A few surplus and possibly excessive words on waste

There’s obviously something in the air right now; there was a well-portioned segment of the BBC program You and Yours about consumer food waste on Wednesday.

The core of the discussion was a recently released survey by the UK recycling and waste management organisation WRAP, that revealed that about one-third of food people buy in Britain is thrown away; half of it is edible. (That doesn’t include the food that is wasted by consumers when eating at restaurants, and by the food service industry itself, a whole new discussion I’d like to hear about.)

The survey suggested a lot of waste is down to several controllable factors: fridges may not be set cold enough to keep the food properly; people do not eat perishables quickly enough; and they simply buy more than they can eat, because they shop without planning or making shopping lists, and they shop for informal eating rather than prepared meals. Food retailers can manipulate us into buying more than we need through over-packaging, or by discounts or two-for-one deals.

The waste is not simply financial, it is also environmental, since the food industry alone produces about a quarter of the world’s total carbon emissions. Consumer waste is compounded by supermarket waste – when we pick through the shelves to find the freshest products by their sell-by dates, we contribute directly to this of course – and by industrial waste at the farming and factory end of things.

As we’ve certainly heard time and again this year, the speakers agreed that one of the big underlying causes of waste is the cheapness of our food; and I know it doesn’t feel all that cheap when you look at the prices in the shops and compare them with prices a few years ago, but it is a relative thing. Where, Lord Haskins observed, fifty years ago we used to spend thirty percent of our disposable income on food, we now spend less than ten percent. It’s the same as cheap clothes, he said: if it’s cheap, we don’t value it, and it becomes disposable. (I’ll bet there are roughly equal numbers of people in this world today making crumbs and croûtons out of stale bread as there are darning holes in socks that are otherwise wearable.)

Food historian Ivan Day pointed out that there’s a whole branch of British cuisine, a pudding tradition, based on recycling bread: he cited treacle tart, bread and butter pudding, and a Tudor pudding called whitepot that’s made with cream and dates and cinnamon. We don’t make the time to make those traditional puddings nowadays, he said. We’d rather chuck the bread and buy our puddings from the supermarket.

The speakers also agreed that there isn’t as much common knowledge about food nowadays, which means they aren’t always sensible about what they throw away and how long to keep things. Honey keeps for years, but industry is obliged to date it. Yogurt was mentioned as a food that was created in order to stabilise milk for storage; its use-before date can be safely ignored if you keep it refrigerated and use your nose and eyes to see if it’s still edible. If it’s not bubbling or mouldy, it’s safe to eat, it just might not taste its best. They talked about salad bags: pre-washed salads and vegetables are usually washed in chlorine and the water that remains in the bag can turn the produce swampy if you don’t eat it promptly.

Interestingly, WRAP’s CE Liz Atkins said the survey revealed that about ninety percent of consumers don’t think they are wasteful; a further third simply don’t see food waste as a problem. She suggested that if we got control only over the food we could have eaten, it is equivalent environmentally to taking one in five cars off the road. We’re all at fault, she said, it does matter, and we can make a difference individually. Now let’s start with that list…

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