Have you ever thought about how much food you throw away? What are the reasons your food ends up in the bin? Globally, a third of all the food produced is wasted. This is an incredible amount and when you consider the fact that every tenth person on the planet suffers from hunger, it is rather illogical. So, how can it be that so much food becomes wasted?
There are three aspects of food waste I would like to mention. All three of them are related to consumer behaviour and thus can be potentially influenced by individuals and their habits. The first problem is the abundance of food on the market and the consequent production of food waste by supermarkets. The second issue is throwing out food at the level of domestic consumption, and the third one is the demand for perfection that causes producers to waste produce because it falls short of standards for size, shape or colour.
Abundance of food on the market
The production of food waste by supermarkets is very closely connected to the abundance of food production in general. Although the population of our planet is still growing and there are many concerns regarding the sustainability of food production, there is far more food produced than people actually need. This also relates to the personal level of consuming more food than we need, thus achieving a caloric surplus that often leads to obesity. In this overproduction, we are wasting the planet’s precious resources only to throw the products in the bin later, often causing further damage to the planet and the atmosphere. However, we can only blame ourselves for this. We buy more than we need. We put pressure on supermarkets by requesting shelves overflowing with an endless variety of food. We are dissatisfied and angry when shops run out of something. We demand certain standards when it comes to the quality of food and we pick the best-looking products. All that forces shops to offer large quantities of food, which of course means that they offer more than they can possibly sell, thus creating a surplus that never gets to the customer and ends up as waste.
Date labels and throwing out food at home
Buying more food than we actually need is reason number one for why food is thrown away at home. More than once I have cleaned up a fridge or a pantry to find food forgotten at the back just because new items have been put in front of it. If we limit the amount of food we buy, it will not have the chance to go bad or rot in our fridge. Closely connected to this is the fact that people might be afraid to eat something just because the date on the packaging has passed, and they would rather throw it away. You can find two date specifications on a product: “best before” on more shelf-stable products and “use by” on perishable food, which is stricter. However, I think that both these dates are set earlier than when the food actually goes bad, to protect the producer in the rare event of a mishap. As can be seen in the documentary movie Taste the Waste(Thurn, 2011), in Japan the demand for freshness takes food labels a step further—they even print the hour on the label. This of course leads to a stricter approach and creates a neatly defined line between food and food waste that leaves little space for negotiation, thus leading to a larger production of food waste.
Demand for perfection
Another problem is the demand for a certain size, shape and colour of fruit and vegetables, dictated by customers and supermarkets to farmers and producers. Customers want to buy the ideal products they are used to, and this gives no room for variety, which is after all natural when it comes to growing food. We look for perfect, spotless, regular, evenly coloured fruit and vegetables and look down on smaller apples and forked carrots as if they were indicators of worse taste. The only downside might be that it is harder to peel carrots with three roots. It is partly the consumer’s convenience that forces supermarkets to refuse non-standard produce. Produce that is not fit to be sold in supermarkets is usually thrown away during harvest or becomes animal food. Luckily, in the last few years, some supermarkets have dealt with this problem by starting campaigns to save non-standard food, and they sell it for reduced prices.
How to avoid food waste
- Buy only what you need.
- Plan your meals and make shopping lists.
- Keep track of the contents of your fridge and pantry, keep them organized.
- Remember that dates are approximate and that there is a difference between “best before” and “use by”.
- Do not shy away from “ugly” fruit and vegetables.
- Avoid overeating, save leftovers (and eat them later).
Thurn, V. (Producer), Vandekerkhove, A. (Producer) & Thurn, V. (Director). (2011).