Waste Not, Want Not

A $5.2 billion food problem

Waste Not, Want Not

How’s your fridge today? To find out, take the Crisper Challenge, which is so easy anyone can do it.

Step one: open your fridge.

Step two: pull out everything fresh.

Step three: any older items worth salvaging, think about how you’re going to use them … make soup or juice perhaps?

Step four: any recently purchased items, decide exactly when you’re going to use them … today, tomorrow?

Step five: any food clearly past its prime, compost it at home for your own garden or as part of a council or neighbourhood program. Conducted regularly, the Crisper Challenge will save you money and increase your cooking resourcefulness. It will also cut down on an unappetising problem in Australia: $5.2 billion worth of annual household food waste.

Considering rising food prices, it’s startling that an estimated 4.45 million tonnes of household food in Australia ends up in landfill, with each household throwing out approximately 936 kilograms a year.

Food waste in perspective

According to UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, $5.2 billion in wasted food is equivalent to the value of installing solar hot water systems on 960,000 Australian homes. The Australia Institute, in their 2009 report What a Waste, said the value of the nation’s waste is “more than it costs to run the Australian Army”.

In Canada where food waste is a $27 billion problem, Martin Gooch, co-author of Food Waste in Canada, says that sum represents only “terminal” waste, or that which mostly goes to landfills and into composting. If Canada, and indeed Australia, considers waste throughout the entire food-chain process, the food waste figures would actually be considerably higher. In Australia an additional 3.12 million tonnes of food waste comes from industrial and commercial sources.

Home is where the waste is

Although a large chunk of Australia’s food waste is tossed at home, most of that waste is avoidable. “Look at what’s in your fridge”, is Gooch’s advice. “Look at how you store things. Look at why you buy certain products. Do you buy them on a whim or with a planned approach?”

Retailers often market food cheaply; the next time you’re tempted by a sale, ask yourself whether you’ll genuinely use all your purchases. “Many consumers are driven by low prices rather than how they will use that food”, he points out. 

A flawed system

“I haven’t seen a processor where there isn’t an opportunity to reduce waste”, says Gooch. Factors to consider include, but aren’t restricted to: overproduction, defects in equipment, unnecessary inventory, inappropriate processing and excessive transportation.

“We need to rewrite the book on current agri-food policy”, he adds. “We don’t even allow many businesses to adapt to market changes. We miss so many opportunities and then we complain that we’re not as effective as we should be. One outfall of that is that we have a system that creates unnecessary waste.”

Think global, act local

Jon Dee, founder of Australian social and environmental organisation Do Something!, says the impact of food waste is far more than just financial. “The vast majority of Australians are unaware that when discarded food rots in landfill, it gives off methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than the carbon pollution that comes out of your car exhaust”, he says.

One organisation that is giving back to the community and the environment is Victoria-based charity FareShare. Dedicated to “rescuing food and fighting hunger”, FareShare accepts donations of unwanted food from businesses and transforms the “waste” into healthy meals for the homeless.

In 2009 they recovered and distributed some 400 tonnes of food which they estimate prevented 620 tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere. In addition, the company has calculated that for every kilogram of food they recover, 56 litres of water is saved.

The food chain is just that—a chain. From farmer to finished product, the multiple processes that feed into it deserve a critical review. Let’s start with our fridges, and go from there. 

What we waste in Australia

  • fresh food: $2.9 billion
  • frozen food: $241 million
  • unfinished drinks: $596 million
  • leftovers: $876 million
  • uneaten take-away food: $630 million
  • total: $5.2 billion

Ways to reduce food waste

Rotate the food in your fridge

Put old food in front where you’ll see it and will be more likely to use it. Likewise, rotate the nonperishable food in your cupboard, arranging everything by expiry date.

Investigate how to best store your food

Invest in good airtight containers, ensure edges of any packaging are sealed properly and always double-check labels to see if an item should be refrigerated after opening.

Shop with a list

This will reduce the likelihood of purchasing something twice. Double-check your kitchen to see if you already have an item in stock. Sticking to a list also reduces impulse buying.

Embrace the imperfect

Supermarkets reject between 20 and 40 per cent of all fruit and vegetables because of cosmetic or superficial imperfections. (In Australia 54 per cent of mangoes are discarded every year, while in Queensland, approximately 100,000 tonnes of bananas are rejected). Once in the supermarket, groceries are then subjected to another rigorous round of aesthetic appraisals by customers.

But it’s important to realise that not all fruit and vegetables look like they’ve just rolled off an assembly line. Oranges are a perfect example, as even those with scarring are usually sweet and juicy inside. It’s up to us to find “unattractive” food a home.

Make leftovers

What’s your food plan for the next few days? If you think you won’t be able to finish leftovers, freeze them. Be careful not to go overboard; plan in advance just how much you’ll need.

Compost your perishables

The less food you throw away, the less ends up in landfills contributing to greenhouse gases from the methane produced when broken down anaerobically (without oxygen). When food is composted, however, it decomposes aerobically (with oxygen), generating few emissions and an excellent usable product for your garden.

A far better option than commercial fertilisers, compost is also safer for animals, children and the environment. In keeping with organic farming principles, you’re adding to the soil, not taking away from it.

Find a helpful guide to composting at Clean Up Australia’s website, cleanup.org.au/au/LivingGreener/composting.

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