Last week, I attended a panel discussion on the future of food in the circular economy as a part of Ikea’s three-day Australian “Democratic Design Days” program. The panel of experts at the forefront of the industry discussed topics spanning from food technology solutions to what our dinner plates could look like in fifty years. All of the topics were underpinned by one clear message: we need to change current consumer attitudes and behaviours when it comes to food waste.
This thought provoking conversation prompted me to question my own behaviour and relationship with food. Now, I LOVE my food and I just hate to see food slide from plate to bin, but I am guilty of unnecessary (and very preventable) food wastage - just as the majority of us are.
It is estimated that Australians throw out 4 million tonnes of edible food every year, roughly equating to 350 kg of food per household. To put this into more "relatable" terms, 350 kg is the approximate collective weight of 3000 bacon rashers, 300 loafs of bread, 200 avocados, 10 bottles of BBQ sauce and then some!
But of course this is not just a problem confined within the Aussie borders; it is believed that up to a third of all food produced around the world goes to waste, costing the global economy upward of $900 billion yearly. The food waste conversation is not new news yet these figures continue to grow, at an alarming rate.
We all know supermarkets are notoriously wasteful which is a major contributing factor. Supermarkets across the globe are taking steps to help decrease wastage, with Woolworths making waste reduction a “national priority”, Walmart’s “zero waste aspirations” and Ocado working to minimise their wastage to just 0.02%.
Partnerships with charities such as FoodBank in Australia, The Trussell Trust in the UK and Feeding America in the USA dramatically reduces the amount supermarkets send to landfill and instead goes to those in need. However, this is often just a fraction of they actually could donate. As cited by Sarah Pennell, of the 1 million kg donated to FoodBank from one of the “big 2” Australian supermarkets last year, it was discovered via audit that they were given just 15% of what they could have been, as cited by Sarah Pennell in the debate.
The United Nations predict the world population to hit 9.1 billion by 2050 (it’s currently at around 8 billion) and it is estimated that we will need to produce around 70% more food to feed these extra mouths - with less water and less land than we have ever had. Inevitably, with this increased need for food comes an even greater need for better management of waste.
So what is it that we as consumers are currently doing to result in so much food waste?
Cooking too much food: An obvious one I’m sure, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve wrongly estimated the amount of pasta needed, blindly pouring the shells into the pan and ending up with a carb piled plate. Furthermore, research has shown that we, in particular mothers when cooking for their family, over cook as a sign of love and affection - if only we showed that same amount of love and affection to our planet! And it is not just at home where we find our plates overloaded - my memories of scraping plates as a kitchen porter aged 16 are still far too vivid. IKEA restaurants have implemented “smart scales” in their kitchens so they can better measure and report on food waste which they then use to inform portion sizes. This is such a simple solution, not reliant on expensive or advanced technologies, but estimated to have a huge impact.
Sticking to best before and use-by dates too strictly: Do we all even understand the differences between best before and use by? Best before dates are simply used by manufacturers as a guideline as to when the product may start to lose some of its qualities, it does not mean that the food is unsafe to eat. As Sarah Pennell of Food Bank joked, we are not trusting enough of our own eyes and noses when determining whether or not food is fresh and take these dates as gospel - when in fact many foods can be eaten weeks if not months after their use by dates.
Not checking cupboards and the fridge before shopping: The spontaneity of some shopping occasions often mean this is not always convenient or possible for us to do but with an estimated 15% of food waste attributed to packaged and long life goods, it is clear that the majority of us haven’t a clue what is hiding away in our cupboards. The impact of the recently imposed plastic bag charge in Australian supermarkets will influence how we shop - it has already been noted that basket sizes are seeing a decrease, people are ensuring their purchases fit into the bags they brought along.
Not knowing how and when to use leftovers: I am not the most imaginative person in the kitchen and I struggle to envisage dishes with ingredients which I typically would not put together but I make little effort to even investigate what I could do with them. The Love Food, Hate Waste NSW Government backed campaign frequently posts recipe ideas in a bid to inspire those less adventurous and less confident to throw their leftovers together and make something delicious.
Takeaways or eating out frequently: Something I do on a far too frequent basis is purchase a takeaway as an ‘easy’ option, even when I know I have a fridge full of food which is calling out to be eaten, which is then too often disposed of. Unfortunately, with Deliveroo and Uber Eats this is becoming more and more common.
As Amanda Kane from NSW EPA stated “not a single one of us likes food waste, everyone hates it and nobody wants to do it” but life always finds a means of getting in the way! We meticulously plan out our meals only then to forget them as we are caught in the morning rush, we throw our leftovers into the freezer only to pick it out months later, icicle incrusted and not the slightest clue what it even contains. For me, the worst part, and what makes me feel guiltiest, is that so many of these wasteful behaviours are completely unintentional but we can train ourselves to break these habits in time.
The onus is not completely on the consumer to instigate this change, manufacturers need to guide us on this journey to modify our complicated behaviours. How can they do this? The obvious answer here would be portion control – simply reduce the pack sizes or provide a wider variety of sizes to select from. Or focus on the packaging itself; continue to innovate with packaging solutions that allow us to easily get all of the contents out. The list is endless but I firmly believe the most important step is for manufacturers to educate people, ultimately helping us to help ourselves. We need to be educated and challenged on our current behaviour and the effect this is having on the world.
Food waste management is something we all can and must do a better job of. Of course this is not a problem that can be reversed overnight and it will take significant time for consumer attitudes and behaviour to have an impactful change, but every small step counts, and for me that starts with being more mindful. The next time I unlock my phone and hover over that tempting delivery app or grab my bag for life to nip to the supermarket “for a few bits” – I will endeavor to first look in my cupboards, in my fridge, in my freezer and ask myself if I really do need to buy anything else.