How you can tackle food waste in 2023

In part one of a four-part series, KATE RYAN tells us about how bad our food waste problem is, and what we can do at home
How you can tackle food waste in 2023

Between 2018 and 2021, global food waste rose from 33% to 40% of all food produced, or 2.5bn tonnes of food every year. Picture: Stock

IF there is one New Year’s resolution anyone can get behind, food waste can and should be it.

Most of us know food waste is a bad thing, but does knowing really impact upon reducing how much food waste is produced? It seems not.

Towards the end of 2021, WWF released a groundbreaking report Driven to Waste. Its starting point were estimates of global food waste from 2018 which suggested the headline figure of planetary food waste of 33% could be much higher because it didn’t include an accurate estimate of something called on-farm food waste - waste in the food chain between the ground and the farm gate. Before food gets into the retail, food service or consumer spaces.

The 2021 report revisited all food waste estimates to quantify the volume of that on-farm waste. The result was an unsettling upwardly adjusted figure.

Between 2018 and 2021, despite the issue of food waste gaining notoriety as one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), global food waste rose from 33% to 40% of all food produced, or 2.5bn tonnes of food every year.

1.2 bn tonnes happens on-farm, the remaining 931m tonnes in retail (e.g., supermarkets), food service (e.g., restaurants), and at home.

 Columnist Kate Ryan at her home in Ballygurteen, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Columnist Kate Ryan at her home in Ballygurteen, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

In 2018, the volume of estimated global food waste was responsible for 8% of all GHGs, now that estimate stands at 10%. These are estimates: the true scale of the problem is likely much higher, and at a time of dwindling planetary resources, an increase in global hunger, and the clock of irreversible climate change ticking down ever faster.

If food waste could be halved, mass hunger could be eradicated. Agricultural policies tell us the way to solve that problem is to grow more food. But enough food is already produced to feed every person on the planet more than sufficiently, but food waste prevents it.

It’s not all on-farm activity exacerbating the problem, and arguably change and adaption of farming practices are a much easier thing to implement than human behaviour around choice, consumption and the decision to waste or not waste.

In 2022, Aldi (Ireland) released their report of food waste from a survey of their own customers, helping Aldi to identify the top five items of food waste:

• Bread (62%), fresh veg (55%), fresh fruit (52%), dairy (31%), meat (27%).

The average grocery spend by Aldi customers is €109 per week, but almost half (47%) say they throw out food every week. Every item of food thrown in bin is a Euro wasted.

It’s not that people aren’t aware that food is going in the bin. 65% of those surveyed said they felt uncomfortable with the amount of food their household throws out, but still 18% said that their food waste is fuelled by purchasing too much food.

This is a common problem driven by multi-buy pricing and special offers. Customers are tempted by red stickers advertising what appear to be great value for money purchases, but there’s no value to food that is simply bought, forgotten about, then thrown in the bin.

Trying to get the head around the food system and how to get it all to work better is challenging. I’ve sat in rooms with academics, researchers and policy makers who have spent their entire lives looking at it and still struggle. If they do, how can anyone on their own make a difference?

A little thing called collective action.

To make change happen, first understand what the problem is and then figure out what part you play in that system. Michael Kelly, founder of GIY, says growing his own food gifted him with understanding his relationship to food and his place in the global food system – or, food empathy, and a catalyst for individual behaviour change. (See our big interview with Michael in The Echo tomorrow).

Such changes might include choosing to purchase only food grown locally, eating food in season, opting for food produced organically or chemical-free, eating less meat, eating more plants, growing some of your own food, shopping better, meal planning, and actively looking to reduce food waste.

These individual actions multiplied up have a collective impact with massive potential – that’s how to steer the Titanic away from catastrophe.

There are easy actions we can all do daily when it comes to our interactions and choices around food. Over the next four weeks, I’ll put a spotlight on ways we can tackle the problem of food waste.

First, let’s start with the space easiest to control - food at home.

Making a list before you go shopping sounds basic, but it is key in stopping food waste.	Picture: Stock
Making a list before you go shopping sounds basic, but it is key in stopping food waste. Picture: Stock

PLANNING

The single best way to eradicate food waste in the home is to have good systems and can be as simple as checking what you have already before going shopping.

Audit

Go through the fridge, freezer, larder, fruit bowl and presses to know what you already have. It prevents overbuying and reduces food waste by focusing on using what you have in hand first.

This is especially important with fresh food, but if you have had your fill of a certain veg this week yet there is still some left over, consider ways to preserve it for future use. Prepare it for the freezer, pickling and fermenting are great ways to preserve fresh foods while adding layers of flavour and interest. Cook up a batch dish, portion and freeze – future you will thank you for having a ready stash of prepared dinners for busy days!

Don’t just limit your check to what’s fresh or in the freezer. Dried spices and herbs, condiments, flavourings, oils, vinegars and salts, even the contents of your drinks press are all foods that should be in regular use, so check them too.

Meal Plan

Now you know what you have in hand, time to plan your week of meals. It doesn’t have to be a different dinner every night of the week, although that level of variety is great to keep food interesting, it costs more and can lead to more food waste. Mix things up with dishes that will do for two dinners, or a dinner and a lunch the next day, dishes to make use of leftovers or endy-bits as well as one-off dinners.

Build contingencies into your meal plan. Life rarely goes to plan, and a last-minute decision to go for post-work dinner could throw out your perfect plan! Be mindful of that and have solutions to work around – freezing leftovers or change up what you cook for the rest of the week if something’s likely to go past its best.

Magneplan is a great meal planning device with simple, balance meals that makes the whole process visible. Simply stick it on your fridge and use the magnetic recipe tabs to build your week. It’s great for getting the kids involved too, and especially useful if you have a picky eater – getting them involved in what to cook and eat during the week can help reduce food waste, too.

Shopping List

The shopping list is King! You know what you have, and you’ve compiled your week’s menu. Sticking to a list will ensure you buy only what you need, saving money and reducing food waste. If this is too restrictive, set aside a defined budget for a spontaneous grocery purchase (bottle of wine, nice loaf of sourdough, some fancy cheese, etc) making a promise to use it all before the next grocery shop.

SELL BY AND USE BY DATES

Sell By dates are guidance for the retailer. It’s why food with stickered discounts on them looking a little past their best, maybe, but still good to eat.

Use By dates are guidance for consumers when the manufacturer or grower recommends consuming by. After this date, they cannot guarantee the food will still be OK, but that’s where our senses come into play.

Take a good look and employ the sniff test. Even if something doesn’t look great but smells OK it should be fine to eat even its just past its used by date. If it looks OK but smells off, don’t eat it – especially if its raw meat, fish, or unpasteurised dairy.

It’s such a simple thing to do and can reduce unnecessary food waste.

FREEZE IT

The freezer will extend the life of any fresh food item by up to three months. That thing you bought on Monday for Friday’s dinner - pop it in the freezer to preserve its freshness until ready to use it. Remember, life does tend to get in the way, so how reliable is that Friday meal plan, really?

Most food can be frozen, including milk, butter and cheese.

If you make your own stock from left over fresh veg and peelings, pour into ice cubes trays to freeze, then place in a bag or container and label it for your own home made zero waste veg (or chicken) stock to hand instead of expensive premade ones.

Leftover wine and lemon juice can be frozen in ice cube trays for use in stews, soups, risottos, etc.

Fresh fruit looking a little mushy? Place on a tray and freeze so they don’t stick together then bag ready for use in smoothies and puddings.

Portion, blanch and vegetables. A few minutes in salted boiling water, a steamer, or pot of something bubbling and they’re good to go. Prepare packs of veggies for soups, stews, veggie bakes, ratatouille, etc. You can pull a bag from the freezer and have soup ready to go in half an hour.

Chop onions, chillies and fresh herbs, grate ginger, garlic and cheese and store in bags or tubs in the freezer.

RESOURCES

There are great resources to help manage your food waste better in the home. Magneplan Meal Planner www.magneplan.com www.stopfoodwaste.ie has loads of great tips on meal planning, storing, reducing food waste, seasonal eating, guides and recipe books free to download.

Crunch Time: How to Cook Creatively and Make a Difference to the Planet – a new zero waste recipe book filled with tips and inspiration for reducing food waste, and loads of delicious, quick and easy ideas for recipes with useful ideas for ingredient swaps to make the most of what you have

See next Tuesday for part two of Kate’s series on food waste

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