There appears to be an innate urge in most of us to over indulge at Christmas. We treat ourselves to things we perhaps wouldn’t normally eat or drink at other times of the year (mince pies, Christmas pudding, mulled wine….). The legacy of this merry making is often excess food much of which is discarded along with mountains of wrapping paper, sticky tape and packaging.
If only food wastage were just a problem during the post festive period. In the UK 18 million tonnes of edible food ends up in landfill sites with an annual cost currently estimated at £23 million which is rising every year. UK households are responsible for 7.2 million tonnes of this waste (the remainder comes from retail and manufacturers/suppliers). Lovefoodhatewaste.com estimates food wastage costs the average family around £50 per month. Ultimately, the consumer will be lumbered with the cost to dispose of food waste through local taxes to cover landfill costs. Food disposal costs can also contribute to the higher prices for certain produce, such as fruit and vegetables, making these products inaccessible to those on lower incomes.
Food may be wasted because we prepare or cook too much or because it doesn’t get used in time. Some consumers are confused by exactly what best before and use by dates mean (for a definition visit the NHS website) but this confusion can be intensified by the addition of sell by or display by dates on food packaging. Sell by dates are used by the retailer to aid stock rotation. The UK government has called for these sell by dates to be scrapped and DEFRA has produced guidance on this matter for the food industry but to date compliance is on a voluntary basis.
Take cheese as an example of the environmental impact discarded food can have. In addition to the economic cost of producing cheese (from feeding and milking the cows through to getting the product packaged and into the shops) discarded cheese ends up in landfill sites where it slowly rots emitting methane (a greenhouse gas) which has a detrimental affect on the environment. Research by WRAP has concluded that if we stop wasting food the carbon dioxide impact would be the equivalent of taking one in five cars of the road in Britain.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Some organisations are taking steps to combat food waste. The London Waste and Recycling Board gave a £362,000 grant in 2010 to The Fareshare Community Food Network which funded 90% of the cost to set up a new food distribution depot in North West London. The purpose of this facility is to distribute food from the food and drink industry that no longer has a commercial value but is fit for purpose to community groups. Technology is also being developed which will allow food waste to be converted into bio-methane by 2020. This involves anaerobic digestion, an enclosed composting system, which allows the methane produced to be siphoned off and used for energy, (for example to produce gas for cooking and heating). The resulting waste can be used to make fertiliser for crops.
There are plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce food wastage. Apart from buying or cooking less to begin with we can put certain food items (egg shells, vegetable peelings and tea bags) into the garden compost. Some councils in the UK also operate food waste collection services. You can download a food diary from lovefoodhatewaste.com which helps you analyse how much food you waste at home and provides tips and advice on how to recycle and reduce your food waste.
With these facts playing on my mind I have resolved to make 2012 a less wasteful year. Any food writer worth their salt will provide recipes or suggestions for using up leftovers. My contribution is Stilton and Cranberry Bread but you will find countless other suggestions if you trawl the net.