to reduce food waste. However, more can be done. What exactly? There could be more incentives for businesses to fight against food waste and prevent it. There could be local and national campaigns meant to encourage shoppers to buy mindfully. There could be more governmental programmes to enable donated food to reach social canteens and food banks. There could be stricter laws regulating how retail and horeca businesses discard unsold, yet edible food. There could be more programmes aiming to demonstrate to the public that there is nothing wrong with imperfect produce or with smaller eggs (as Jamie Oliver also showed in a national campaign in the UK in 2015).
And because criticizing the amount of food we waste is not enough to stop the phenomenon, here is a list of ideas to help reduce your own food waste.
• Before doing your groceries, take a photo of your fridge and cupboard/pantry. This way you will never stock up on things you already had.
• Don’t postpone planning your weekly “menu” until the moment you go shopping. It’s most likely you’ll buy too many things, while also forgetting some essentials.
• Try to avoid doing grocery shopping only once a week. You might be tempted to buy too much, so it’s best to buy only what you’ll know you need in the next 3-5 days. Moreover, don’t fall into the trap of store-run campaigns. Although they may be attractive, there’s a high chance that the six avocados you buy in a bag will turn brown by the time you get to eat them. Also, don’t buy items in high quantities just because they are on sale. You can do better things with the money you spend hoarding products.
• Choose to shop at smaller stores. The overwhelming range of products one can find in supermarkets makes us spend more time making a choice, while also making us feel anticipated regrets. Don’t waste precious time hesitating between a dozen brands of a commodity product.
• Check the temperature inside your fridge and make sure it’s appropriate for the food you store inside.
• Resist the temptation to own a large fridge. A smaller fridge forces you into making more rational decisions in order to maintain a balanced food consumption, simply because there isn’t enough space on your shelves to hoard products you won’t get to eat. Moreover, a small fridge doesn’t allow for various jars and dubious Tupperware boxes to get banished in its back.
• If you freeze away some food, don’t forget to add a label with what you froze and when, to avoid a potentially dreadful moment when you have to empty your freezer of ambiguous bags and boxes.
• As bread, dairy products, potatoes and fruit are the most frequently thrown away products, make sure these are properly stored in your kitchen (and pantry), away from damp areas and direct sunlight.
• Use everything! A part of the food we waste is due to the fact that we don’t optimise our ingredients. For instance, instead of throwing away celery leaves, you can freeze them and use them later in a dish. With a little bit of ingenuity, the broccoli stem can become, alongside pine nuts, a little bit of garlic and some olive oil, an excellent green pesto. There are numerous creative ways to minimize food waste.
• Weigh certain dry ingredients like pasta, rice or couscous before cooking them so you don’t make more than you need.
• If you find yourself having too much food for your needs, donate some of it! Find an old people’s home, a local food bank, a refugee centre or other kinds of social centres. Pick the one that’s most convenient for you – what matters is for edible food products to reach those in need. Here are some local tips from Romania. In Bucharest, there’s a food bank in the sixth sector, the first of its kind in the capital. You can also donate money to NGOs like O Masă Caldă, an association which has social canteens in Cluj, Bucharest, Bistrița and Satu Mare and which served so far more than 16.000 portions of food to those in need.
• Finally, make a list of everything you throw out of your kitchen (so fridge, freezer, cupboards etc.) in a year. I know it’s not the most pleasant reading material, but it may be one of the few ways you can visualize how much you are wasting before you commit to improving the situation.
The list of advice you’ve just read is just the beginning. If you have any other clever tricks to reduce food waste and prevent more food from reaching the landfills, let me know.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of ELLE Romania. It has been updated to reflect the situation in September 2021.