*Quick, upfront disclaimer: this post is based on produce that is in season across the USA. Sorry if it does not apply to all climates.
With the autumnal equinox upon us, it’s time to celebrate one of the best parts of fall: the food! In addition to the obvious favorites like pumpkins, butternut squash, and apples, autumn offers an array of other fruits and vegetables that can be used to make great healthy dishes or indulgent desserts. Given the purpose of our organization and the fact that there are plenty of recipe guides to seasonal produce out there (such as these for October and November), this post is going to focus on making the most of your purchases. That means finding a use for parts of fruits and vegetables that are typically disregarded and/or creatively using up produce once it’s no longer fresh.
Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 5.1 million tonnes
Considering that food waste annually costs the national economy an estimated €12 billion, it is no surprise that Italy has been stepping up its efforts to save food from the garbage. Agricultural Minister Maurizio Martina has stated that he wants the country to recover one billion tons of excess food by the end of this year, and there are many new initiatives underway that could make his goal a reality.
At the end of July, Italy’s senate reinvigorated the country’s food recovery policies by providing incentives for and removing bureaucratic hurdles associated with donating surpluses to charities. For instance, restaurants, retailers, and manufacturers must no longer declare each donation in advance but instead complete only one declaration for all donations made each month. Additionally, products can be donated after their sell-by dates; farmers can freely give excess produce to charities; and all food donors will be rewarded with tax reductions. Ministers hope that the law will save at least 1 million tons of food from going to waste each year.
The agricultural ministry has also been looking at reducing consumer waste. Much like France, Italy is home to strong anti-doggy-bag bias that stops many restaurant customers from saving the food they don’t finish in one sitting. The term ‘family bag’ is now being promoted to emphasize that leftovers provide families with delicious second meals and distance the idea from the negative connotation of dog food. Another campaign is researching new forms of packaging to preserve food better, especially during transit.
Unsurprisingly, Italy is home to many organizations that connect recovered food to hungry mouths. Rete Banco Alimentare is a national network of 21 food banks that redistributes donations from producers, restaurants, caterers, and retailers to nearly 9,000 charitable organizations throughout the country. The volunteer-based organization started in 1989 and, eight years later, launched National Food Collection Day, in which customers can buy food to be redistributed to charities. In 2013, more than 11,000 supermarkets participated in the annual event, allowing over 9,000 tons of food to be collected by 135,000 participants.
Alongside government programs and charitable organizations, activists within the food industry are getting international attention for combating waste. Chef Massimo Bottura, head of the World’s Best Restaurant 2016 Osteria Francescana, made headlines at the Expo Milano and again at the 2016 Olympic Games for setting up soup kitchens that utilized excess food from the respective events to feed those in need. Another renowned Italian chef, Ugo Alciati, requires his customers to reserve at his restaurant and eat from a fixed menu to minimize the amount of food left in his kitchen at the end of each day.
Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 18 million tons in 2010, according to the Ministry of Agriculture
When global climate change awareness started gaining traction in the 1990s, Japan was quick to put recycling on the national agenda. Since then, its recovery and waste management policies have included innovative food waste solutions focused on repurposing would-be waste for animal feed and fertilizer.
The Food Waste Recycling Law (English summary here), passed in 2001, called for the development of national food loss reduction targets and standards for businesses as well as recycling promotion strategies. Six years later, the law was given more teeth: it assigned recycling volume targets by food industry sector, required businesses to report their waste quantity and their recycling efforts each year, and encouraged collaboration between the food and recycling industries. These measures spawned Recycling Business Plans, aka “recycling loops,” to circulate resources. For instance, a retailer might pass its waste to a business that converts it into fertilizer or animal feed, which is then used to produce foods that the retailer purchases to sell. Much organic waste is also diverted to biofuel production.
Thanks primarily to the recycling law, Japan recycled 82% of its food waste in 2010. Nevertheless, food constituted 25-30% of municipal solid waste in that same year. A leading culprit for these disappointing figures is the “one-third rule” that many companies follow. Looking at a product from its manufacture to its best-by date, manufacturers must deliver the food to retailers within the first third of its lifespan, and it cannot be sold after the second third. So, a can of nuts manufactured in January 2015 with a best-by date of January 2017 a) has to be delivered to retailers by August 2015 and b) has to be purchased by April 2016 – otherwise, it’s thrown out. The annual values of food returns to wholesalers and to manufacturers based on date-expiration sum to more than ¥155 billion. In a few exemplary cases (16%), though, products past the sell-by period are sold at discounted prices, rather than trashed. Fortunately, Japan has been reexamining the unwritten “rule” over the last couple of years and extending shelf-life labels of shelf-stable foods such as canned products, bottled water, and packaged rice cakes.
Aesthetic perfectionism is another cause of waste that Japan is just starting to address. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that food rejected for purely visual reasons accounts for roughly one-third of the country’s annual waste. To call attention to this issue, the company a-dot has launched four distinct restaurants across Tokyo that specialize in using foods that are deemed “unsellable” by retail aesthetic standards. The project, called Mottainai (“wasteful”) Action, not only saves food from being tossed but also rewards producers and market vendors for their products (otherwise, they would have earned no profit for unsold food).
Finally, there is the Foodloss Challenge Project, launched in 2012 to analyze how and why food waste occurs and strategize what can be done about it. The project began with studies that examined food waste management practices at all levels of the food supply chain. Participants in the research (farmers, retailers, manufacturers, restauranteurs, chefs, consumers, etc.) not only learned about the economic inefficiency and ecological harms of waste but also brainstormed ways to raise public awareness and promote new practices to cut down on waste. The campaign then hosted a “salvage party” on household waste reduction tips in which consumers brought leftovers from their homes for on-site chefs to improvise into new dishes. Additionally, the project has launched extracurricular programs to teach children about waste as well as a sticker for retailers to affix to products approaching their expiration date to encourage customers to buy them sooner. Meanwhile, nonprofit food banks have become increasingly prevalent, redistributing unwanted consumer-, farmer-, and company-donated food items to people in need.
Although Japan still has a lot of work to do in the food waste prevention department, the country’s steps to improve waste management are laudable. Japan is worth keeping an eye on as it develops more mechanisms to deal with waste.
A documentary project which aims to engage people on the subject of avoidable food waste – the issue, the consequences and the solutions.
2. How long have you been in business/running your project?
The project started in September 2013, when I documented activities of an organisation called FoodCycle in London. From there I explored other initiatives, and then started visiting farms across the UK with the Gleaning Network, to explore farm-level food waste.
3. Why did you decide to start the company/project?
I’ve been involved in grassroots activism around environmental and social justice issues in some capacity for many years. When I lived in Amsterdam in the late 90s/early 00s, I also used to gather food to live off that would otherwise go to waste at a local market. So I’ve been conscious of the issue and the impact of waste, including food waste, for some time.
I’m also curious about everything, and the nature of the issue of food waste appealed to me on many levels, for if we impact positively on food waste we impact positively on so many of the issues of our time – soil degradation, climate change, the power and impact of the biotechs, food security, water security, deforestation and more.
When I started the project there was very little media attention, and I wanted to do what I could to raise awareness about the issue, and to provide exposure to those people and organizations who proactively do something to reduce the amount of edible food waste.
4. What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Completely out of the blue I was invited to give a lecture at the NYU campus in Florence, Italy last year. When I was walking up the tree-lined track to Villa La Pietra, gazing at the amazing views and the olive groves, listening to the professor who invited me talk about all the people who stayed and lectured at the campus, I felt more than a little overwhelmed!
In relation to my project the key measure of success would be the number of people who engage on some level with the work I produce. Unfortunately, this isn’t something I can really measure effectively. What I can measure is the size of my audience, and the rate at which it is growing. By constantly working on refining the work I produce – as well as exploring different formats such as short documentary films and podcasts – I hope to continually increase my audience. I am constantly refining what I produce to make it more engaging and more accessible, with the aim of maximising the potential for people to be inspired to take some sort of positive action – no matter how small.
Ultimately if I were to inspire just one person to take action, I would consider my project a success…and I think I have done exactly.
6. What have you learned in the process?
Where do I begin?! There’s so much I learned about so many things – such is the nature of documenting a complex, multi-layered issue like food waste! But one of the most positive and heartening things is that there are a lot of good, ordinary – I mean that in a positive way, and a thing to celebrate – people doing a lot of good things.
I already knew this generally speaking, but food waste, like so many issues, has some go-to people that get a huge amount of the attention – their work and their words are continually celebrated in the media, and tend to mould the public’s perception of an issue. This is great for nurturing an awareness of the issue within the public consciousness, but it also results in the crowding out of the voices of the multitude of grassroots initiatives – all of which deserve more attention than they currently receive.
There are so many grassroots initiatives doing something related to food waste, of all shapes and sizes, both nationally and internationally – it’s a beautifully diverse ecosystem – and is growing at a fabulous rate. With edible food being a valuable resource, there are also many enterprising individuals tapping into its commercial value – many of which function as social enterprises, and so serving the wider community, not just their own interests.
Bearing witness to this gives me hope that, despite a lack of meaningful action at a government, retailer and manufacturer level, the momentum for positive, meaningful change will continue to grow from the grassroots up, and with time will come to influence the actions of majority of individuals and organisations within our societies – increasing pressure on all sectors to take action.
With that shift in awareness, habits and business practices will come a positive, knock-on effect on all the issues of our time – hence the reason why we need to nurture the grassroots initiatives as much as possible.
7. What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the (food) industry/get involved in (food) work/start a (organization)?
I’ve been exposed to a multitude of different organisations and initiatives – each with its own story, and its own way of functioning – but what they all have in common is the spark that ignited each and every one of them, which was an idea nurtured by one or two passionate, driven people. So if you have an idea, just get out there and make it happen – there are plenty of people who will support you, and help make it work – then continually refine what you do and what you offer.
8. What’s next?
I am in the process of producing the first in a series of short documentary films on the many layers of food waste – ways of reducing it, and the various ways of managing it. The first will be on the date labelling of food – best before and use by dates – and will hopefully be completed by the end of the year.
I want to connect with as wide an audience as possible, and inspire them to take action, and so will continue to refine what I produce, and continue to explore all the possible means and ways of achieving that.
9. Fun question: what was the best meal you ate this week?
The breakfast I shared with my partner before she went off to Glastonbury for a few days. It was just a big bowl of porridge, but every meal I get to share with her is special to me.
10. To add:
If there is one issue you get behind, make it food waste – it impacts on all the issues of our time, and we are all part of the problem, but also part of the solution.
People need to learn how to eat better. Poor diet contributes to the two leading causes of death worldwide – heart disease and stroke – as well as a slew of other medical problems including obesity, diabetes, and even certain cancers. Without a doubt, promoting proper nutrition is one of the most important food policy focuses of our time. However, it is by no means the only issue.
I recently spoke with someone who is not entirely convinced of the importance of saving food. She understands the principle of preventing waste but cares far more about getting people to eat healthily. Her example: if a person were deciding between throwing away a half-eaten bag of potato chips or saving them, she’d say to throw them away. It’s not worth salvaging junk food that can wreak so much damage on our bodies, her logic goes.
As someone whose life’s mission is to fight food waste but also cares deeply about nutrition, I needed a moment to wrestle with this argument. Since I used to overeat in the name of preventing waste (here’s my reflection post about it), I know how the pretense of saving food can clash with healthy eating intentions. Many weight loss diets even explicitly say that people shouldn’t eat everything on their plates, since portion sizes tend to be excessively large. So, does trying to avoid waste mean making poor dietary choices? In a word, no. The keys are storage and smart decisions.
Back to the potato chip example: I say the eater should save the chips as leftovers. That way, the next time the person has a craving for salty, fatty food, he/she can have more chips from the bag, rather than buying a new bag (i.e. giving more money to junk food companies). Plus, with half the chips already eaten, the portion size is limited, whereas a brand new bag would present the temptation to devour all the chips at once. Alternatively, the remaining chips could be shared with friends or served at a party.
Bringing leftover junk food home seems like it just invites bad choices; but that’s where my “smart decisions” point comes in. Once food is in the home, it can lose some of its novelty, making it easier to moderate intake. Since the food will still be there tomorrow, there’s less temptation to overindulge now. Unhealthy cravings can be sated in moderation. Moreover, the root of the problem is buying potato chips in the first place. If you don’t want to consume so much sodium and fat, buy a healthier snack!
I realize my counterargument isn’t perfect, but neither is our food environment. Ideally, junk food wouldn’t be so prevalent, nor portion sizes so large, that we have to debate saving unhealthy food for later. Teaching people how to eat well can only go so far as long as we’re surrounded by unhealthy options. Nevertheless, the pursuit of good nutrition does not have to undercut food waste reduction.
Hokuma and I just wanted to issue a brief but sincere apology for the lack of posts over the last month. Between work and travel, we’ve both been very busy and haven’t found the time to generate meaningful content. However, we’ve got some exciting projects in the works that we will hopefully be able to start publicizing soon! And, naturally, we’ll be trying to get ourselves back on a weekly posting schedule.
In the meantime, we hope that you are enjoying your summers (or winters, in the southern hemisphere) and invite you to keep checking our Facebook page, where we have been better about regularly sharing interesting articles.
Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 15 million tonnes. About 47,000 tonnes of food surplus are redistributed and 660,000 tonnes are used for animal feed production.
As food waste has gotten more and more global attention, Britain has consistently been a source of profound reports, inspirational practices, and innovative solutions aimed at combating the problem. The face of the British anti-waste movement is WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) and its “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign that has been running since 2007. Founded in 2000, WRAP collaborates with all levels of government, businesses, community organizations, trade unions, and individuals to champion sustainable waste management. Its Courtauld 2025 Commitment has set 20% reduction targets for food waste and greenhouse gas intensity of food and drink (production, distribution, consumption, etc.) in the UK over the next 10 years.
In 2015, WRAP created the Manufacturing and Retail Working Group to develop resources and undertake research projects to analyze and improve food waste prevention practices. Just last month, the group published its report examining the current waste levels and progress in the UK with accompanying recommendations for development. Among its findings, the research produced the nonprofit’s first-ever estimate of preventable waste from the UK manufacturing and retail sectors: 56% of the 1.9 million tonnes of food that was discarded could have been eaten. Nonetheless, less than 5% of food production in the British retail and manufacturing sectors ends up as surplus or waste, which is quite commendable. Moreover, 47,000 tonnes of surplus food were redistributed in 2015, and 660,000 tonnes were used in animal feed production. While WRAP rightfully continues to push for improvement, the UK’s progress in preventing waste so far is by no means negligible.
The “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign is geared towards consumers, teaching people how easy it is to prevent waste at the household level. Its website of food saving tools includes a recipe search engine to use up leftover ingredients, portion and up-to-2-week meal planners, and tons of storage, cooking, and shopping tips. In addition to these resources, the LFHW mobile app offers a kitchen inventory tool to help users keep track of the food they’ve bought. The campaign references British food waste statistics, but, naturally, the tips and tools are universally relevant and useful.
Another strong fighter in Britain’s food waste arena is ReFood, Europe’s largest food waste recycler. The corporation collects waste from retailers and producers across the UK and converts it into biogas, electricity, and fertilizer via anaerobic digestion, providing a clean, efficient method of food waste management. In 2013, ReFood launched Vision 2020, a step-by-step plan to help the food industry prepare for a total ban on food waste landfilling by the year 2020. Far from idealistic, the campaign’s acknowledges the financial and administrative difficulties of instituting a landfill ban and accordingly offers recommendations and assistance for developing the necessary infrastructure. Furthermore, it promotes food waste education, citing “Love Food, Hate Waste” by name. ReFood’s goal is to embrace food waste as a profitable resource.
As for the private sector: Britain’s largest supermarket, Tesco, has demonstrated an impressive commitment to preventing waste. In 2013, the corporation published an extensive report on the waste generated by products sold in its stores, disclosing its food waste statistics for the first time ever. Now, the retailer annually publishes food waste data for its UK franchise – which, sadly, saw a 4% increase in waste from 2015 to 2016. Still, Tesco has been working to eliminate wasteful practices, such as Buy One Get One Free offers on fruit and vegetables. The chain also hasn’t sent any food directly to landfills since 2009. Details on the store’s other efforts can be found here.
Last September, the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill was introduced to, among other things, establish national food waste reduction incentives and require large retailers and manufacturers to cut down their waste at least 30% by 2025. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation never made it out of the House of Commons – but it wasn’t the first time that food waste was on the government agenda, and it certainly won’t be the last. In 2011, for instance, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued date label guidance to the food industry so as to prevent the excess of caution and confusion that generates waste.
When standing in the kitchen, chopping onions and fighting back tears, it’s hard to imagine that this layered vegetable can be sweet. Yet, throw some into a pan with olive oil on low heat and you’ll witness magic in action.
The slow process of heating the onion breaks down its cell walls making them softer and sweeter. This process is called ‘pyrolysis’ and goes something like this:
Heat breaks down chemical compounds of the cooked food. Since all food contains sugar, the heat breaks it down into smaller units leading to browning and sweetening.
All living things, including plants, break down sugar for energy. Your average medium-sized onion contains 9 grams of sugar.
Sugars in plants and our body can be found in various pairs. The cooking process breaks the pairs down from polysaccharides (couple) into monosaccharides (single).
Since much of the cell structure is made up of starches, which are polysaccharides, the slow cooking process breaks down the wall structures of cells, releasing sugar, which then sweetness the food and softness its texture.
If you apply this sound logic to a bigger organism, like humans, this idea can teach us that in life “patience is a virtue”.
The famous Sufi poet, Rumi once used a chickpea metaphor to describe his enlightened life:
“The whole of my life
is summed up in these three phrases:
I used to be raw
Then I was cooked
I am on fire.”
The thing about being cooked is that life makes you sweet, because you learn to handle the setbacks of life with an open heart and mind. And those who come in contact with you can learn this skill and apply it in their wn life.
Today our everyday lives are rushing past us at the speed of light. There is so much to accomplish, so much to do, so much to see that life eventually becomes a frenzy, filled with anxiety, demands and needs. By taking a slower approach and letting ourselves simmer in time it takes to accomplish goals will help us softly approach hardships.
Something simple as doing 10 minutes of yoga or meditation in the morning can make all the difference. And taking baby steps towards any big goal will yield progress and satisfaction. After all, what’s the point of rushing through life, shouldn’t it be enjoyed?
Here’s to caramelizing our onions in the kitchen and our lives outside of it.
A blog-keeping note: the national spotlight series is by no means over! I am just going to intersperse other posts, like this one, when inspiration strikes.
Recently, I read a study by Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology that made me reflect more on how our eating behavior leads to waste. The experiment, published in 1982, tested how variety in the color, texture, and flavor of food in a meal influenced a person’s consumption and enjoyment. Only one of the sensory properties was changed in each round of the experiment while the other two were held constant. For instance, Smarties (a candy similar to M&M’s) were used to test the influence of color because they are uniform in texture and chocolate flavor.
I won’t recap the entire process and detailed findings of the experiment, but the general conclusion was that humans eat more when offered food in varying textures, colors, or flavors. So, if given a plate of only green Smarties, we will eat fewer than if we were given a plate of mixed-color Smarties. This indicates that there is a sensory-specific satiety effect: we stop eating sooner when eating a ‘plain’ meal than when our senses are variously stimulated by a meal, even if there is no difference in the nutrition of the food to influence our actual fullness.
Another conclusion of the experiment was that “the degree of pleasantness of a food may affect whether a food will be selected for ingestion, but the amount actually ingested will then depend to a considerable extent on the satiating power of that particular food.” In other words, knowing that we like a food makes us more likely to choose to eat it but does not necessarily mean that we will eat more of it, especially if it is something filling. This is the part of the report that got me thinking about waste:
Put this effect in the context of a buffet, dining hall, or any other smorgasbord scenario where we are presented with an abundance of options. Many people erroneously start filling their plates or trays before having seen all of the available foods. When they then come across a favorite food of theirs, they add a large portion of that to their meal because they know they are going to enjoy it. They don’t generally think about how much other food they already have; they prioritize the favorite and end up with an extra large portion.
Assuming they recognize their satiety (which is often difficult to do, leading to overeating), the eaters will not finish all of the food that they have taken. Whether the diners scarfed down their favorite food first or tried to save the best for last, some remnants of the superportion will be left. Of course, leftovers can be given to a friend or taken home in a doggy-bag, yet the sad truth of the matter is that many people leave the food to be thrown out. I don’t have any statistics to back it up, but I believe that people are more likely to bring home leftovers from a meal paid for a la carte than in a buffet-type setting because they feel more motivated to get their money’s worth. In restaurants, you think, “I spent $12 on that pizza, so those last three slices are $4!” When you pay a flat rate for a self-serve meal, though, you pay for ‘all you can eat,’ which is achieved once you are full.
It’s no surprise that presenting people with an abundance of food, especially food they know they like, can easily lead to waste. Nor is it shocking to read that our eating behavior is influenced by psychological at least as much as by physiological and nutritional factors. Still, the study makes an interesting read to explain the extent of this influence and reflect on its role in issues like food waste or obesity.
Most recent estimate of annual food waste: 4.82 million tonnes in 2014
South Korea is home to one of the world’s most innovative national strategies for fighting food waste: charging its inhabitants to dispose of food waste. To use organic waste disposal bins, residents have to either pay per garbage bag or, as of 2012, according to the weight of their waste (explained below). This year alone, the price of the specialty garbage bags has gone up 30% to provide extra incentive to reduce household waste.
The “volume-based waste fee” aka pay per trash bag system was introduced in 1995. Within 10 years of the system’s implementation, South Korea’s recycling rate had increased from 15.4% to almost 50%, according to a policy bulletin from the Ministry of Environment in 2006. The government has continued to include food waste as its pursued further recycling reforms, including banning urban-generated food waste from landfills in 2005 and announcing the RFID system in 2012. Under the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system, residents have to swipe special ID cards to open mechanized disposal bins so that they can throw out their waste. With each transaction, the bin recalculates the weight of its contents, and the disposer is billed once a month according to his or her waste contribution.
Unsurprisingly, the success of these measures over just a couple years has received international praise. According to the Strait Times, daily aggregate food waste in Seoul decreased from 3,300 tonnes to 3,181 tonnes between 2012 and 2014, and the city government is aiming to cut that to 2,318 tonnes per day by 2018. Household and restaurant food waste have fallen by 30% and 40%, respectively, PSFK reported earlier this month.
The Korean government’s focus on food waste came after years of ecological negligence, for lack of a better term. Even until 2013, most of the country’s organic waste was processed in sewage plants and then dumped into the ocean. The ‘gray water’ produced by the high liquid content of the waste devastated coastal marine life and even began leaching into soil. Although the government joined the London Convention against marine pollution in 1993, the ban on food wastewater dumping wasn’t enacted until 20 years later. Fortunately, most food waste today is recycled into compost, animal feed, or biofuel, largely thanks to government subsidies to those recycling facilities.
A final fun fact: in response to the anti-food waste trend, the company Smart Cara has started manufacturing domestic food waste processors. The appliances grind food waste into a powder that can be utilized as fertilizer or cooking fuel. With the rising fees for residential food waste disposal, sales of the processors tripled between 2013 and 2015 and continue to climb.