Thanks to Covid, social norms around how to act when you’ve got a cold have changed. How great would it be if we could harness this disapproval towards food waste?
Today, if you climb on a bus coughing your head off it’s considered totally unacceptable, because it affects others. Yet every day we chuck out food, without applying the same logic.
Even though we know that, under the scope of the climate crisis, everything is connected and that food poverty is shooting up. Even if a higher supermarket bill affects most of us directly in the pocket, we are still at it.
In fact, every household in Ireland throws out an average of €700 worth of food annually. This figure is based on 2018 household waste collected at the kerbside, so it doesn’t factor in the milk poured down the drain.
The next Environmental Protection Agency survey will be completed this year – and I’d say we’ll find our performance even worse. After all, Covid encouraged a trend towards more online shopping and a surge in takeaway eating – and if other houses are like mine, buying online means a big shop, which means waste (and Deliveroo usually results in carrots thrown out).
In a strange way, the green and brown bins don’t help. Instead, they just haul away the guilt. You’re home and dry with the vegetable skins and teabags, but you should never congratulate yourself for filling up the brown bin with food that has sailed past its expiry date.
I used to think that at least it was going back into the environment – but what about all the energy and effort needed to produce it? And the energy needed to recycle it? And what about all the plastic it arrived in?
The best possible scenario is waste prevention, and consumers need this drummed home.
Yes, they are the last link in the system – there is a lot to be tackled before it gets to them – but the consumer is also the weakest link because changes can be forced through at the other stages in the food system.
Ireland’s recently published the Climate Action Plan which aims to cut food waste by 50pc by 2030 and there are a rake of measures coming down the line to make this possible. But you can’t make the consumer eat the broccoli they bought and not dump it.
And aren’t we all consumers anyway? From restaurant managers to supermarket workers, from farmers to those running factories, a sea-change in attitude is needed. We need to make throwing out food seem an outrageous act.
Last Tuesday was National Stop Food Waste Awareness Day – and the focus this year was use-by dates.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue urged everyone to try and understand what foods they waste, and why. He said we should use this knowledge to reduce our carbon footprint.
He’s right. A food-waste audit does concentrate the mind. I remember a smug but very successful business person once telling me “only that which is measured gets done” and this certainly applies to the food waste around in our house.
Last month I was chatting to a much younger pal, who is a zero-waste queen. She uses the Too Good To Go app, and goes by the sniff test for things like milk. (In the UK, the Morrisons supermarket chain has scrapped their use-by date on milk, because if stored properly, milk stays grand for a few days)
She urged me to keep a brown bin diary, so I kept a notepad beside the fridge – and was pretty confident about it. I’m down the shops nearly every day, and I rarely overbuy. I’m always filling my trolley with the reduced price food near expiry date. But in a week we threw out loads.
Most of a furry lentil stew went in the bin, because nobody liked it except for me, and I didn’t bother to freeze it. There was a loaf of bread, half a bag of potatoes, two forgotten bags of spinach in the extra fridge in the shed, half a tub of cream cheese, half a pack of ham... I’m going to stop there, but there was more.
If I had properly examined what I had before going to the shops, I could have avoided all of that.
Ireland’s aim aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 to “cut in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level and reduce food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030”.
To make this happen, food waste reporting will become mandatory in June. And over the last few years some things have changed. Bord Bia’s Origin Green sustainability scheme is making progress among the farmers and businesses with whom it works. Supermarkets like Tesco are giving unsold but usable food to organisations such as FoodCloud (which deals with more than 550 community groups). They make energy from the food they can’t give away.
But while improvements are happening, we need drastic measures. For example, six years ago in France they made it illegal for big supermarkets to throw out food. This forced them to either donate it, or sell it for hugely reduced prices. This would help those struggling economically, as well as the environment.
This week the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report which warned the climate action window is closing fast.
The authors argue all actions, no matter how small, are necessary to keep temperatures from rising. With food waste accounting for 8-10pc of emissions we need to quickly find a way to make people feel terrible about chucking it out.