Food waste - it’s something we hear a lot about. But what is it, really? And what can we do to minimize it?
When thinking about food waste, the majority of us picture half eaten meals left at restaurants or left overs having to be tossed after they’ve overstayed their welcome in the fridge. But food waste, or more accurately ‘Food Waste and Loss’ (FWL), occurs at pretty much every level of the food production cycle.
If you’re not in the food production business, the front end of food loss remains hidden from sight. It involves the loss of any food during the production, processing, storage, delivery, and selling of food. Basically, it involves all the stages before the food is bought by the consumer.
As you can see below, the light blue pre-consumption food loss figures are surprisingly similar across all regions - although they do have their different reasons accounting for the loss.
For example, developing countries suffer greater post-harvest losses due to the lack of adequate processing or storage facilities. In comparison, developed nations have to deal with much higher wastage within their retail sector; consumer expectations lead retailers to stock large quantities and broad ranges of products, ending in food spoilage when items go unsold (as I found out, this issue is being tackled head on by an amazing Australian company called Yume, working to put and end to this type of commercial food waste. Read more about their initiative here.)
When we start to look at the red post-consumer waste levels, significant regional differences begin to emerge. Post consumer waste is what happens to food after general consumers get their hands on it - and where we (as a community) have the most impact and ability to influence.
It’s quite clear from the graph that we have room to improve - how can our post consumer waste levels be so high? Below are a few of the key factors at play.
● 'Best Before' vs 'Best By'
Generally, we tend to be a bit overzealous when it comes to tossing food after it’s hit that scary “Best Before” date, afraid it’s turned bad or rancid. But ‘Best Before’ simply means “this food is guaranteed to be at it’s best before the specified date”. If it’s past its best before date, you need to inspect it carefully, but chances are it’s still good to eat.
However, anything past a ‘Use By’ does need to be thrown out, as it indicates the food would typically not be fit for consumption past this time.
● Bulk Buying
It looks alluring when you’re in the shop - who doesn’t want a kilo of lettuce for $10? What a bargain! But if you don’t have the capacity to use all of it before it goes off, chances are a lot of what you’ll be buying will simply end up as food waste. Understanding your consumption and purchasing accordingly can significantly reduce the amount of food waste being discarded.
● Keeping Track
It’s easy to lose track of what’s in your fridge - half eaten pizza, leftovers from two nights ago - and if you don’t stay on top of it, it can pile up fast! That’s why it’s important to keep on top of what you’ve got in your fridge. Simply adopting a ‘First In First Out’ mindset will help you prioritise food that’s close to its ‘Use By’, preventing those delicious leftovers from being needlessly wasted!
But even the best of us end up chucking food scraps in the trash, ending with it being tossed into landfill. Normal, right?
Actually, this is a big misconception. Food waste is not properly disposed of at a landfill site - in fact, it’s one of the worst places for it to go. When organic matter is taken to a landfill site it gets - you guessed it - buried alongside all the other waste. Underground, the organics begin to decay without oxygen. This process produces a lot of undesirable by-products, least of which is methane, a heat trapping gas that is twenty-five times more potent than CO2.
But when organic material is composted above ground, the organics are purposefully mixed with carbon heavy, airy material such as dry leaves, shredded cardboard or hay. Along with weekly ‘turning’ (mixing around the composting material to aerate it), it ensures the microorganisms and bacteria have enough oxygen to do their thing and decompose the material properly.
We all get behind the recycling of glass, plastic, and other reusable materials, but as a nation we’ve been slow to embrace composting despite the fact that it’s literally organic recycling. By spreading the word, we hope to encourage more Australians to get on board and take organics seriously! Next week, we’re going to go into detail about the different approaches you can take to composting, and the benefits it can have for your community and business.
Fig1.1 - FAO. Global food losses and food waste – Extent, causes and prevention. (2011).