To my left, someone is eating a mozzarella and tomato panini, fresh from its packaging. It smells incredible. On my right, a cheese baguette is heartily devoured. I look down at my flask of ‘fridge soup’ and sigh. A blend of stalks, offshoots and tail ends of the week’s vegetables, it is less soup, more thin, tasteless broth.
A week ago I would have emptied the flask straight down the sink, and not thought twice. It would have seemed irrelevant whether I ate it or not. But I am in the middle of a challenge, inspired by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, not to throw away or waste any food for an entire week. Other consumers - and supermarkets - take note of my experiences! As someone who grew up in a house of seven, cooking for just one person has been a huge adjustment. I always, without fail, 'cook too much food', having no real idea of how much constitutes a portion for one. I am therefore - like most of us - a food waster.
I had high hopes this challenge would help me tighten my belt in more ways than one. It seems mad in a time when millions of people are facing financial hardship, but food waste is costing UK households £2 billion pounds each year, according to some estimates. That's the equivalent of throwing a fifty-pound note into a black bin bag every month and sending it to landfill. Makes you think before casually chucking out that food.
Love food, hate waste
The environmental impact of this madness is severe. If we all stopped wasting food and drink every year, it would have the same positive impact as if we took one in five cars off our roads, according to Emma Marsh, head of Love Food Hate Waste.
An offshoot of Wrap, the Government-sponsored body dedicated to reducing waste in our system, Love Food Hate Waste works with consumers and businesses to address the issue of domestic food waste.
Recently, progress has been made. The Courtauld Commitment – a voluntary agreement signed by 52 leading food retailers – is starting to bear fruit. Drawn up by Love Food Hate Waste in 2008 to develop technologies designed to reduce the level of food waste and packaging waste, its recent successes include signatory Tesco trialling new, more effective packaging seals on their fresh produce.
Likewise, in February, both Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer’s changed their freezing guidelines on food, in an effort to encourage consumers to waste less. New technology continues to be developed, promising a more food efficient future. Just two weeks ago scientists at Tufts University in America unveiled edible silk food sensors. Pasted onto food or floating in milk, they are designed to warn consumers when food is on the turn.
Don't blame the supermarkets
But it is down to us, not supermarkets, to address this issue, says Love Food Hate Waste's Marsh. “The really key thing about the scale of waste is that a lot of people’s immediate reaction is that it’s the supermarkets, it must be other people that are doing it. But actually, nearly 50 per cent of all the food and drink we throw away in the UK comes from our homes,' she says.
Taking a leaf out of Love Food Hate Waste's book, my waste-free week gets off to a bad start. Old habits die hard, as I throw a half eaten apple in the bin without thinking. At dinner I am determined to make up for it, so I use up the rest of my mushrooms to make a risotto. Predictably, I make too much. In an attempt to eat my way out of the situation it goes past the point where I can save the leftovers for another meal.
My only option now is to eat it all. I feel like Bruce Bogtrotter. My stomach is painfully swollen, and I have to have a lie down before I am capable of washing up. ‘Eco- chef’ Tom Hunt runs ‘Forgotten Feasts’ around London – banquets of waste food from local businesses. He reckons the secret to efficient cooking is managing it like a professional kitchen. 'It’s just good housekeeping. '
'The supermarkets offer all these 2 for 1 offers and different ways to make people buy more, but then people end up buying too much and not using it properly. It all relates to running a kitchen in a professional sense really, people just need to take the time to manage their fridge and check what needs using before it goes off.'
I take on board this advice and start day two off on a much brighter note. I adapt a strategy of eating things that are next in the queue – the brownest banana, the potato with the most sprouting growths. Unfortunately, some things I just haven’t caught in time.
The spring greens that have been patiently waiting in my fridge since last weeks shop are yellowing slightly on the outside – nothing I can’t cope with. But then I slice into the stem, and recoil as a dark brown gunge greets me. Rotting from the inside out, these greens are destined for nowhere but the bin. How many consumers find themselves doing just this every day?
Seeing the packet of vegetables in the bin really brings home to me what a waste it is. Aside from the fact that I have effectively thrown £1.50 down the toilet, it’s such a waste of time, energy and effort. More than four million tonnes of good food in the UK ends up in landfill every year because it has 'gone off.'
Part of the problem is that we rely too much on food labels that we don’t understand, Emma tells me. Much of Love Food Hate Waste’s work centres on educating people about the difference between a ‘best before’ and a ‘use-by date’.
The Government’s Waste Strategy, published in 2011, sets out its ambition for a 'zero-waste economy', but their plans have been criticised for being heavily reliant on voluntary targets. Pressure is mounting for politicians to take decisive action on food waste and packaging waste, and recently this debate has been taken to the world stage.
In January Ilse Aigner, the German Agriculture minister, bemoaned the loss of ‘grandmother’s knowledge’ of how to cook, telling an international conference: 'We must change our way of thinking, we must have a discussion about best-before dates.'
Steps have been taken in the right direction – Warburtons have removed ‘sell by’ date labels from their loaves, after evidence emerged that customers were confusing them with a ‘best before’ labels.
The next day I decide to test my ‘grandmother’s knowledge’ and make dinner out of what would normally be waste. I save my potato peelings from the night before and set about making a potato peel gratin from a recipe found on the internet.
I am dubious to begin with, but end up with a rather creamy, woody flavoured dish to accompany my dinner. Spurred on by my frugal achievement, the next day I make my ‘fridge soup’ for lunch. It is disgusting. My enthusiasm for eating waste takes a nosedive.
On my last day of the challenge I go to a dinner party at a friend’s house. I am amazed by the sheer abundance of food. There is far too much for us all to eat, and by the end of the evening the kitchen is littered with half-finished plates and heaps of food left in the pans. I’m a little worse for wear at this point, but I make my best attempt to Tupperware and cling film anything I can get my hands on. My friends think I have gone a little batty. When I ask if they worry about food waste, the answer is a clear no.
This is an attitude chef Tom Hunt encounters regularly. 'It always surprises me but I think the general public, at the moment, are not aware of food waste, even in the UK. Even my other friends who are chefs – quite conscious people – don’t really understand the situation of food waste,' he says. 'Educating people, and letting them know they can make a difference quite easily is the trick.'
My waste-free week has not always been easy. Being very conscious of my food footprint has meant I had to eat what was next in line, rather than what I fancied that day. I have certainly had to readjust how I perceive and value food, to realise the costs beyond my wallet. But I think I have emerged the other side with a more careful attitude to food. The cumulative carbon impact of growing, packaging, transporting and cooking food only then to waste it amounts to 17 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Maybe one lone person can’t fix the system, but as Tesco says, 'every little helps'.
Top tips to waste less
Exercise portion control: For rice, use ¼ of a mug per person, for pasta 100g per person.
Keep apples in the fridge – they’ll last for two weeks that way
Put paper at the bottom of your vegetable drawer in the fridge. It will absorb the water, meaning no more damp vegetables.
Keep cheese in tinfoil to stop it sweating.
Visit www.lovefoodhatewaste.com for more tips
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