The conversations of life

Food waste a new moral challenge for all


Over the weekend, I read with interest a story about a new law passed in France that aims to crack down on food waste.

The new law bans supermarkets from throwing away unsold food approaching best-before dates and also from deliberately poisoning products with bleach to stop them being retrieved by people foraging through bins.

Instead the food must be donated to charities or for animal feed.

Dousing discarded food products in bleach to prevent people from being able to consume it?  I was shocked: would supermarkets deliberately do that?  Surely when the world faces huge food security challenges and there is poverty and hunger in even the wealthiest countries, including our own, we would always redistribute unwanted food, rather than deliberately render it inedible and useless? Wouldn’t we?

Hunger isn’t the only issue we need to be concerned about either.  The other aspect of food waste is the environmental impact, since most of it goes straight to landfill, which itself is an ever diminishing resource right across the western world.  But that’s not the worst of it: in landfill it sets to rapidly decomposing and producing the greenhouse gas, methane, in large supply – at a ratio that is more than twenty times that of the CO2 that comes from, for example, your car exhaust.

But still that’s only part of the negative impact.  When food isn’t eaten, we also waste the massive resources it took to produce it in the first place.  That includes the water and energy that went into all the steps from paddock to plate including production, processing, storage, refrigeration and transportation.

Waste not, want not

For me, this is an important issue.  My late father, one of nine children growing up in rural NSW during the Great Depression of the 1930s, always saw it as his moral responsibility to avoid waste.

Like many of my generation, as a child I was reminded daily of the privilege we enjoyed in getting three square meals every day.  Anything we didn’t eat was either ‘finished off’ by dad (he was affectionately known as the family’s human garbage disposal system) or ‘saved’ to be reheated or recycled into another meal.

Leftover casseroles went into jaffles with cheese or onto breakfast toast.  Cold roasted meats went into sandwiches for lunch.  Nothing special, but never was it simply binned.

We had a compost heap for scraps which duly fed dad’s vegetable garden and his prized flower beds.  When I was younger and we were living in the country, we also had chickens and ducks that hoovered up pretty much anything remaining that was edible.

We are forever influenced by these kinds of early experiences.  While I am fortunate never to have wanted for food myself, I have nonetheless inherited the ‘waste not, want not’ gene and carried it into my own life.

Irrational as it may seem, it distresses me to see food being wasted.  Whether it is perfectly good produce being rejected and discarded by children for a small outer blemish or a friend tipping the uneaten portion of a meal into the rubbish bin, waste just feels very wrong.

They say things like, my little bit of a contribution to the food waste, landfill and methane gas production problem is a mere drop in the ocean… it is industry and big retail that can make the biggest difference.

Making it personal

I know many people laugh at my waste management obsession (which tends toward recycling and composting as an ‘extreme sport’).  They say things like, my little bit of a contribution to the food

Food waste fast facts at is a good resource to look at.
Food waste fast facts at is a good resource to look at.

waste, landfill and methane gas production problem is a mere drop in the ocean… it is industry and big retail that can make the biggest difference.

Well, actually I’m not so sure.

According to the weekend’s news reports about the French law,  7.1m tonnes of food is wasted each year in France, most of it (67 per cent) actually by consumers themselves.  Each year the average French person throws out 20-30kg of food – seven kilos of which is still in its wrapping.

Interestingly, only 15 per cent of food waste comes from restaurants and 11 per cent from shops.  This is pointed out in criticism from the French supermarket industry which claims that “the big stores represent only five per cent of food waste but have these new obligations.”

Further, the supermarkets claim that they  “are already the pre-eminent food donors, with more than 4,500 stores having signed agreements with aid groups.”

This is no doubt the case.  France is a member of the European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA), a network of food banks which collect and recover food from the food industry and retail stores, European and National food aid programs or from individuals, and redistribute it to charitable organisations and social services.

But these services are not universal and there is no doubt a rising tide of inevitable waste which laws like this can only help to address.

The scale of the problem

Subsequent news about the French law reports that the councillor whose campaign against food waste led to the law, has now set his sights on getting similar legislation passed globally.

In Australia we might technically be aware of the scale of our own food wastage problems but it is hard to say how widespread or successful our response is.  Certainly there are excellent efforts being made by organisations like Foodbank and Oz Harvest, both of which collect surplus and donated food from a wide range of sources (including fresh food markets, supermarkets, hotels, wholesalers, farmers, events, catering companies, shopping centres, cafes and restaurants and even boardrooms) and distribute it to charities and community groups to disseminate to people in need.

Even so, a research paper published in May 2014 by independent, not-for-profit research institute, Future Directions International, estimates that, on average, Australia produces enough fresh food to feed 60 million people daily, but wastes 7.5 million tonnes of food fit for human consumption every year.

The economic cost of that waste has risen from $5.2 billion in 2009 to $8 billion in 2014.

Importantly, in Australia, food wastage occurs predominately at the consumer and retail levels, with each household wasting an estimated $616 worth of food annually.  Similar research for the Foodwise project by the Do Something organisation (a business + Community joint initiative) puts the figure at $1,036.

The National Waste Report 2010 by the then Department of Environment, Water, Heritage, and the Arts estimated that 35 per cent of municipal waste is food (equivalent to 2.675 million tonnes of household food waste); worth about $8 million.  About 33 per cent of the total cost is in fresh food

The National Waste Report also estimates that 21.5 per cent of commercial and industrial waste is food. This is equivalent to 1.388 million tonnes.  Adding these figures together, Australia discards an estimated 4.06 million tonnes of food every year, the bulk of it at the domestic level.

Either way, it seems to me that whatever we do by way of laws or programs for retailers and commercial organisations to reduce food waste, there is an even bigger campaign required to tackle food waste at the domestic level.   That means us learning to shop smarter, buying and cooking only what we need, learning how to use leftovers, making more use of composting and worm farms, demanding better kerbside organic waste collection and generally ‘being bothered’.

There is no acceptable defence in “what possible difference could my small contribution make?”

As my late dad used to say about the most accidental dropping of a gum wrapper or tissue in the street: “imagine if everyone said, oh it’s only one little piece of litter…we’d be wading through a sea of rubbish.”   We all need to step up.

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