Bringing food waste to the table – what can we do about food surplus?

One-third of our global food production ends up in dumpsters. This means that 1.3 billion metric tonnes of food are wasted each year. At least half of this is still perfectly edible.

With 11% of the world population undernourished, this feels a bit counterintuitive – 821 million people are in danger of starvation and we continue throwing away our food.

La vita e… drowning in waste
Photo by @etiennegirardet

The environmental impact of food waste

Alongside spoiling staggering amounts of perfectly good food, wasting food has a huge environmental impact.

Firstly, food waste is responsible for 8% of our global greenhouse gas emissions.

Food production already comes with a huge share of emissions. It generates a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. Moreover, leaving food to rot in landfills generates methane, which has a global warming potential about 25 times higher than CO2.

Besides this, spoiling food wastes oil, water, land and affects ecosystems. Agriculture uses half of our planet’s land (the majority being used for livestock only) and 70% of Earth’s freshwater.

If one-third of these go to waste, it means we’re literally throwing some of our most precious resources to the dumpster.

Who wastes all this food, eh?

There’s no nice way to put this – it’s mostly us. More than 40% of food waste comes from consumers like you and me.

The origin of food waste

How to fight the food waste madness

1. Plan your meals ahead

This may sound like a hassle, but it also saves you time later in the week when you need to decide what to cook. By having a set menu, you avoid buying more than you need, saving your money and the planet’s resources.

You can even try an online meal planner for inspiration, like Eat This Much and Tastes Better From Scratch.

2. Freeze at ease

If you end up with food that you cannot consume, both raw or cooked, you can easily store it in the freezer for later use.

For example, I get a lot of bread and herbs as redistributed food surplus. To keep them from spoiling, I slice/chop them up and put them in the freezer. Afterwards, the bread is just perfect in the toaster and the herbs can be used for months.

3. Give some love to the store’s ugly ducklings

The prettiest fruits and vegetables and the perfect-looking packages are overrated. Try buying oddly shaped fresh produce and damaged packs whenever it’s possible, so you save them from hitting the dumpster.

Perfection is boring anyway
Photo by @campbellcreates
4. Question expiration dates

Studies show that the “best-before” dates are misleading. If a product is past its expiration date, it doesn’t mean it is unsafe for consumption. They are established for manufacturers to indicate the maximum freshness of the product, but experts recommend consumers to look past them.

Their advice is to do visual and smell tests. If the food looks and smells edible and you’ve been storing it properly, it is most likely safe to use. Read here about the main products with flexible expiration dates and here about how to spot spoiled foods.

Moreover, some supermarkets offer discounts for products approaching their expiration dates. Don’t be afraid to buy them, especially when it comes to dry and canned goods.

Personally, I just cut the mouldy or ugly part and eat the rest of the product if it doesn’t look or smell spoilt. Also, I’ve eaten so much expired food in the past years that I really stopped believing in the concept. To this day, I’ve never had food poisoning.

However, everybody’s organism is different, so it’s important to see what works for you. In case you discover you have a very sensitive stomach, this is of course a no go. But the majority of products are safe to eat after their recommended best-before date and most of us won’t have any issues because of it.

5. Get creative with your leftovers

Try new recipes by adapting to what you already have in the house and turn leftovers in quick, easy dishes like salads, smoothies, sauces, and desserts (check links for inspiration, but go nuts, really).

Too many good bananas from dumpster diving call for a peanut butter & banana cheesecake

A very easy example of turning waste into something valuable is doing vegetable broth with food scraps. Every time you’re cooking and have some vegetable peels and ends, store them in the freezer. Then you simply simmer the leftovers for about 30 minutes, collect the liquid and you have a tasty broth that you can use in recipes.

6. Make your grandma proud with your food preservation skills

If you have fruits and vegetables that are starting to look ‘tired’, you can pickle them or cook them into jams and compotes. There are many recipes online and you’ll be so satisfied to see the delicious results of your own work.

When life gives you too much cabbage, pickle it

Saving the food that others waste

1. Dumpster diving

This is something that can be done nearly all over the world. You can find loads of food, still in a perfect state.

I know what you’re thinking – isn’t it super gross? It actually isn’t! A lot of the products are intact or covered in plastic. Sometimes, there’s only one piece of fruit or vegetable that went bad, but the entire bag was thrown away. You can just remove the ‘bad egg’ and enjoy the rest of the good ones.

Sometimes you can even find dry goods that look just like on the shelf, so that’s a no-brainer. The refrigerated goods may be expired (but not necessarily), so you can do a quick assessment of how they look.

If the packaging is intact and it doesn’t look like it changed its aspect, take it home and give it a thorough sniff. Also, take weather into consideration – if it has been very warm, be extra critical with that poor piece of nourishment.

So don’t be scared to try it! Just get armed with some old clothes, a pair of gloves, a big backpack, some bags, and a friend or more (optional) and go explore the leftovers of your local supermarkets.

It’s best to go in the evening or after closing time, so you avoid bumping into employees. However, most of them don’t care about you going through their trash as long as you leave the area clean after.

You will be surprised by how much tasty food you will bring home.

2. Collect or buy surplus food

There are apps like OLIO that help you save the food your neighbours can’t consume and donate what you cannot use anymore.

Also, the Too Good to Go app makes it possible to purchase bags of surplus food from different grocery shops, restaurants, and bakeries. The app is available in 12 countries and you will end up paying a much lower price than normal for that amount of food.

Check if similar apps are available in your area. Some examples include ResQ Club, Karma, and FlashFood, but there are many more that serve only one specific country.

A bag of surplus food from Lidl through Too Good to Go

Moreover, check for companies and NGOs that distribute surplus food in your area.

In Copenhagen, there are some great initiatives. Since I got back from Iceland, I started volunteering for an awesome local NGO – Foodsharing Copenhagen. They collect leftovers from stores and farmers markets and distribute them to people free of charge.

We gather astonishing amounts of perfectly fine and delicious fruits, vegetables, herbs, and bread, that we later offer to over 100 people (three times a week!). In my case, going to one event ensures the majority of my weekly food.

Box of goodies from Foodsharing Copenhagen

Last month, another great initiative started in Copenhagen. A group of innovative people has installed two fridges that are open 24/7 to everyone for donating and collecting food. It is called Fællesskabet i København or The Free Fridge Copenhagen.

Similar initiatives can be found in other countries. Some examples are The Russell Trust in the UK and Foodsharing in Germany, Austria, Poland, and many other countries. Also, for community fridges around the world, take a look here.

The community fridges in Copenhagen

Do a thorough search for opportunities in your area. If there is nothing, these impactful examples can even work as food for thought (pun intended).

Food surplus and hungry people are everywhere. Is there a way to bring them together in your community?

Published by thenomadsquirrel

A wandering squirrel passionate about the planet and our environment I write about our pressing environmental issues and ways that each of us can reduce our impact by staying educated and starting small. In time, adopting simple lifestyle changes can also inspire us to commit to more significant ones. My studies took me on a meandering (but fun) journey into environmental engineering, followed by forest & nature management. After this, right before the start of the 2020 pandemic, I moved to Iceland to volunteer as an environmental awareness camp leader for 6 months.

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