While working in the restaurant industry in The Hague, I was often required to clean up after private banquets were over. The amount of uneaten and wasted food was staggering. I was required to dispose of it all, even freshly baked bread. Not because the food had spoiled or was only partially consumed, but because a regulation apparently stipulates that food left in open air for a certain amount of time must be discarded. Even though my supervisor assured me that the wasted food was supposedly destined to become pig feed, I didn’t feel any less anxiety and disgust as I dumped tray after tray of perfectly edible food into a green dumpster. 

My concern over all this waste was partially driven by my upbringing in Slovenia. In 2008, the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana only recycled 29% of its waste, trailing most other EU countries. Now, it’s at 68% with its waste dumps receiving 80% less garbage. Those figures place it near the very top of EU capitals in terms of recycling efficiency. Key to Ljubljana’s success was the development of one of the most modern plants in Europe for treating biological waste. If Slovenia maintains this current trajectory, it will achieve an impressive 75% recycling rate within the next five years. Why is this so noteworthy? If a small country like Slovenia can achieve these impressive accomplishments in such a short period, other countries and communities can too…but how?

Sadly, even such efforts as that of the food industry in which I worked to try to salvage discarded food by feeding it to livestock is more of an exception than a rule worldwide. Shockingly, throughout the supply chain, from the farmer to the final consumer, an estimated one third, or 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for human consumption on an annual basis, gets lost and wasted globally. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, almost half of them (45%) are wasted. 

The 820 million people living without guaranteed food security aren’t the only reason we should care about such colossal food waste. As the world population increases, it would obviously be much easier to meet their food requirements if we were to waste less. Further, lowering the amounts of wasted food would go a long way toward reducing greenhouse emissions. The rotting food in landfills produces large quantities of methane gas, which substantially contributes to climate change. It is estimated that 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food loss and waste, or 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. Apart from that, by growing, packaging and transporting food that is then never used, we waste not only the food itself, but also valuable water and energy. Just imagine, each and every orange used for your freshly squeezed juice required 50 litres of water to be grown. 

On a positive note, there have been some relatively large scale initiatives to remedy food waste. France, for example, since 2016, bans grocery stores from throwing away edible food, legally requiring them to donate food that is getting close to an expiration date. The European Commission has also sought to reduce waste by committing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, thus halving its per capita food waste by 2030. Historically, large amounts of food have been thrown out because of inadequate date labelling. The EU is therefore committed to reviewing its policy on ‘use by’ and ‘use before’ dates. In New York the state government has introduced the concept of large-scale organic food recycling disposals, and South Africa has been taking important steps in lowering the wasted food amounts.

Happily, efforts to tackle this issue haven’t only been undertaken by governments, but by communities and individuals as well. From online markets for cosmetically imperfect produce that would otherwise get thrown away to a mobile application launched in Amsterdam that saves meals in restaurants from trash bins; these technologies are making local initiatives more feasible and efficient. What conscientious consumer wouldn’t want to try a pint brewed out of Kellog’s wasted cereals that – as word has it – gets its chocolate taste from Coco Pops? The opportunities for such initiatives are everywhere, from rural parts of Kenya, where an app connects small local farmers to vendors, to, a bit closer, a weekly Dutch initiative tries to use up almost-discarded food through The Conscious Kitchen

Participating in these efforts isn’t the only way to contribute, and you don’t need to launch your own circular food economy business system in order to do so. Data shows that in wealthy countries about 40% of food is thrown out by the consumers alone! Dr Behrens of Leiden University stated that reducing waste has at least the same impact or more than changing diets, which is, quite frankly, rather hard to do. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization gives us some tips on how one may tackle it on an individual level. Cooking smaller portions that you can eat, or eating leftovers is a good way to start. While grocery shopping, buy those imperfectly shaped vegetables, but only as many as you’ll actually use. In case those go bad, why not try to compost them? And while looking at the dates that indicate until when they should be eaten, understand them correctly. “Use by” indicates the exact date you have for when you should eat the product, while “best before” still allows you to consume the item after it.  

While addressing global food waste may appear daunting, if we each do our part we can get there. I know from my own personal experience and that of my hometown that this is achievable and only requires determination and willingness to be innovative. Our lives, and those of future generations may depend on it.

Image in header by valeria aksakova on FreePik