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Food waste is something we’ve all encountered – that slice of bread at the bottom of the loaf that went mouldy or the piece of fruit that was pushed to the back of the fridge.  Most of us can admit to having forgotten something, bought more than we needed and ended up throwing away something that we should have eaten.  But the scale of the problem is one that is growing here in the UK and in many other countries – so what can we do about it?

What is food waste?

There are two main categories of food waste – stuff that was edible and stuff that wasn’t.  the latter consists of things like meat bones, eggshells, apple cores and vegetable peelings, the stuff that no matter what we do, we can’t really eat.  The former is the stuff we forgot or don’t get around to eating in time that was edible but is no longer and this is the real area we can improve.

food waste - candied peel

Citrus peel is something we throw away but there are things that can be done with it (C) image Anna Pitt

According to the latest food waste statistics from 2015, the UK binned 7.3 million tonnes of food, of which 4.4 million tonnes was that avoidable waste that was once okay but we left too long.  This means that we waste some £13 billion worth a food a year and that number had increased from 7 million tonnes in 2012.

This means each home is guilty of wasting some £470 worth of food that could have been eaten if we had been more organised.

Why we waste food

The reasons for wasting so much food is a lot more complicated than merely being forgetful, although this does play a part. 

Quality standards

One reason is the desire to have perfect looking food on the supermarket shelves.  In her book on the topic, Leftover Pie, Anna Pitt talks about looking for ‘carrot trousers’ or potatoes that had faces in them.  Fruit with bad bits was sampled and if the bad bit didn’t taste great, it was spat into the bit and you carried on munching the rest of the apple. 

But since the introduction of quality and safety standards, we have ended up disposing of the apple with the slight bruise or the weird looking carrot, not because they are inedible but because they don’t look the part.

Best before dates

Another cause of waste was the introduction in the 1970s of the ‘sell by’ date.  This developed into the ‘display by’ then ‘best before’ date that plagues many of our food.  We are now trained that if a food is past it’s sell by date, we need to bin it. 

But this isn’t always the case – I always wondered that at the stroke of midnight, does the food suddenly become mouldy like Cinderella’s coach became a pumpkin?  Obviously not, so why do we need to throw out perfectly good food due to an arbitrary date?  In fact, using our sense of smell to judge a food can often be a much better way to decide if it is still edible.

Supermarket deals

I’ll admit to having fallen into this trap a few times – those buy 2 get 1 free deals or similar.  You end up wanting one of an item but ending up with two or three.  Now, this is okay if the item goes in the freezer or is a dry good but when it is perishable – anything from meat and fruit to ready meals – then there is always the risk that one or two of them item go to waste.

Now I like a good deal and I’m not immune to the lure of a bargain.  But I do try to be practical about it.  Can I freeze the meal or the meat so I don’t waste any?  Do I have the space on the menu planner to fit in enough meals to get through all of it?  I have turned down deals on things I’m buying simply because I don’t think I can use it all.

Why food waste is such a concern

Wasting food may not seem like a big worry – after all, food rots and doesn’t cause as many problems as say plastic does at landfill sites.  But this doesn’t cover the whole picture. 

Food does take time to rot and as it does, it puts out greenhouse gases – that food waste mentioned above generates some 19 million tonnes of greenhouses gases during its lifetime.  In perspective, this is equivalent to taking one in four cars off the road in the UK.  Worldwide, the methane produced by decaying food waste makes up 7% of the greenhouse gas emissions whereas if it had been properly composted, it would instead become carbon dioxide which is less dangerous.

Then there’s the fact that we are wasting this food when others around the world starve.  This is a concept that might be a bit difficult to imagine when you throw a brown banana in the bin but it is a fact and one that can help motivate us to do better.

How to reduce food waste

In her book, Anne also goes on to give a range of useful suggestions to reduce food waste and a colossal collection of 101 recipes to use up food and avoid throwing things in the bin.  Some of the tips include ways to make fruit and veg last longer including:

  • Use half an avocado and leave the stone in the remaining half then squeeze lemon juice over it, cover it with cling film and put it in the fridge
  • Put spring onions roots down in water like a bouquet of flowers to make them last longer
  • Take fresh herbs and wrap them in dampened kitchen roll then put in a tight plastic bag or cling film and put them in the fridge

We have a great way to reduce waste in the veg and fruit department in our home but it isn’t one that works for everyone – we have an aviary full of birds who will eat any leftovers in that department.  The same goes for some meat with our cats – that piece of ham left in the package that looks a little past its best will be happily devoured by the cats rather than put into the bin.

Compost bins are another popular way to deal with food rubbish in a practical way and are ideal if you are a gardener.  But even if you aren’t, you can compost your food and ask anyone locally who wants the compost for their garden – I’m sure you will find some willing takers.

Soups can be a great use-up dish (C) image Anna Pitt

Understanding food temperatures

I’m married to a chef so I have a reasonable idea about temperatures to store food as well as what temperature food should be when cooked.  But many of us aren’t sure and this can lead to errors that reduce the lifespan of food.

Bacteria starts to grow on food when it is between 5 and 63 degrees C.  This means your fridge needs to be under 5 degrees to ensure that no bacteria can grow.  Hot food should be eaten within two hours or should be refrigerated.  Cold food can stay out for four hours but in both cases, the least time possible is always best.

Food waste solutions

There are lots of great ideas to help deal with food waste and reduce the amount of food that we throw away.  Everything from growing your own to trying use-up recipes and even things like soups and smoothies to make the most of everything in the fridge can all help and if all of us do a bit, we can make a big hole in that food waste pile.

If you want to read more on Anna Pitt’s Leftover Pie, you can download it from Amazon.

Do you have any tips to avoid food waste?  Any recipes that use stuff that might otherwise go in the bin?  Or do you have any tips to extend the lifespan of a particular type of food?  Pop it in the comments below!