21 October 2017Last updated

Features | The big story

Food waste: waging war on the planet

Every year, around 1.3 billion tonnes of perfectly good produce ends up in landfills. But with a bit of planning, not all of it needs to end up in the can, reports Colin Drury

By Colin Drury
13 May 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Getty Images

The numbers are almost too big to comprehend or to truly register.

Every year, across the globe, around 1.3 billion tonnes of perfectly good food is thrown away. Some 300 million barrels of oil and 25 per cent of the entire world’s fresh water is used to produce this waste. An area the size of Mexico – 198 million hectares – is farmed to grow it. If you stack up the food instead of burying it in the ground, it would form a mountain two miles wide, reaching 8,000ft into the sky. For context, that means it would be taller than Mt Everest within four years.

In the UAE, a third of everything buried in landfill sites is food. Estimates suggests that equates to three million tonnes. Or, in economic terms, worth over Dh13 billion.

Yet, if these staggering figures are industrial in their scale, there is a growing consensus that the solution might actually lie at home.

Supermarkets, the hospitality industry and even farmers have long been blamed for allowing the problem to grow, and certainly there is some truth in that. Inefficient food production results in waste. So too do supermarket policies of rejecting meat and vegetables, which aren’t aesthetically pleasing. Hotels and restaurants adhere to strict rules where anything edible that has passed an arbitrary best-before date is thrown away.

However, new figures gathered by the UK-based Love Food Hate Waste charity show food thrown out at home now contributes to almost 50 per cent of all food waste in developed countries. Loaves of bread that never get finished, salad that turns brown and portions of dinner that are scrapped in the bin might seem like relatively small cheese. But when millions of us do it every day, it adds up to a lot.

Just how much exactly is being wasted by UAE households is a figure that is difficult to estimate. But, in the UK, according to Love Food Hate Waste, every household throws away some Dh4,500 worth of food every year.

‘In the UAE,’ says Dubai-based nutritionist Christopher James Clark, ‘there is every reason to think that figure could be higher. People here live busy professional lives and, therefore, tend to think less about planning meals. Plus, the heat means food spoils quicker. Things are improving but, among expats especially, there is still a throw-away culture.’

It all means that as individuals, we’re adding to the destruction of the environment (food produced and not eaten adds 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year, Food and Agriculture Organisation stated in 2013), reducing food available to poorer regions and wasting our own hard-earned money.

With all this in mind, Friday has gathered expert tips on the ways we can reduce food waste. And even get healthier...

1 Shop clever

Almost all domestic food waste comes down, eventually, to one single thing: we don’t shop smart enough. We impulse-buy items we don’t end up using; or purchase so much so it spoils. And this is the easiest thing to take affirmative action on. ‘The key to shopping clever is to plan meals ahead, make a list and stick to it, so you only buy what you use,’ says Chris, who has been in Dubai since 2013.

‘Some things it’s OK to buy in bulk, like nuts or rice; things that won’t spoil for a long time. But I would say with most things, it’s better to buy only a few days in advance.’

That means an extra stop at the shops each week. But think of it this way. With less to buy each time, a grocery store visit suddenly stops feeling like a hassle and more like what shopping should be: a small pleasure.


2 Store right

‘Storing food in the right places is really underrated,’ says Jonathan Bloom, founder of campaigning website Wasted Food in the US. ‘It’s worth doing some basic research to find what works best where.’

It might sound obvious to keep food in its optimum condition to make it last longer. Yet how many of us, for instance, have apples in a bowl on the table and keep ketchup in the fridge? We should be doing the reverse, experts say. Fruit is generally best refrigerated, while condiments are largely fine stored in cupboards.

‘Learning this helps us make the most of what we buy,’ says Jonathan.

By the same token, using airtight jars and containers will stop food from getting spoilt. Ensuring your fridge is at the right temperature, meanwhile, will keep things fresh longer.

Preserving is also key. Freezing, drying, salting, canning, sugaring and pickling are all simple techniques to ensure food stays delicious for weeks and months. Indeed, many pickled foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi are generally considered superfoods: the process of preservation also packs them with health-boosting nutrients including iron and potassium.


3 Don’t overserve

In a country that prides itself on its hospitality, overserving at mealtimes is considered a sign of good manners – even if that means wastage. Throwing out what gets left on plates and not taken from the table is a huge contributing factor to landfills.

‘On regular days, food makes up 33-38 per cent of domestic waste, but during the festive season it can go up to 55 per cent,’ says Abdul Majeed Saifaie, director of the city’s waste management department.

There’s another health kick here too: smaller portions generally mean healthier eating habits.


4 Be creative with leftovers

By the very nature of cooking, there will always be leftovers. 
But these don’t need to be marked for the rubbish chute. They should be seen as delicious new opportunities.

Surplus meat and vegetables can easily be turned into dishes new and tasty. ‘Think stews, soups, broths and curries,’ says Chris. ‘These are one-pot meals where you throw in a bunch of leftover ingredients, and end up with something really good, cheap and absolutely healthy.’

Make in bulk, divide into individual portions, stick in the freezer, and you’ve ready meals available as you fancy, he adds.

Along similar lines, scraps of spare beef and lamb can be used for meatballs; tomato pulp could go into home-made ketchup; and stale bread can become French toast.

‘When you start to explore the options,’ says Chris, ‘the possibilities are endless.’

Indeed, making the most of what’s in our kitchen has never been easier, thanks to technology. There are dozens of apps that generate recipes based on the ingredients you say are left over.

5 Use best-before dates as a guide only

For millennia, the human race survived without best-before dates. We did so by using our eyes and noses. If it looked and smelled OK, we tucked in.

These days, not so much. Best-before, use-by and display-until dates have become ubiquitous and we tend to follow them religiously. There’s really no need to be so rigid, say experts. Rely on your senses is the advice of Tamal Ray, a British baker, doctor and newspaper columnist. ‘If it looks, smells and feels alright, then it’ll be fine to eat. Even once past their best, a lot of things are still good.’

Indeed, in February, a new concept supermarket opened in Copenhagen. The shop, WeFood, sells surplus supermarket products, most of which are already past their display-until date. ‘It’s ridiculous that this food is just thrown out,’ said Eva Kjer Hansen, Danish minister for food and the environment, at the opening.

Of course, do exercise caution. High-risk foods such as chicken, fish, bean sprouts and raw eggs must be treated with the respect deserved of something that can cause severe food poisoning if eaten when spoilt. It’s not pleasant.


6 Appearances aren’t everything

Wilted veggies, salad that’s browning? For most of us, this screams bin fodder. But this shouldn’t necessarily be so.

‘I’d never throw away lettuce because it’s looking a bit limp or discoloured about the edges,’ says Chris. ‘Just get rid of the brown bits and you’re good to keep using it. The same often applies to mould [on cakes, for instance]. Cut off the mouldy portions and the rest of the item is generally fine.’

Along similar lines, says Tamal, a touch of imagination can mean food on the turn is turned good once more. ‘Stale ends of bread can be turned into breadcrumbs,’ he says. ‘Then, overripe fruit can be used for health-boosting smoothies.’

7 Reuse and recycle

Even when you can’t use leftovers to whip up new meals, the remains don’t necessarily need to go straight to the trash.

Old lemons are perfect for disinfecting surfaces; ground coffee is a good way of deterring cats from the garden; and everything from pineapple tops to spring onion bulbs and lettuce hearts can be planted to grow new produce.

Composting, too, is an increasingly common and easy way to make the most of waste. Simply stick leftovers such as salad cut-offs, fruit peel, teabags and egg shells into a composting bin in the garden for 10 months, and what eventually comes out is a nutrient-rich fertiliser which, when spread across the garden, will boost plant growth.

‘This is nature’s way of recycling,’ says Love Food Hate Waste in its official literature. ‘It’s an inexpensive, natural process that transforms your kitchen throw-out into valuable food for your garden. Not only does it reduce what you send to landfills, the resulting compost will have everything your plants need including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.’

8 Be inspired by economics

The figures are clear: when we waste food, we waste money.

Assuming the statistic that every UK household wastes an average of Dh4,500 on unconsumed or extra food a year is roughly accurate for the UAE too, just imagine what else we could spend that money on.

‘Added up,’ says Jose de Heer, a life coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai, ‘that could be a long staycation or a holiday. 
It could be spent on a hobby you’re passionate about, go into savings or be donated to charity.

‘The fact is, every time you throw away food, you might as well be throwing away dirham notes, and I don’t think any of us would do that.’

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury