With over 20 million tonnes of food waste generated annually in the UK (causing CO2 equivalent emissions of 3 million tonnes) there's a lot of cleaning up to do. This is Rubbish are leading an incisive and energetic new campaign to raise awareness and lessen the problem - and one of their main tactics is both enjoyable and participatory: feasting.
Caitlin Shepherd explains, 'the idea of a feast is to celebrate abundance, but the irony with This is Rubbish is that we celebrate an abundance that's been declared useless'. However, as food is 'our most immediate and direct link with the earth, you can invite people to explore all manner of connected issues through food waste'. This is Rubbish present retailers with a positive alternative for redistributing their rejected and wasted goods. A recent feast composed wholly of recovered 'waste' at London's zero-carbon Arcola Theatre was a big success.
'Ultimately I want to take the idea of not just food waste, but all waste, to show how much wealth is discarded, and just how much surplus is accepted and accommodated in our industrialised supply chains.' Trained as an artist, Caitlin was used to salvaging materials to make something new. She notes that stuff termed waste 'can be very useful or beautiful as well, and if it's all from 'rubbish' this raises the question of what the definition of rubbish actually is...' and who decides.
The germ of This is Rubbish emerged when, along with co-founder Rachel Solnick, Caitlin began 'skipping' (or 'dumpster diving') round the back of supermarkets in their local area. What they discovered was loads of good food left to rot in bins. While there was some pleasure to be had in all this free, varied and constantly replenished sustenance, they were incensed by what they had seen. Willing to go that bit further, they began to trace a route back up the supply chain. This led them to a wholesale food market in north London.
Reducing food waste
The 'vast swimming pools-worth of waste' they encountered there were very disturbing. 'I was so horrified' remembers Caitlin, 'I wanted to show this to people and I wanted to find out why it was happening.' She points out that the food supply chain is 'a very opaque structure that the consumer is not encouraged to be aware of'. According to Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, over half of all food produced today is wasted, and so much of this goes on unseen. Clearly we need an overhaul in transparency and efficiency.
At the core of TiR is a campaign for mandatory annual food waste audits to be put in place for industry. Government initiatives like Love Food, Hate Waste have done some good work but put the onus on consumers. While household food waste is important, it's time the monolithic retailers were made properly accountable.
There is already a mechanism in place in other areas which could easily be adapted to the purpose: 'In the UK and the EU large manufacturers are already required to report on tonnages of solid waste arising in their process under a regulation known as the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC). Within this measuring mechanism, the quantification of food waste could also be introduced, immediately allowing food waste reports to be conducted on 30-40 per cent of the UK's food manufacturing industry', says Caitlin. This should be followed by 'really ambitious food-waste reduction strategies'. Although Caitlin would like to see an environmental solution to combat waste she expects it to be financial disincentives that will deter the industry in the end.
It's important to bear in mind that with food waste it's not just the end product that's getting thrown away, but all the embedded energy and water and time and effort that went into creating the food in the first place, and then its transport. Waste 'undermines and devalues all of the resources used to grow this food, which has often been grown in a really exploitative or detrimental way anyway' Caitlin explains. If we can reduce its complexity, if there are fewer links in the chain then surely the chance of wastage is reduced as well.
Caitlin admires others already dedicated to 'making these ideas visible' with urban and/or community growing schemes like Incredible Edible. She remarks that public reactions to food growing tend to include feelings of desiring to nurture these experiments and to take part in the process. The closer we are to what keeps us alive the less likely we are to let it be wantonly destroyed.
Four major retailers control 80 per cent of our grocery market. For most people this presents a lack of choice about where and how to shop. Supermarket shelves are designed to look full, yet they reveal a 'psychology of abundance' not reflected in worldwide agricultural yields as climate change evolves, and they cater to the cycle of wastage.
Through policies of overstocking and high price mark-ups, supermarkets only need to sell a small proportion of goods to meet profit targets. As they have insufficient storage, and because turnover is prioritized, the food thrown out is often not only in perfectly edible condition but actually still 'in date'.
At the same time, due to their strict and unrealistic aesthetic standards 'between 25-40 per cent of UK fruit and vegetable crops are rejected by supermarkets', as expert Tristram Stuart reveals in his comprehensive book Waste. The situation as it stands is preposterous - in the literal sense - with those who supply dictating what the demands ought to be.
As Caitlin says, 'the supermarkets are conditioning consumers to want very conveniently presented, easily manageable food when in fact we should be dealing with it in a much more tactile way'. What we have arrived at is 'a complete commodification of food - it's no longer about whether it's good for us'. Financial value is placed above the nutritional and environmental.
Sanitization of food in the interest of Health & Safety, coupled with the multilayered packaging means we can't examine food as we have evolved to and so are suffering a collective erosion of our 'food comprehension'. In fact we are actively 'discouraged from using our senses to decide about the health of our food' and so unable to make informed decisions about what we need. A TiR event shows that we can happily live off what the system has decided is junk.
How we can to help to reduce food waste:
- Plan ahead: decide what you're going to eat in a week beforehand so you only buy what's needed
- Best Before/ Use By dates are a guide - judge for yourself if something's ok to eat
- 'Positive deselection': choose your point of purchase and consumer affiliation carefully; what are they doing about food waste?
- Be a 'curious consumer': ask supermarket store managers what they do with waste and how they try to reduce it
- Act in solidarity: the way you spend your money can be part of a larger political expression; observe boycotts and protests against the supermarkets, and let people know why
- Use the TiR campaign letter to write to your MP asking them to support a Waste Disclosure Project
A short film about This is Rubbish can be watched here.
David Hawkins is a freelance journalist