October Challenge: Food Waste

Current Location: London, UK

I’m moving from the bathroom to the kitchen. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve been coming up with the ideas for these challenges by looking at where I am creating the most waste and then thinking about if it is necessary or could be reduced. I started by looking in the bathroom and cutting out plastic — shampoo bottles, razors, tampons, etc. The next obvious step was to improve sustainability in the kitchen. In thinking about how to work on sustainable food consumption, I divided the task into three components:

  1. Content: what I eat
  2. Packaging: what containers my food comes in
  3. Waste: how much gets wasted, and where the waste goes

For October, I decided to start with the easiest of the three: how much gets wasted, and where the waste goes. 

Food loss and waste is a huge problem in both developed and developing nations. In developed nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, the majority of food waste occurs at the consumer level. Food waste is a much bigger problem in the US than in Europe overall, which I think is partly cultural. In the US we have low levels of food insecurity, crops are heavily subsidized by the government so we don’t internalize the true value of food, and we have a general culture of mass production, consumption, and wastefulness. These issues are compounded by American litigiousness which causes producers of food to use extremely conservative ‘Best By’ dates and also reduces the incentives for businesses to transfer perfectly good excess food to pantries, food banks, and those in need. We also have a terribly inconsistent system of labelling food expiration that can be very confusing over when food is safe to eat. I could go on about this, but instead I’ll recommend two resources.

If you like pretty graphics, check out World Resources Institute’s working paper “Reducing Food Loss and Waste.”

If you like watching videos, check out John Oliver’s segment on food waste.

Avoidable Waste

There are a few ways of defining avoidable waste, but for me personally, avoidable waste is food that I have purchased that is ultimately not consumed because of poor planning. This has been a relatively easy task to undertake since my apartment only has a minifridge and I’m not cooking in big batches. However, one big change that I’ve had to make is being more careful about expiration dates.

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Turning poor planning into deliciousness: banana bread edition

As I mentioned, in the US, food producers have extremely conservative expiration dates which I would speculate has to do with fear of being sued over potential health consequences. Most of the time, food purchased in US grocery stores lasts far beyond the labelled ‘best by’ or ‘sell by’ dates. I discovered very quickly that this is not the case in the UK. Expiration dates here are labelled with much more accuracy, resulting in food going visibly and olfactorily bad within a day or so of labelled expiry. Since this revelation, I’ve been much more careful to check expiry dates when buying produce and plan ahead when to use it. I’m not above eating a meal with a strange combination of vegetables because they are all on the precipice of expiry, but it is definitely preferable to think things through in Sainsbury.

Unavoidable Waste

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Girl with Frozen Compost (2017) by Abigail Smith

As important as it is to reduce avoidable waste, there is inevitably going to be some food waste produced that is unavoidable. Stems, seeds, skins, and other organic but inedible food parts are necessarily going to create waste. But this waste does not have to end up in a landfill. I wrote a post back in August exploring the option of Bokashi composting. As intriguing as I find the concept, it became imminently clear as soon as I moved into my student housing in London that would not be a viable option.

I decided instead to start collecting my own organic waste and bringing it to a separate organic waste disposal facility. I keep a small bin in my kitchen (with a well fitting lid for smell purposes) and fill it with banana peels, egg shells, and any other organic waste I create while cooking. I line the bin with compostable food waste bags made by a UK company called “If You Care”.

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How cute is my little compost bin?
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“If You Care” compost bags – the company’s name is a little sassy and I love it. I also use their aluminum foil and regular trash bags because their products are relatively inexpensive, made from mostly recycled materials, and come in recyclable packaging. 
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Labelled so that people who visit my apartment know that I’m crunchy

While my building does collect general trash and mixed recycling, we unfortunately do not have a compost bin nor organic waste collection. Luckily, LSE is amazing about waste and recycling. They have disaggregated waste bins all over campus, including a separate bin for organic waste. The challenge then became how to transport the waste to LSE without being disgusting on the tube. The answer came from my friend Abby — freeze it! That way it’s just weird to be carrying around compost, instead of both stinky and weird. But I’m pretty weird anyway so it works for me.

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LSE waste bins | Image courtesy of LSE Waste and Recycling

I’m posting this on 1 November, so already a month into this challenge. I’ve found that this has actually gotten easier over time because I’m producing less and less food waste. Since I have to physically transport my organic waste, I have become very conscious about how much waste I’m creating and I’ve been producing less waste by thinking more carefully about both avoidable and unavoidable waste. I would highly recommend trying something like this if you’re interested in reducing food waste (and saving money from wasted food) because being confronted with your waste will automatically make you more mindful and it is super easy to reduce with a little thought and effort!

♲CV♲

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