What is food waste?

what is food waste

“I eat more than I used to, so I eat the skin on ginger, I don’t peel squash anymore. So that, like, whatever it is, the swede, that will not get skinned. Or like, erm, strawberries, that little furry bit at the top just goes down a treat.”

Interviewee, July 2019

What counts as food waste? This question is a lot more difficult to answer than you might think. To some, vegetable skins and the tops of strawberries would be discarded without a second thought, but to this interviewee they very much counted as food.

Before we think about tackling food waste, it is important to define what food waste actually is. Not only will help us calculate how much food is wasted each year, which has climate, economic and political consequences, but also shed light on why we throw some food away and not others. Moreover, it will point to our value systems and uncover the solutions to tackling food waste on all levels.

Who decides what is food, and what is waste?

Defining food waste is important, because studies need clear definitions to calculate how much food is wasted every year, and where we need solutions most urgently. But this process is not easy and can be contested. My interviewee eats the skins of squash, but my mum doesn’t. Who is right?

WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Plan) is responsible for tackling waste in the UK. Before 2018, WRAP measured discarded food in three categories: avoidable, possibly avoidable, and unavoidable. This changed to edible and inedible.

To determine what types of food fit into these new categories, WRAP conducted an online survey with a sample size of 1,092, asking respondents to classify sixteen items as ‘food’ or ‘inedible parts’, and whether this was ‘always’ or ‘occasionally’ etc. WRAP took an average of the respondents’ classifications to define food as edible or inedible for their calculations.

WRAP’s respondents classified 16 items as either edible or inedible in an online poll

What are the consequences of these definitions?

As a result of WRAP’s definition change, the UK accounted for an extra 3Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent and £2bn of costs derived from wasted food. This does not mean that 3Mt of more CO2e was released from food waste, but that this amount already existed and was now accounted within the new definition of food waste.


Whenever I think of this subject, I always remember an episode of the political drama The West Wing. Sam tells Toby that they have 4 million new people living below the poverty line. This is not because 4 million people suddenly became poorer, but because the formula for defining poverty changed, and 4 million new people fit into the new definition.

Toby asks: “Four million more people became poor under the President’s watch?” to which Sam retorts, “They didn’t become poor, they were poor already, and now we’re calling them poor.”

The West Wing Season 3 Episode 7. Written by Allison Abne, Kevin Falls and Aaron Sorkin and Directed by Paris Barclay

Sam admits it doesn’t look good to have 4 million more people in poverty under their administration, but much-needed government support will now be available to them.

Definitions have climate, political and economic consequences. I’m sure the people at WRAP were not wild about having another of 3Mt of CO2e and £2bn on their shoulders, but the definitions seem more clear-cut which makes the problem easier to address. Right?

Is this the right definition?

The change was made to align with international definitions as proposed by the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard to better compare with other countries.

This organisation defines ‘inedible’ as food components which ‘are not intended to be consumed by humans’, but admit that this is dependent on many things, for example cultural factors or accessibility. The problem that keeps arising with this edible/inedible dichotomy is that this definition of ‘edible’ is entirely subjective and changes all the time.  There’s no doubt that when the category ‘possibly avoidable’ was lost, so was the nuance that that some people ate parts of food that others did not. My interviewee is a case in point: they changed their behaviour and now eat things that others perceive as inedible.

Here we have the operative word: ‘perceive’. What WRAP’s respondents classified as ‘inedible parts’ were not impossible to eat, but what they routinely chose not to eat, either from personal preferences, or from what they have learnt through life about what ‘food’ is. This food waste comes from social and cultural influences, not biological realities.

WRAP acknowledges this in its paper, and admits its survey is designed to measure proxies of food waste in the UK. Food waste studies are at a relatively adolescent stage, and organisations need to take action now, so I don’t blame them for acting before we have a perfect formula for food waste. Despite its flaws, it was important for the statistician in the West Wing episode to get the new definition of poverty approved, so people in financial hardship could get support as soon as possible.

Nevertheless, WRAP uses its definition of ‘inedible’ in all its research, and constantly leaves out inedible food waste in its calculations. The ‘fun fact’ page of this report on page 14 entirely ignores ‘inedible’ food waste. I agree that it is more important to tackle the food people discard while it is still fine to eat, as this is where most progress can be made (by WRAP’s estimates, the edible/inedible ratio is about 70:30). But future studies should not be cavalier with definitions of waste, and this aspect of food waste research must be kept alive in debate. I further argue that this type of survey should be conducted every two years, to keep up to date of the public’s perception of what is ‘food’ and what is ‘waste’.

Social perceptions of ‘waste’ have been studied for a longer time than ‘food waste’, and will give us insights into why people throw away things that others save. To gain a better understanding of the subjectivity of food waste, we must delve into broader waste theory.

A broader look at ‘waste’ – what is it exactly, and why do we throw it away?

While taking the rubbish out for bin collection day, have you ever thought about why we make waste, and why we are so keen on separating it from our homes? Although not the most popular of research topics, some fascinating ideas have come out of waste academia that have completely changed the way I look at my trash.

One of the early pioneers for waste research was Mary Douglas. Her influential book Purity and Danger (1966) explored the anthropological foundations of waste. She found that cultures refine acts of separation, categorisation, and taboo to construct identities, organise society, uphold conventions and reflect holiness . When it comes to separating the desirable and pure from the rejected and dirty, we generate waste, or ‘matter out of place’.

We can apply this to something we experience every day. Think of a chocolate bar. When you are finished with the chocolate, you hold the wrapper in your hand. On its own, the wrapper is ‘matter out of place’ because it does not fit into any ‘category’ in the organisation of your home. In other words, there is nowhere desirable for you to put it. It may even cause you some anxiety to leave it on the floor or on the side, because doing so would look messy – or ‘out of place’. The only option is to put it in the bin.

This act separates the wrapper from the ‘order’ of the rest of the home. By doing so, you may also be achieving your ‘identity’ as a neat person, because you are not just leaving it on the floor in a messy way. What’s more, the wrapper was made to be thrown away, and your act of putting it in the bin is fulfilling the expectation of how society is to be organised. Our society even has services which allow a complete separation of your ‘matter out of place’ from your home in the form of rubbish collection.

You are what you waste

If you think about it, waste is personal. You might apologise to a visitor if your home looks a bit messy; things are ‘out of place’. Imagine how you might feel if a visitor comes round and sees a load of chocolate wrappers on the floor. What would they think of you? This is the ‘taboo’ part of Douglas’s theory. Our cultural conventions influence us to separate our ‘matter out of place’ from the social sphere, in fear of repercussions from our peers.

The taboo we feel around our waste are so profound that I joke that instead of ‘you are what you eat’, waste studies imply that ‘you are what you waste’. And it is an interesting balance. You may judge someone for throwing away a pack of strawberries as wasteful, but you may also have judged my interviewee as odd because they eat the tops of strawberries.

Some academic books about waste I recommend (Fresh is about perceptions of food, still linked to value and waste)

Waste studies look at why certain things are ‘matter out of place’ and how they get there. For me, the most persuasive theory is that ‘waste’ is what is left after something has lost all value. Scanlan (2005) depicts waste as “what remains when the good, fruitful, valuable, nourishing and useful has been taken […] the tat, the lowly that has sunk to the depth of a value system”. The chocolate wrapper served no further use to you, rendering it valueless and only fit for the bin. However, he suggests that value is subjective, and everyone perceives value differently. Therefore, “people create garbage at highly individual times, and for extremely personal reasons”.

How does this apply to food waste?

Categorisation, separation, and taboo also manifests around food waste. We are taught that some food parts are made to be eaten, and some are meant to be discarded, and you may sometimes feel anxious or guilty for doing it wrong. Moreover, the value system applies again.

An interesting point that Douglas makes is that things can be symbolically ‘out of place’ as well as physically. David Evans (2014) observes this phenomenon in several examples. Food is removed from a fridge when a newer version arrives after a shopping trip, even though it is perfectly fine to eat. Leftovers are considered inferior to a freshly made meal and ignored.

Furthermore, food is brought into the house to fit in with an ‘identity’ that we want to exhibit (either to others, or us ourselves), often to its demise. Vegetables are bought in large quantities, to perpetuate an identity of being ‘healthy’, and then are never eaten. Fruit is left out in bowls to make us feel good about eating ‘fresh’, and then goes untouched. Unusual ingredients are used once and then left at the back of the fridge after an urge to be ‘creative’. I’ve definitely done all these things, and you probably have too.

Again, these are features of ‘value’. Using the examples above, you could imagine that old carrots have less value than new carrots; leftovers have less value than a fresh meal; vegetables have more value because they fit an identity of being ‘healthy’, but lose value when it comes to cooking them and you realise you don’t actually like them that much.

What are the solutions?

I believe addressing this value system is key to solving food waste issues. Adopting broader waste theory, I posit that there are three key solutions to tackling food waste:

  1. Reduce the need to ‘separate’ things we consider food waste from our lives. That means eating more stuff we previously perceived as ‘inedible’, from the crusts of bread to the peelings of root vegetables. But more than that, we must look at our ‘waste’ in a different light, and consider it a part of the order of our lives, not something to separate.
  2. That comes to the second point: create other ‘categories’ for food components to go into, rather than the bin. These could include compost, new recipes and beauty regimes. Zero waste movements advocate finding uses for ALL components of food, regardless of edibility. This includes turning banana skins into fertiliser, or lemon peels into cleaning products. Placing discarded food parts into these ‘categories’ gives them value, extracts further use out of discarded food, and halts or delays their journey into waste. Councils and governments could take up this mantel and use food waste for anaerobic digestion in biogas plants or redistribute waste to the agriculture sector. Industry could innovate new technologies that transform our scraps into new products easily and cheaply.
  3. Break the taboo of food waste – talk about it more! One of the problems with waste is that it is WASTE – it is gross and smelly and we throw it away out of sight, hardly acknowledging its existence. Society looks at it with disdain, and looks at YOU with disdain for making it. Therefore, when we create waste, we feel negative about it, and it never gets talked about. But if we never talk about it, we will never solve the problem. By sharing our habits, difficulties and broader food waste issues we can get to the root of the problem and can make finding solutions more inclusive.

The value of waste is therefore never absolute, changes over time, and is conditional on societal codes and individual choices. As Douglas says, “there is no such thing as absolute dirt; it exists in the eye of the beholder”, and it is imperative to remain flexible with our classifications. In-depth food waste studies have only existed since 2006-7, and we must continue to ask these critical questions to properly tackle food waste’s damaging effects on the planet.

And there is always room for improvement, as Hawkins (2006) notes, “The waste-making subject is invited to change his or her mind about the status of rubbish and then voluntarily transform his or her actions”. Although it is difficult to live life without making waste at the moment, I invite you to rethink what you perceive to be ‘waste’. From the food discards that could actually be ‘edible’, to how you could repurpose the ‘inedible’ parts, take stock of the ‘waste’ in your world and what actions you can possibly take.

I am really interested in hearing if your perception of food or food waste has changed over time, so please send in something for Your stories by emailing foodwastestories@gmail.com.

Published by foodwastestories

The first food waste magazine.

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