A wheelie bin full of food waste after an Irish wedding — that’s just one of the many incidents recorded by Cork-based researcher Sarah Broderick.
For the past two and a half years, Sarah, who lives in Bishopstown, has been travelling the length and breadth of the country, visiting businesses, including hotels, restaurants, cafes and supermarkets to carry out a research project on food waste.
This involved lots of plate scraping in the wash-up areas and some rooting through bins to quantify the types of waste that businesses are throwing away. The full results will be revealed shortly.
Sarah is based at the Clean Technology Centre in CIT where she carries out her research, she is also the coordinator of the EPA Stop Food Waste programme, since 2016, managing the website and online content as well as co-ordinating the community engagement work carried out all over the country.
This week, Stop Food Waste Ireland are running a campaign focusing on food waste in the workplace, from today, June 12 to June 19. The theme is: Stop Food Waste Week — Working to Reduce Food Waste.
Sarah said: “In terms of the campaign, I am actually really passionate about the messages we are trying to convey. Although there is so much talk about plastic packaging these days — reducing food waste is actually a much more important solution in terms of climate change.
“There was actually this huge study done in the last few years that identified it as the third best thing we can do to prevent climate change.
“It’s a huge problem that has developed in only about two generations, but one that most of us are pretty oblivious to.”
A lot of the messaging regarding the workplace campaign is all about managing your food at home; ie, food waste doesn’t stop when you go out the door to work.
You need to tie practices at home to work, such as planning your meals, writing a shopping list and using up leftovers.
Sarah said: “Typically, we focus on home stuff, and householders, but people who work are householders as well, so we thought it another angle to get people to think about the way they manage their food.
“Our key aim is about food waste prevention, so we are trying to encourage people to take action before food is wasted and try and prevent it. We are also trying to get people to segregate their food waste.
“We did some numbers and in workplaces, say offices, there is 20,000 tonnes of food waste.”
Sarah said the brown bin is not rolled out yet to every home, which allows food waste to be segregated. It also isn’t mandatory at workplaces — where instead everything goes into the bin.
“Across the board we are worse at recycling at work, guess because we are not paying for it, we are thinking about work.”
As a result, Sarah said 36% of general waste in offices is food waste.
“What we really want people to do is eat the food. But if not then put it in the right bin, that’s the next best thing.”
This week, there will be an online campaign by Stop Food Waste Ireland to raise awareness and they will also be at Cork Summer Show.
You can sign up to the campaign online, at stopfoodwaste.ie and there are downloadable resources.
Sarah always knew she wanted to work in the environmental area. “From when I was in school, it was always something I cared about.”
She grew up in Ennis, but moved to Cork to undertake environmental science in UCC.
“I worked for a year in Clonakilty in BIM, in a graduate placement, working on the green seafood team. I was working on food waste in seafood processing.
After nine months, I came here to Clean Technology Centre in CIT. Here my core role was research. The recent research project looked at food waste in businesses. We did 50 businesses in two and a half years. We are just about to publish the results.”
Sarah visited mostly food service, restaurants and hotels and also went into supermarkets and shops.
“We looked at the food service and any food wasted over one full business day (ie 7am to 11pm). We were in the back of the kitchen recording what food was wasted for the day. We put that against what was served, so we have an average that a restaurant, cafe, hotel is wasting a day.
“It’s a really big problem. One third of food produced for consumption in the world is wasted — so it is a real problem, it is a lot.”
But it is a difficult one to fix, says Sarah.
“Say with a business, it is not like energy efficiency where you can go into a business and say you can change your light bulbs and that will save you x a year in electricity. So you get that job done.
“Food is way more complicated, there is so much emotion and culture in it — they say ‘we can’t serve smaller portions, our customers expect big portions, so it doesn’t matter if we throw out a plate of chips every time.’
“So basically our approach is we record, we measure, we spoke to all the staff to find out what they do for best practice and we will publish a best practice guidelines as well.”
Sarah said for some businesses they don’t mind waste, as they bulk buy and their attitude is they don’t have the resources to do smaller batches, or have someone figure out exactly what they need.
Sarah says food waste is “seen as an inevitable part of doing business.”
She added in one way it was very rewarding to work in this field as it is highly relevant today.
But in another way she said it is difficult to talk to people, for the most part who don’t care.
“It is not their priority — they are the people we need to talk to.
“I care so much about the stuff, it can be wearing — if you’re going into restaurants and they don’t care there are two wheelie bins of waste going out a week.
“I did a wedding, they filled a whole wheelie bin in one wedding.
“The retailers — going into a supermarket is tough too.
“It is going to come down to consumer expectation as well — it is like how plastic has gone. We all expect to walk into a supermarket at 10 o’clock at night and expect there to be all the different kinds of vegetables we want.
“We all expect we will get a big feed when we go out to eat. When you sit down to eat, you might know you are not going to eat it all, but you want to try everything.
“Businesses are too afraid because they are worried about customers’ reaction. Change has to come from the customers.”
We have seen such change towards plastics recently.
Sarah said: “Plastic is pretty simple, it is very visual, very tangible, it has way less an impact on the environment, as a driver for climate change, than food waste.”
She added that in a way ‘plastic is ruling now’ and nobody can think of anything else.
“Everyone jumps to ‘plastic is bad’. I agree, I do try to avoid plastic.
“But we are living with this global food system where you can get strawberries 365 days of the year — you can get cucumbers from Netherlands whenever you want them — so plastic is a necessary part of how we get food.
“Unless we all start buying food from the farmers’ market, plastic is necessary. It is necessary to reduce food waste.
“There are much higher carbon emissions. If you think of all the work — the land, fertiliser, water, everything that went into creating that food, it is huge, it is way more than the packing that went on it.”
Bishopstown-based Sarah tries to live green herself too.
“I try to do it in a measured way. I call myself a flexitarian — I do not eat meat, but if I feel like having a burger I will (it is so much more accessible).
“So many of the solutions we are being given for climate change are so individualised. ‘You need to change’, ‘you need to give that up’.
“People end up putting so much pressure on themselves. Eco-anxiety is a thing, I can see why. Everything we are being told... ‘it is your fault you need to buy a bamboo toothbrush’. We try to do what you can approach. I don’t beat myself up about things.
“I have my keep-cup I have cloth bags I shop at farmers’ markets. This change needs to happen at a government level There are loads of stats behind it — no matter how much time and energy you put into your small decisions, the way our energy is generated, the way our transport system is set up — has such a bigger impact. You can get very bogged down in your own stuff.
“I got into zero waste at the start but I found myself paralysed in the supermarket: ‘Do I buy local food, do I buy out of date, do I buy stuff without plastic packaging.’
“We don’t know either — unless we do scientific life-cycle assessments — you need to check it on a case by case basis. There are scientific projects on whether you wrap lettuce in plastic or not!
“I do try, but I try and keep it measured and not get too bogged down.”
She is passionate about the outdoors and loves to swim, and started growing vegetables a year ago.
“It is not a negative. It is a nice exciting way to spend my time and great for my environmental impact.”
Sarah is also a member of Cork Masters Swimming Club and does yoga and enjoys hiking.