Food Waste 101: 16 Ways to Reduce Food Waste


  May 15th, 2019   0 comments

Food Waste 101: 16 Ways to Reduce Food Waste

 

About one third of all food produced is lost or wasted globally (1.3 billon tons, worth nearly US$3 trillion). All the resources (water, energy, land, labour, etc.) used for growing, processing and transporting that wasted food were therefore also wasted—and all the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created were for naught. While much of those food losses occur before the food even gets on your plate, up to 40% of food waste in Europe and North America happens at the consumer level—that’s you and me. So what can we do about that 40%? Read on! I’ve summarized some actions you can take to reduce the food waste you create by drawing upon the 3 “R”s…

Reduce Food Waste

  1. Choose fresh over processed. The more processed your food is, the more food has been wasted before it got to your plate. When you choose whole foods, you have complete control over where the “waste” goes (garbage or garden). When you choose processed foods, you leave those decisions to others (who likely won’t choose garden…). If it comes with a nutrition label, it’s almost always processed.
  2. Eat more local. The less far your food has to travel, the less likely it is to spoil en route to your home, and fewer resources and GHG emissions are involved with its transportation. Many grocery stores and produce markets will showcase local produce, and you can shop at a farmers market if there’s one near you.
  3. Don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. If you do, you’ll go home with more groceries than you would’ve if you weren’t starving, which increases the chances of some of that extra food not getting eaten and going to waste.
  4. Become a member of a CSA. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships pre-pay farmers for the upcoming growing season. This provides them with much-needed capital, a buffer if yields are low that season (since you get a share of their yield, high or low), and helps them to reduce crop waste by securing buyers before they plant so they can better match supply to demand.
  5. Don’t over-order. Make your stomach bigger than your eyes, not the other way around: when you order food, err on the side of ordering too little rather than too much. In North America, most portion sizes are already too large for the average person…which can lead to food waste if people can’t eat it all. You just might find that the “small” portion is enough for you. If in doubt, first ask how big the “small” (or whatever size) portion is.
  6. Try full-use cooking. Full-use cooking aims to reduce food scraps by using as much of the plant/animal as possible. Things like beet and carrot greens are very nutritious, or making a soup or stock out of scraps like stems/roots/tough parts, using orange/citrus zest, eating the skin, etc. If you buy organic vegetables and/or those on the Environmental Working Group’s Clean Fifteen list (which rank the lowest of all produce tested for residual pesticides), you won’t have to worry about peeling potatoes, apples, etc. since the skin will be fine to eat (but it’s best to wash it first to remove dirt and debris). For example, potato skins are much higher in some nutrients than the flesh, so don’t be so quick to reach for that peeler.
  7. Take leftovers home (and eat them). Taking leftovers home and not eating them before they go bad is in fact worse than leaving them on your plate at the restaurant; the restaurant will most likely have an organics collection system (many condos and apartments do not, sending your leftovers to the landfill instead), and there might also be additional packaging/waste that came with your “doggie bag” (takeout container, paper napkin, plastic cutlery, plastic bag, etc.).
  8. Don’t let your fridge become a garbage bin. Especially during a busy week, it’s easy to forget about all the delicious produce you bought on the weekend (at the farmers market!) and have it all go bad. To reduce this:
    • Keep food (cooked/leftovers/raw) in containers that are clear (so you can easily see what’s inside) or clearly labeled.
    • Keep your condiments (ketchup, jam, syrup, mayo) on the fridge door, out of the way, so they don’t block the view to everything else (which will spoil long before your condiments).
    • If you won’t be able to eat/cook something before it goes bad, consider freezing it (in a transparent and/or labeled container).
    • Keep your produce confined to the crisper/produce drawers (they’ll last longer there, or place your fresh herbs in a glass of water)—and check these drawers daily to keep track of what you have. Try not to store produce in bags since they either don’t breathe (e.g., plastic, which traps moisture) or you can’t see what’s inside (e.g., paper bags). Organic cotton produce bags work great, though.
  9. Find “ugly” beautiful. In North America, we have unforgivingly high standards for produce; if it’s not perfect, it is rejected and gets wasted. Just because that asparagus spear is thin or this tomato skin is cracked or that apple is a bit bruised doesn’t mean it will taste any worse—in fact, some heirloom varieties are irregular in shape but pack more nutrients and/or flavour than their more common, contemporary (and often GMO1) counterparts. Choose discounted produce (optimally not wrapped in plastic) or “ugly” produce, where available.

Beautiful “ugly” produce!

Reuse Containers and Food Discards

  1. Store your leftovers in containers you already have. You can skip the plastic wrap (and avoid purchasing a new beeswax wrap or silicone lid set) by instead placing a bowl upside-down on top of a plate of food works, or a plate on top of a bowl or mixing bowl. Any locking-lid containers you have lying around at home are great for this, but remember that plastic ones can leach toxins into food (especially if the food is acidic and/or still hot). And definitely don’t microwave food in plastic.
  2. If you’re going to be eating out, bring your own takeaway container. Throw it in your bag/backpack and forget about it…until you need something for your takeaway food…or leftovers from lunch out with your work colleagues…or dinner out with friends. It’s also great for carrying that snack from the café to home or the office.

    Tasty snacks brought home from the store in reusable containers, including our rice husk lunch box

     

  3. Plant your produce discards. The bottoms of herbs and leafy greens are where roots can be (or already have been) grown. You can regrow your produce discards by planting them in water (being sure to change it every 2 days or so – and use the old water to water your houseplants) to grow roots or perk up existing roots, then plant them in your garden or a container with soil. You can also try this with seeds from delicious, ripe fruit too. I’ve saved seed from a variety of fruits/vegetables, and I’ve even grown durian plants from seed! You’re limited only by your imagination…

    Lettuce, cilantro and other food scraps we planted in our garden!

Recycle the Nutrients (Compost!!)

Many people live in apartment buildings, condos and even municipalities that don’t separate organics from garbage. This is shameful because organics can be composted (nutrient recycling) and instead break down very s-l-o-w-l-y in landfills (guacamole buried in an landfill for 25 years was so well preserved that there were still chunks of avocado in the bowl)—and when they do, they become putrid and release methane (which is 23 more powerful a GHG than carbon dioxide!).

 

We definitely want to keep organics out of the landfill. The best way to do that is by composting. I started to tend my family’s organics since I was around 6 years old, so I geek out when it comes to composting. I’ve tried countless methods and approaches to composting. Backyard composting is great, but it’s slow, can be finicky (balancing nitrogen/carbon ratios, moisture levels, and turning it for adequate oxygenation), and prone to pests (don’t get me started on the battle I’d been waging on the city rats vs my city-subsidized composter; the War of 2011-15). And then I discovered bokashi and my life changed; it’s a method of composting that gives you finished compost in as little as 6 weeks (vs. the one-year timeframe of getting compost in temperate Toronto). In short, you ferment your organics (including meats, fish, dairy, and even bones – all prohibited from backyard composting but fair game with bokashi) prior to mixing with soil to break down to compost. This fermentation stage pre-conditions the organics to break down super quickly once they’re mixed with the composting organisms (microbes, earthworms, fungi, etc.) in healthy soil. I’m not very prone to exaggeration, yet I can say that the Urban Composter changed my life (or at least my happiness factor), from having regretfully given up on composting entirely to contentedly composting everything—including the bones and other animal bits from my in-laws’ cooking—while joyfully jeering at the neighbourhood rats and raccoons! (Pests don’t come near the fermented organics because the “pickled” smell is too much for them to handle.) So here’s what you can do:

  1. Don’t send your organics to the landfill! If your building doesn’t currently separate out organics, solicit your management or condominium board to do so. It will help to start a petition, get your local councillor’s support, etc. I know a number of apartment renters and condo owners who save up their organics (sometimes keeping the container in their freezer for the storage space and odour-control it provides) and deposit them in a nearby green/organics bin. (It would be best to speak with a nearby homeowner/business for their permission first! Most anyone who is eco-conscious would be happy to let you do this.) If you already have access to a green bin, don’t forget to use it! It may seem a bit of a hassle to change your habits to separate your organics from your garbage and recycling, but you’ll quickly get in the groove and make it a habit.
  2. Compost your own organics. Keep all that nutrient-rich goodness on your own property! There are many options for this (backyard bin(s), bokashi, vermicomposting, anaerobic digestion, hybrid systems, feeding them to livestock/chickens/pets, even more extreme forms like composting pet waste and even your own pee and poo). If you’re thinking about the latter (“humanure”), research it first because pathogens/disease are a concern. Regardless of method used, compost is an essential addition for healthy soil. For container or raised bed gardens, I use what I playfully call “Wesley’s Mix”, adapted from “Mel’s Mix” in my beloved copy of Square Foot Gardening. Peat moss has come under scrutiny for the environmental impacts of harvesting it so many avoid using it. While these claims may be a bit exaggerated because peat moss harvesting accounts for only 0.02% of all peat bog habitat loss, I still choose to use coconut coir instead. Coir is said to have even better water retention properties than peat and is an agricultural waste product (helping us move towards a closed-loop economy).

    Our compost from our Urban Composter – white mould is a great sign that your food sraps are being properly fermented!

Wesley’s Soil Mix

1/3 compost (consider making it yourself, or purchasing it in bulk rather than in plastic bags)
1/3 coconut coir (if using a compressed coir brick, be sure to reconstitute it first with water)
1/3  coarse vermiculite (this is a natural mineral that’s been expanded by heating – great for aeration and water retention)

The fermented food “waste” from our Urban Composter goes into a 3-bin composter that Wesley built out of reclaimed wood

  1. Yard waste isn’t waste. Every fall, I make a huge pile of leaves (from my own and leaves pilfered from neighbours) and then borrow a mulching lawnmower [a mower that doesn’t “blow” the leaves out the side] to turn them into leaf mulch. I throw this into a pile/bin and in the spring have leaf mould which I add to my compost (it gives carbon, inoculates other organics with compost-making fungi, helping to speed up the composting process). Also, branches and tree trunks break down much faster if they’re put through a chipper; a neighbour of mine has added nearly a foot of depth to his soil just from laying down wood chips down for a few years and letting them break down.
  2. **Grow your own food.** Since most of the food waste occurs before it gets to the consumer, you can help control this by becoming the grower yourself! If you’re new to this, try with just a pot or two of a herb you like or a container of leafy greens (herbs and greens require relatively little light, as little as 3-4 hours/day, whereas most fruits and vegetables require full sun). Don’t forget to water it! (If you’re using an Urban Composter or other bokashi system, remember that the bokashi tea is an amazing nutrient-rich probiotic—and don’t forget to dilute it before feeding to your plants). As your confidence grows, work your way up to more plants. It’s amazing to have a meal prepared with one or more things that you’ve grown yourself – you’ll be so proud of yourself and your food will taste that much better! Avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to keep your food clean and chemical-/toxin-free. Compost any scraps (but throw out if diseased, or bury it well away from your garden/growing area) and then use that compost for your plants to create a closed-loop system!

 

Our raised bed garden with lots of organic produce and herbs!

 

A Zero Waste or low-waste lifestyle isn’t just about reducing plastic waste. It’s also very much about helping to eliminate organic waste, which amounts to approximately half of all the waste in landfills (plastics account for around 12%). If you want to make a big impact on waste reduction with relatively little effort, implement some of our tips for cutting down on your food waste—your meals will taste that much more delicious!

Our Zero Waste kitchen which includes our beloved Urban Composter, which we use for ALL our food waste!

1 More on this in a future post. I have a degree in Molecular Biology/Genetics and, after years of researching it, am steadfastly opposed to crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to pesticides (like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, cotton and alfalfa…and soon to include wheat). For this reason, I now try to avoid corn- and wheat-based foods unless I am confident that they’re organic or at least GMO-free. And don’t get me started on the terminator gene technology (which was the subject of one of my research papers), patenting seeds and food security…

 

Wesley Wright, MASc, Managing Director of Ahimsa Eco Solutions, is a passionate advocate for environmental stewardship.  Wesley’s role includes spearheading the launch of an environmental movement to “Make Shift Happen” in an effort to move towards a sustainable and waste free society.  He integrates his knowledge of different fields such as molecular biology/genetics, ecology, environmental engineering, critical thinking, ethics, permaculture, design, urban planning, organic gardening, and biomimicry to help empower people to realize their environmental goals.

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