What a waste of food

G Magazine

Aussies routinely throw out vast quantities of food without a second thought. Here’s why food waste matters and how you can make a change for the better.


Credit: iStockphoto

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If you’ve guiltily tossed out food that sat untouched in your fridge until it became inedible, you are not alone. Australians throw out about $5.2 billion worth of food every year, with the average household wasting around $600 worth of food each year, according to a report released by The Australia Institute (TAI) in November 2009, based on a national survey of over 1,600 households.

A report released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in May this year estimated that roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption worldwide – about 1.3 billion tonnes – is lost or wasted somewhere along the food supply chain.

Embroiled in this huge food loss is the wastage of the vast energy and water resources that go into food production, not to mention the generation of significant greenhouse gas emissions. Not-for-profit organisation OzHarvest, a self-described food rescue service, points out that it takes 500 litres of water to produce a kilo of potatoes; more than 2,000 litres for a kilogram of white rice; and 50,000 litres for each kilogram of beef.
And while the world produced well in excess of the minimum nutrition needed to sustain the entire human population, the FAO estimated that 925 million people remained undernourished in 2010.

Where the waste occurs

In developing nations, food waste is more likely to occur in the early and middle stages of the food supply chain because of inefficient harvesting techniques and limited storage, cooling and transport facilities, although relatively little food is wasted at the consumer level.

In higher-income countries, some food is wasted due to over-rigorous food quality standards which reject otherwise good food because of imperfections in shape or appearance, but the FAO report attributes most waste to poor planning and “the careless attitude of those consumers who can afford to waste food”.

TAI researcher Richard Denniss is quick to agree with the FAO assessment. “We continue to waste an enormous amount of food and, even though people feel guilty about it, the amount they waste doesn’t correlate to their stated desire to protect the environment,” he says.

The TAI report found that those who waste the most food tend to be those with higher incomes, and those who live by themselves. Demographic projections predict the number of one-person households in Australia will increase by between 70 and 90 per cent in the next 25 years. Food wastage is likely to balloon as a result, unless we change our habits.

Why we waste food

Long-standing, ingrained patterns of behaviour – in particular, the amount of thought we put into food planning and preparation – are the main determinants of food waste, says Denniss. His research showed that neither the levels of guilt people reported feeling when throwing out food, nor the levels of concern they report about the environment, have any impact on the amount of food that a household might waste.

Survey respondents had one of two approaches to reducing food waste; the first was to purchase only food that would be eaten, the second to plan meals around food they already have. But their behaviour contradicted their approaches. While householders who think that buying only food that will be eaten is the best way to reduce food waste are more likely to use a shopping list, “many of these respondents also agreed that they often buy things on the spur of the moment,” the report found.

Meanwhile, while householders who believed in planning meals around food they already had reported they were likely to try to incorporate leftovers into a meal, “many of these respondents said that they often plan meals based on what they want to eat rather than around the food that they already have.” The TAI report showed that households whose behaviour was most likely to result in less food waste had reported financial concerns as their strongest motivator.

“Things like planning your meals, taking a list when you shop for food and bringing your own bag to the shops makes an impact on the amount of food you waste,” Denniss says.

He also blames easily available plastic bags supplied by retailers for free, for encouraging many of our wasteful impulse purchases. “Why else would shopping centre retailers be so determined to give plastic bags away for free when they sell them in aisle five?” The act of taking a bag to the shops means that you need to have a clear picture in your head of what you are going to purchase – and how much, Denniss says. “The easiest way to avoid wasteful consumption is to become a conscious consumer.”

Large-scale waste

While the amount of food wasted by householders is astounding, there are also vast quantities of top-notch food thrown away daily in the commercial world. But savvy food distributors and manufacturers are taking their leftovers to the streets – literally – with many charities who house and feed Australia’s homeless benefiting.

A significant quantity of potential commercial food waste is salvaged and redistributed to welfare agencies through initiatives such as OzHarvest. Founded in 2004 by Ronni Kahn, an events manager concerned about the scale of food waste in her industry, OzHarvest collects perishable meals and produce that would otherwise be discarded, delivering an estimated 180,000 meals per month via a fleet of 11 refrigerated vans across four Australian states.

Kahn talks a mile a minute and it’s soon evident why so many food outlets have succumbed to her persistence and charm. She says OzHarvest is the only organisation that collects from delis, takeaway shops, boardrooms, five-star hotels, supermarkets, produce markets, manufacturers and farmers. Woolworths and Aldi are big donors, and Kahn is keen to make Coles her next conquest. “On a daily basis, Coles throws away thousands of kilos of food, so we’re really keen to get them on board,” she says.

“Our model is so simple. We don’t warehouse, we collect food and deliver it direct to the end users. We might have 3,000 sandwiches from the Sydney Convention Centre or some fresh salmon from the Masterchef kitchens – or a few lasagnas from a small restaurant. The agencies don’t know what they are getting, they just take what they need.”

Honing in on home supplies

Sally Wise is a bestselling cookbook author from Tasmania whose latest cookbook, Leftover Makeovers, was inspired by her Depression-era grandmother, who hated to waste food. Wise, who has six children, combined her grandmother’s canny tricks with her own cooking expertise to come up with a book stuffed full of ideas for reusing the most common leftovers.

Stale bread becomes breadcrumbs, pudding or bruschettas, meat remainders are combined with vegetables or cheese to form a whole new dish and vegetables end up in soups, stews or mornays.

“Unlike our grandparents’ days, there is so much food available and it is presented so nicely that it’s quite hard, when you go to the supermarket, not to buy more than you need,” Wise says. She suggests a shopping list should start with a clear assessment of the food already in your house: “Let your meals for the week be driven by what you’ve already got.”

From planning your purchase, to shopping with a clear list, resisting impulse buys and bringing your own
bag, Wise agrees that planning is the key to adopting conscious consumerism – and reducing food waste in the home.

Top tips to reduce food waste:

❖ Plan your meals in advance before shopping, based on what you’ve already got.
❖ Always take a list when you shop – and stick to it.
❖ Bring your own shopping bags to reduce impulse buys.
❖ Store food safely in reusable airtight containers where possible.