Our obsession with choice and convenience can have serious consequences for the environment
We all love going to restaurants or grabbing a take-away, specially at the end of a busy day when inspiration about what to have for dinner are hard to come by. Yet recent evidence suggests this convenience is actually costing us the Earth, with food waste in the restaurant trade at an all-time high. In fact, over a quarter of people in England admit to regularly leaving food uneaten when eating out. Research by the sustainability charityWRAP uncovered that 27% of diners did not finish their meals at restaurants, take-aways, hotels and pubs, contributing to the 600,000 tonnes of food waste generated every year in the UK alone.
27% of people surveyed said they did not finish their restaurant meals
The desperately sad thing — specially in a time of austerity where food banks are cropping up all over the place — is that most of this waste is made up of perfectly usable food, and a third of it comes directly from us either ordering too much or finding that portion sizes are just too big when we get them.
Asking for a doggy bag is not always culturally acceptable outside the US
Looking at these rather depressing stats, I started wondering if British people were particularly wasteful when it came to eating out. One thing I noticed when I first moved here were the huge differences in attitude towards getting a ‘doggy bag’, for example. In America it’s perfectly normal to do that, even in fancy restaurants, and I never found it embarrassing to ask for my leftovers ‘to go’ in Brazil. In England, however, that type of request can often get you stared at like some creature from outer space (unless you have a strong American accent, in which case waiters tend to roll their eyes in a pitying way and reluctantly go searching for a plastic container to accommodate your mad request). This means that, should our eyes turn out to be bigger than our stomachs, our choices boil down to “force it down or bin it”.
Restaurants waste on average 3.3 pounds of food or every $1000 of revenue
But dig a little deeper, and you find this to be a truly global problem, and not the fault of a group of unaccommodating waiters. In spite of their ‘bag-it-and-go’ culture, U.S. restaurants still manage to waste about 3.3 pounds of food per $1000 of company revenue, 84% of which ends up in landfill according to a study by the Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance.
The issue has recently gained some extra prominence with celebrity River Cottage Chef Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall shining a spotlight on the £720m that avoidable out of home food waste is costing the UK economy every year. That’s the equivalent of six meals every week for the average household, and also considerably adds to the amount of greenhouse gases produced by landfills.
So if all this waste is bad for the economy, terrible for the environment, and morally unjustifiable in a world where people still go hungry every day, what can we do about it?
There are some amazing community initiatives cropping up, such as the Real Junk Food Project in Brighton which crowdfunded £16,000 to launch a community café that legally intercepts food waste from restaurants, supermarkets and other suppliers. All this perfectly good produce that would have otherwise gone to landfill is then turned into tasty and healthy meals, which aren’t officially priced. People just pay as much as they can or feel they want to. But even if you’re not lucky enough to have such a café in your area, it is still possible to make a difference.
There are projects that turn all the perfectly good produce that would have otherwise gone to landfill into healthy, tasty meals
For a start, you could fight that natural embarrassment and proudly ask for a doggy bag next time you go to a restaurant. Or perhaps you could just stop eating out altogether… But where’s the fun in that?
An app called Trybe believes they can make a positive impact on reducing food waste without being such a killjoy. They’re combining the convenience of eating out or getting a take-away with the less wasteful approach of home cooking by allowing people to order home-made meals from cooks in their area and have them delivered to their door. That is inherently less wasteful as if portion sizes turn out to be too big, all you need to do is stick the rest in the fridge for a tasty snack later, and that is a joy in itself as well as good for the planet. My husband’s favourite indulgence is having leftover curry for breakfast (hey, don’t judge till you’ve tried it).
Solving this huge problem will take effort and commitment from everybody. But perhaps technology, community spirit and passionate cooks are the right ingredients to make it happen.
Also published on Medium.