Removing Food Waste From Society
What does it look like to redesign waste out of society?
Dining at Silo in London is different. It's a restaurant without a trash can: What may be waste to the rest of us is an ingredient to them. Appetizers often feature stems still attached, on plates made locally (by Weez and Merl) out of the very same single-use plastic their supplies and ingredients arrive in.
By making sure everything is eaten, preserved or composted, Silo forces us to rethink how we define waste. The verdict? Restaurants toss out a lot of food they shouldn’t.
In a new documentary by WaterBear—an online streaming platform with hundreds of inspirational documentaries about our world—we meet Douglas McMaster and Simmie Vedi, two innovative chefs creating zero-waste recipes. Their approach to waste is as unique as the food they serve: Stale bread becomes beer. Leftover sugar is processed as biofuel. Used coffee grounds heat the building. Sign in here to stream Food for Thought for free.
In countries where food is abundant, there’s a serious problem—billions of tons of food goes to waste each year. Huge portions of landfill waste are nothing more than trashed food that spoiled in the refrigerator, leaving us with over a trillion dollars’ worth of landfill waste and emitting 6% of global greenhouse gases. What can we learn from zero-waste restaurants like Silo?
The Origins of Food Waste
In a perfect world, every meal would be the perfect size—no extra ingredients, no leftovers, no moldy bread. While that’s not going to happen, it’s a far cry from nearly half of all food going straight to the trash. What makes it so hard for us to use what we have and cut down on waste?
Stopping Food Waste Before It Happens
Food starts at the farm, and it’s there that most gets thrown out or simply never harvested. The reasons are simple, but you know them well: a desire for lovely looking fruits and vegetables at the lowest possible price. Farming generates over 16 million tons in surplus food each year in the U.S., and only a tiny percentage of that ends up in people’s bellies.
Over 10 million tons of grocery store food ends up wasted. Most of the time, expiration dates are the culprit. If consumers see an upcoming date on a milk jug or bag of salad greens, they look for something else. We aren’t alone either. In Australia, over 86 percent of harvested tomatoes are tossed out just because they aren’t pretty enough to put on store shelves or in restaurants.
We all love a night out from time to time, and dining is the most popular option for doing that. Since restaurants are in business to make money, they take great care not to order more food than they need in a given day, but the industry is nevertheless a major contributor to food waste.
Why? For one, food that is already prepared poses a unique challenge when it comes to transporting and delivering it to people in need. Then you have the customers, most of whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs. U.S. restaurants produce over 12 million tons of food waste—whether from surplus or just customer waste—and just about all of it ends up in landfills.
How To Cut Back on Food Waste
Food waste is one of those things where the answer seems simple from afar, but sorting out the particulars is where things get hairy. Some laws actively prevent food vendors from giving away surplus produce out of concerns for food safety, produce can go bad before it’s expected to, and sometimes logistics just don’t work out like they should. It’s easy to think that food waste is inevitable, but the truth is that it doesn’t have to be.
Global Food Waste Warriors
Around the world, more and more countries are getting on board with tackling food waste, with some further ahead than others. France is leading the charge with strict laws that require grocery stores to give edible food to charities, and violating those laws can lead to stiff fines.
Enacting effective laws around food waste can steer the conversation from, “I’d like to be less wasteful,” to, “I can’t afford to create this much waste.”
Buy Only What You Need
We’ve all been there—you’re at the grocery store, and you’re hungry. Somehow, that growling in your stomach turns into wild visions of trying out all kinds of foods you normally don’t eat. You enjoy them once, stick ‘em in the fridge, and only remember them once they start to stink up the kitchen. Don’t do that.
Make a list and shop for what you need. If you want to get adventurous in your cooking, plan ahead and make sure you’re prepared. Shopping on the fly leads to over-purchasing which is one of the biggest sources of waste.
Freezing Food Is Functional
Put more stuff in the freezer. Leafy greens like spinach and kale last much longer there than in the refrigerator, and they cook down just as well. As you get better at freezing food, you may even want to shop for bargain produce that’s nearing expiration.
Food waste is great for the freezer too! If you save your vegetable scraps in a bag, you can make your own delicious vegetable stock for free. How’s that for a win-win?
Global Solutions on the Horizon
There’s no denying that waste is a surging conversation worldwide. It’s no longer possible to ignore the role our lifestyles play in global warming and pollution. More and more people are turning to composting and food tracking apps to be better citizens of Earth, and it’s showing. Let’s have a look at what some countries are doing to cut back on food waste and take steps toward more eco-friendly habits.
- Greece: By 2030, the country hopes to roll out a smart food card that lets people know what they tend to buy and what they already have at home, including expiration dates
- Egypt: As the world’s largest wheat importer, they’ve invested millions of dollars in a nationwide infrastructure of grain storage to prevent spoilage
- UK: Using an app, people can receive alerts about which restaurants and bakeries are about to close so they can pick up surplus food at a bargain
- Canada: The country’s Food Stash Foundation goes around collecting excess food items and distributes it to nearby food banks, saving hundreds of thousands of pounds of food from going to landfills
- Italy: Using tax incentives, the country’s government is making it economically viable to donate food and prevent waste
- Spain: With a sort of social media app, users can see which of their neighbors have food they want to trade or give away
These promising developments will only mature and become more effective, and it’s exciting to think about. The more we understand about our own buying and eating habits, the better we’ll get at cutting food waste.