Think food waste isn’t an issue? Well, picture the scene. You head to your local grocery store to do the weekly ‘big shop’. You browse the aisles, load a trolley, and then reload it on to the conveyer belt. You then repack every item into a worse-for-wear collection of canvas totes and reusable plastic bags – you actually remembered to bring them today, you’re feeling smug. Next, you transport the whole lot home.
When you make it to the front door, you do the usual, uncharacteristic display of hyper-mobility, reaching back, around and down to retrieve your keys from where should be, and then, when they typically are not where they should be, repeat the process in numerous other locations across your person and luggage, all while straining under the weight multiple carrier bags heaving with groceries.
Finally (!), you plonk down three bulging bags on the kitchen floor. Sweet relief. You pick up one of the bags and throw it straight into bin. If that final step seems a little, well, irrational, you’d be correct. But of all the food we produce around the world one third is the amount that goes to waste, and over half of this is wasted in our homes.
Every household in Ireland throws out €700 in food waste every year. On top of that we then pay more money to private bin companies to take to it to landfills.
But food waste isn’t as bad as say the, very topical, plastic waste issue is it? Put it this way, if food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the US and China.
In the western world in particular, food is too cheap to buy, and too easy to waste. And it’s not just the food itself that goes to waste, there’s the energy, water, land, and other resources that went into getting that food onto the supermarket shelves in the first place.
It’s safe to say we can agree food waste is a big issue. When we’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and the vast effort that will be needed to solve it, the encouraging words of Anne-Marie Bonneau, a.k.a the Zero Waste Chef, come to mind: “we don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
Read on for some of the ways we can reduce, reuse and recycle food waste in our own homes, and work towards creating (imperfect) zero waste kitchens.
1. Plan Head
We all know that feeling of setting about to make a recipe and swiftly discovering you’re missing 12 of the ingredients required. This is despite having a freshly stocked fridge and pantry heaving with everything else besides what you need. Before you shop, think about what you’re going to cook for the next few days, how you’ll the leftovers, make a list and shop smart. In Ireland, Stop Food Waste is a great free resource to tap in to. You can download a free meal planner template here.
2. Don’t Overbuy
It seems logical to buy only what you need, but if you don’t know what you already have this can be a challenge. A recent study found that 90% of people in Ireland admit they are not good at keeping on top of what they have in their fridge. If you’re one of them, try taking a ‘shelfie,’ a photo of what you have in your fridge, freezer or cupboard before you leave to go shopping – for that moment when you go completely blank in the cheese aisle and buy an extra two blocks of cheddar just in case. Steer clear of tempting 2-for-1 offers, bulk deals and multipacks too, unless you’re sure you’ll use them up and there’s a good use-by date.
3. Check the use-by dates
Speaking of use-by dates, 68% of people in Ireland say that food passing its use-by date is the main reason they throw out food. When shopping, train yourself to take a look at the use-by date on fresh food before putting it in your basket, and only buy what you know you can use up before it expires. These are the dates to take notice of, rather than the best-before dates, and you can entirely disregard ‘Sell-by’ and ‘Display until’ – these are used by shops for stock control.
4. Store Food Correctly
Every food item can stay fresher for longer if you store it in its preferred environment, be that the fridge, freezer, or indeed the cupboard. For example, bread (the most wasted food in our homes) actually goes staler faster when stored in the fridge. Instead, keep it on the counter top or in a bread bin, or if you know you aren’t going to use some or all of it in time, slice it up and stash in the freezer.
It matters not only where you store your food but also how you store it. When storing food in the fridge, for example, not every shelf is created equal. The top shelf is the warmest part and best for ready to eat foods like yoghurt, cheese and sauces. The middle shelves are great for meats and leftovers (stored in sealed containers). Store milk here too, if there’s space – it’ll keep for longer than it would in the door rack where it’s warmed by warm air whenever the door is opened. The bottom shelf is the coldest area so perfect for raw meat, fish and poultry. Veg and most fruit should be stashed in the bottom drawer, where they’ll retain moisture best.
8. Stock up on tinned, dried and frozen foods
There’s a bit of a stigma around food with long use-by dates, but these can be an affordable way to make healthy meals and are a brilliant tool to have in your fight against food waste. Frozen veg for example are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts and won’t spoil easily. You won’t believe the dishes you can create using just tinned and dried foods either, chef Jack Munroe has a book entirely dedicated to these humble basics.
7. Make Your Food Last Longer
Even if you plan ahead, buy food with long use-by dates, and store it correctly, there’s always going to be that occasion when you find yourself with food that’s looking far from fresh. In these situations have a Plan B and repurpose by freezing, blending, preserving or cooking to minimise food waste.
5. First In, First Out
This simple rule means use up what you’ve bought before you buy more or use fresher ingredients. It’s particularly useful for fresh foods, like fruit and vegetables, that can tend to get forgotten about until its too late. It’s all too easy to shove older foods to the back of the fridge when you’re adding new groceries, so a simple hack is to label a ‘Use Me First’ bin in your fridge. Make an effort to put things that are looking less than fresh in this bin and make it your first port of call when making a meal.
6. Get Creative
Get more from your shopping and use every bit of the food you spend your money on. Half of the food we throw away can be eaten, keeping it out of the bin is good for our pockets and the planet combined. Simple, creative recipes will help use up your leftovers, saving you time and money. The UK’s national food waste platform ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ has a practical Leftover Food Recipe tool that allows you to search recipes according to the item you want to use up.
9. Share the love
Bought too many courgettes? Going away for a few days and have a stocked up fridge? Made too much of your famous Spag Bol? Ask a neighbour or a friend friend who lives nearby if they’d be happy to take the excess, or use it as an excuse to offer some food to an elderly or isolated neighbour or relative.
If you live in a house share then sharing can really come into it’s own. If you’re not keen on shopping and preparing meals together, set up a sharing shelf in the cupboard or fridge to let everyone know that food left there is fair game. You can also agree to share the basics like butter, oil and salt to avoid duplicates, save space and stop them going to waste.
10. Compost Here You Can
When all else fails: compost. Sometimes food waste is unavoidable, for example veg trimmings. Composting leftover food is a beneficial way to reuse food scraps, turning food waste into energy for plants. Don’t know where to start? This easy composting guide has all the answers.