Food for thought

Nobody likes to waste food, and yet we all do it – most of us in vast quantities and at great cost to the environment and our pockets. In the first of a two-part article, Libby Peake learns why, and how we can stop

Rotten fruit

I’m not sure if my mother ever uttered the exact words “Finish your dinner – there are children staving in Africa”, but the need to clear my plate (with the promise of dessert as an added incentive) was certainly drilled into me from an early age. And I’d wager that I’m far from alone – we’re all encouraged from the start to avoid food waste.

Many of us carry this into adulthood, and well over half of us in the UK claim to waste no food, or at least hardly any food at all. And yet, our bins tell a different story. Putrescibles – including both food and garden waste – are now the largest component of the domestic waste stream, accounting for 37 per cent of what we throw away (based on 2007 figures), compared to just 19.5 per cent in 1969 and a measly 7.1 per cent in 1879. All this wasted food, most of which could have been eaten, carries substantial environmental and financial implications and has, over the past few years, started to gain the attention it deserves. We are gradually learning about why all this waste is created, and also about what steps we can take to prevent it.

The amount of food wasted in the UK has recently dropped from 8.3 to 7.2 million tonnes a year (so now we’re left with enough to fill Wembley Stadium a mere nine times over instead of 10!), in large part thanks to the research and intervention of campaigns like WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste. In addition to addressing the food waste epidemic, Love Food Hate Waste is researching behaviours and attitudes that lead to food waste in the first place. Emma Marsh, who heads up the programme, explains: “The main issue that we’ve come across with people continuing to waste food is they just don’t realise that they waste it. If you look at the difference between what people say they waste and what they actually waste, there’s a huge divide – even more so than with other materials... people think that others can save up to £50 a month, but that they themselves can save less than £10 by avoiding food waste.” So, avoiding food waste remains off most people’s radar as they don’t think there’s any food waste to avoid.

Moldy lemonCompounding the fact that we’re blissfully unaware of the food waste we produce are a number of factors that lead us to create it, according to Marsh: a lack of confidence (in cooking from scratch, for instance); nervousness about using leftovers; a tendency to buy a lot of fresh (read: perishable) food to encourage healthy eating; a penchant for overestimating so as to avoid running out; misconceptions about date labels (“People will throw food out at the earliest date they see”); and issues with storage – displaying fruit, for instance, when most fruit would last two weeks longer if stored in the fridge.