Sustainability should be accessible for everyone! It shouldn’t take extra money, energy or time to be sustainable. Currently it does.
We live in an unsustainable society, so being good for the planet is hard. It’s hard not to fly because trains are expensive and take a longer time; it’s hard to buy clothes without human and environmental costs because the alternatives are expensive. Even the tips and tricks in this blog, although designed to make reducing food waste fun, take more effort. It should not be up to the individual to swim against the tide; the tide itself should change.
What does that mean in a food waste context? What system changes could we see to make reducing food waste easier for everyone, without us having to do more work?
I was inspired by an image I saw on Instagram of 6 reasons why we waste food. It made me think: how many of these things are actually systemic problems? I have taken these six common “causes” of food waste and attempted to find solutions for all of them.
1. Improper storage ➜ make storage more helpful
I explore in a previous blog how the structure and shapes of fridges are not conducive to reducing food waste. Fridges were initially designed to prevent food waste by making it last longer, but they can authorise and dictate wasteful behaviour too.
During my masters project, I found out that the fridge influences food waste in a number of ways. This is partly to do with our own behaviour, but the fridge’s design is a very prominent factor. Deep shelves and drawers make food invisible or buried, so changing this design would help us reduce our waste. Instead of telling people to use their fridges differently or store their food better, we should think creatively about how objects can help us attain and maintain sustainable behaviours.
Read more about it here!
2. Overproduction ➜ change the supermarket model
Overproduction is definitely a problem. Apps like Too Good To Go are trying to salvage food that is leftover, and supermarkets often try and redistribute excess food to food banks. But the solution is to stop producing so much in the first place. And suggesting that food waste is the answer to food poverty absolves the government from tackling the root causes of poverty.
Why is too much food produced? A large factor is the supermarket model, and the expectation that we need shelves filled with food 24/7. Although convenient and allows us to eat food that is not even in season, this model needs to shift towards a more locally-based, downsized version.
At the moment, sustainable food outlets like farmer’s markets tend to be more expensive and spread out, and food delivery services like Riverford Organic and Abel & Co are out of the price range of many people. Offering organic, seasonal, local produce should be the norm, cheap and accessible for everyone. Smaller outlets are also able to plan to better tailor their supply chains to meet local demand, meaning that farmers do not have to overproduce to meet uncertain quotas.
3. Oversized portions ➜ rethink objects and leftovers
As well as rethinking big objects like the fridge, we can redesign other food-related implements like plates and bowls to make them better portion-sized. Perhaps in the future, you will be able to buy crockery based on your tailored food intake needs! So someone who requires more food will have a bigger bowl or plate than someone who eats smaller portions.
Restaurants could also start offering smaller portions of the meals they prepare; however this may not be economically viable for them and make ordering supplies difficult. In addition, it could be triggering for people with eating disorders if there was suddenly pressure to restrict or alter their food choices at restaurants.
A more realistic solution is to make eating leftovers more socially acceptable, and indeed, a default food behaviour. Normalising eating the same thing the next day or for both lunch and dinner will save a lot of leftover food. Taking Tupperware or takeaway boxes to restaurants will ensure you do not leave food behind when you go out.
Much like we expect supermarket shelves to be filled 24/7 with all the food we could possibly want, there is an expectation that we should eat a different thing every meal and every day. When did that start becoming the norm? Getting comfortable eating similar meals consecutively will also mean that we will be happier to use up the ingredients we already have in our homes before going out to buy more food.
Is there a systemic solution for this? Language is important, so I would suggest we start replacing ‘leftovers’ – which implies something unwanted – with ‘bonus food’ or ‘bonus meals’, implying something positive and economically smart. Who doesn’t want some bonus food?
4. Cosmetic standards ➜ drop importance of aesthetically pleasing food
Questioning other food norms in our society throws up interesting practices that we have become used to. One of the biggest changes the food system can make is to drop unrealistic aesthetic standards for food. As I have covered before, Feedback found that farmers grossly overproduce food to meet supermarket demand, including having to adhere to strict aesthetic standards (e.g., particular sizes and shapes of produce). One farmer said that he used to grow a third more food than he intended to sell, “just to make sure that the supermarket buyer didn’t have a tantrum if you ran short”.
There is an argument that consumers drive this demand for ‘perfect’ fruits and vegetables. But the phenomenon is relatively recent. According to Fresh by Susanne Freidberg (2009), the obsession with ‘perfect’ items was driven by aggressive marketing tactics in the early 20th century. In the 1920s, fruit farmers in the USA tried to outcompete each other with more and more ambitions advertising, and their produce had to live up to these new standards. The California Fruit Growers Exchange “established strict quality grades based on size, shape, colour and degree of flawlessness”, and without these, farmers would not be able to sell under the CFGE label (page 145).
With greater means of transportation and refrigeration, produce could be sold all over the world, and these standards gained global dominance. As a result, consumers became accustomed to such items.
Now it is hard to imagine seeing supermarket aisles full of fruits and vegetables of different shapes and sizes; we are so used to seeing totally uniform items, as if they were all clones of one another. Supermarkets must drop these standards, and ‘wonky veg’ must become the norm.
5. Confusing food labels ➜ scrap labels unrelated to safety
Do you know the difference between ‘sell by’, ‘display until’, ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ data labels? If not, you’re not alone. The confusion around food labels has been reported for years, and there was even talk of rethinking them ten years ago.
WRAP estimated that a third of food waste occurred because of misunderstanding date labels in 2015. Their solution, however, was simply to replace ‘sell by’ with ‘display until’, meaning the public would have to get their heads around yet another label classification.
Too Good To Go has begun a campaign with some food brands to replace the traditional labels with a ‘Look, Smell, Taste, Don’t Waste’ label. Participating brands will also change ‘use by’ labels to ‘best before’ on products with flexible consumption dates and remove ‘best before’ labels on products that don’t require them. There is a risk that this might also be confusing. Why not simply scrap all of them, except for ‘use by’ labels for products with food safety concerns?
6. Buying too much ➜ supermarkets stop profiting off our waste
In a recent blog, I investigate how supermarkets manipulate us into overconsuming and overbuying food. You might be thinking: “but it is everyone’s responsibility to only buy what they need”. Yet there is evidence that the marketing tactics and special layout of supermarkets actively manipulate our brains to overconsume.
It is not the concern of the supermarket if you end up wasting some of the food because you bought too much – there are no penalties for them if their customers end up throwing away the food they were persuaded to buy. It even makes them million or billion-pound profits. There is currently no incentive for them to be more responsible for our overconsumption, and to encourage their customers to buy food with care.
Food waste charity Feedback is trying to tackle this problem by making food waste reporting a legal mandate in the UK for food businesses. Currently, supermarkets and other retailers do not have to publicise how much food waste is attributed to them. You can take two minutes to help out!
7. Plus one more of my own: a move towards a circular food economy
In my opinion, this is the most exciting opportunity for system change. Moving towards a circular food economy would mean that all leftover food waste that could not be taken out of the system through the six solutions proposed would be composted and circled back into farms. Much like recycling waste like plastic and metal to make new products, food waste could be recycled back into food production to grow more food.
Soil erosion is a real problem, and the overuse of land, chemical fertilisers and pesticides means that soil is exhausted. If farms could access cheap, top-quality compost for their land, it would vastly improve the richness of soil and increase yields.
Currently, there is no standardised way to dispose of food waste; it depends on your area and local authority. Often the food that we put into food bins and that is collected by councils needs to be industrially composted.
One solution could be to increase the use of community composting. Like taking old clothes to charity shops, you would take food waste to a community compost and it would be composted for you. The resulting soil would be available for the community for their gardens, house plants, allotments and so on, and any excess could be sold to farms. If scaled up, this could be a great alternative to food going to landfill or incineration, and would reduce the burden on local authorities to tackle food waste.
Let’s keep the conversation going! The next time you see one of these original “solutions” being proposed, question them, suggest a systemic change rather than an individual’s behaviour change.
Which of the above solutions is your favourite? Comment on the Instagram post!