Foundation essay:This article on food waste by Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University London, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.
Modern societies have a problem with waste. The entire economy is wasteful, a distortion of needs and wants. It overproduces and we under-consume - that’s what the current financial crisis is about. Debt was dangled in front of us urging us to consume. Then when the debt mirage evaporated, crashing us back to reality, consumption nosedived. Meanwhile the public sector is being cut to bail out the banking debt. Result: human waste in the form of unemployment, squeezed wages, uncertainty, rising inequalities.
In food, the lunacy of this situation is visible even more starkly than in economics. In nature, there’s no waste. When an apple or fruit or leaves fall from a tree in the woods, the rotting process folds back the embedded energy and matter, dissolving the “waste” into other lifeforms - worms, insects, microbes - which replenish the soil. If I drop an apple in the city, it sits on the tarmac as waste, a potential problem for someone to attend to.
At a large scale, this illustrates our societal problem with food. The food system overproduces, wraps food in packaging, embeds energy, chucks away mountains of usable food, and produces food residues. All this is done on such a massive scale that the waste we’ve made is too dangerous even to feed to pigs, one traditional solution.
The food industry is aware of its waste problem. The voluntary Courtauld Commitment, struck in 2005, has cut millions of tonnes of household and supply chain food and packaging waste – savings worth billions of pounds. Its third phase aims further to chip away at the estimated seven million tonnes of food thrown away each year. But still the waste keeps piling up – why? Because waste is not the problem; it is the symptom.
Organisations like Wrap and its “Love Food, Hate Waste” campaign have spent more than a decade arguing that food waste is an iniquity that should be stamped out. Their argument is that waste is inefficient. It is. But politicians and scientific advisers said the same thing in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, waste was associated poor storage on farms that left crops to rot. If only we cut that waste, scientists at the time argued, we could feed the world. They argued persuasively that better storage, refrigeration and transport could help, alongside massive investment in newer farming techniques and technologies, particularly fertilisers and mechanisation.
The food revolution they designed worked. After the Second World War food supply increased. Farm waste dropped. But so remarkable was the food revolution right down the food supply chain that the combination of economic signals (such as price), product standardisation, marketing, consumer de-skilling and consumer demand have created an over-supply situation where in much of the developing world “old style” farm waste continues, but in the developed world – our world – “new” waste proliferates. No wonder policymakers are both latching onto the issue today (it suits the moral agenda) and find it difficult to sort out.
Two Worlds of Waste
There’s one new feature in all this, which threatens the neo-liberal market agenda. Consumers are being subtly blamed. The customer who was sovereign is now wasteful. Privately, many in the food industry know consumer behaviour patterns must change as climate change and other long-term drivers kick in. But no one is saying that overtly yet, except some academic critics and civil society campaigners. In truth, society is not clear about what it wants from its food.
In the developing world, consumers waste very little. When your entire society is poor, you conserve and manage resources. But in our rich societies, characterised by resource wealth – cars, housing, infrastructure - even if you are cash poor, the entire food culture is factored around waste. It’s rightly pointed out that it’s wrong to blame consumers for buying too much bagged salad or throwing food away if the label carries an unrealistic best-before date, or if consumers aren’t taught how to cook, if supermarkets peddle BOGOF deals and price offers, and if the entire food sector spends hundreds of millions on advertising. Which confectionery firm doesn’t entice kids to consume by their clever games and interactions? The result: health waste.
It’s no wonder the entire food economy is a mess. There’s a structured mismatch between production, consumption, environment, health and social values. The simple principle of recycling waste back into nature becomes a heroic task.
The result is that avoidable waste - such as crops rotting in the field, pest infestations, lack of infrastructure and investment – is as prevalent now in 2013 in the developing world as it was in the rich world of the 1930s. Africa, given the right investment, could raise output many times over, although climate change, water stress and geopolitical turmoil add uncertainties. Meanwhile, in the rich world hypermarkets are awash with a dizzying variety of food, at unprecedentedly low prices. But here too, uncertainties loom: farmers and their land are squeezed in a contractual lock-in to the giant retailers who gate-keep the system. And bad diet now adds spiralling healthcare costs to economies.
The cost versus the value of food
Britain has a peculiar variant of this general problem. It is a parasitic food state. Britons live quite a lot off other people’s land and resources and grow less than 60% of the food we eat, according to Defra’s latest UK agricultural statistics. The gap between what the UK imports and exports is now a huge £19.4 billion annual deficit. That means a lot of other exports have to be made and sold abroad to pay to feed ourselves - food like fruit and veg which we could and should grow. Our land use is bizarre. An estimated 40% of cereals grown on prime land is fed to animals to make cheap meat. Animals are poor converters. Meat ought to be exceptional food not ubiquitous. The burgerisation of food culture is systemic waste.
This is all complex. There are no easy messages in this analysis. But that’s what political processes ought to sort out. By any terms, the current food system is unsustainable, but the implications are immense. After 70 years of investing in one food system, we now need to rapidly change - this is both an economic and cultural challenge. As a society, whereas once we were aware of the worth of our food, now it has become ubiquitous fuel. we never stop eating and thus wasting. It’s everywhere – any 500 yard stretch along a city street will take you past dozens of feeding stations. Bad food joints circle schools, targeting kids, setting expectations. Media pour out messages: buy me, eat me, like me. The problem is that when something becomes cheap or ubiquitous, it gets abused and taken for granted.
Back to that apple on the tarmac. WRAP and its Courtauld Commitments follow some heroic work done over the last 25 years by small civil society organisations and pioneering local authorities to introduce and mainstream municipal composting, trying to complete the ecological cycle. But these efforts are not mainstreamed, and mass food systems turn a simple biological cycle into Byzantine complexity. This isn’t helped by lack of political cohesion from government, which is happy for initiatives to make the food system more sustainable to remain at arms’ length. The food system needs firm and clear frameworks and goals, and not just a focus on one aspect - waste - as though it can be separated from the rest. Regulations can work - the EU landfill tax worked, levelling the playing field and penalising those manufacturers and consumers who don’t care what happens to their product after they’ve used it.
The good thing about the food waste issue is that it raises fundamental questions. One is about costs. Since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the pursuit of cheaper food has been hard-wired into British politics. Bringing prices down from when working class households spent 50% of income on food enabled people to eat better. But now we over-eat.
Back in the 19th century, manufacturers wanted cheap food to get cheap labour, food being a factor in labour costs. Now, we need to ask how cheap is cheap? If cheap food encourages unhealthy eating, and dumps costs on the environment and healthcare, is it cheap? If a food system is as wasteful as ours, what does that tell us? Blaming consumers for waste is like saying “We have the right food system, just the wrong consumers.” But of course, blaming consumers is much easier for politicians than fixing a broken system.
Waste Not, Want Not
For many students, the start of their freshman year at college also means the beginning of discovering their new found freedom. Students are presented with the opportunities of choosing classes they are actually interested in, going out to party whenever they want and deciding whether or not they would rather sleep in or get up to attend class. However, the possibilities are even more extensive when it comes to eating in the dining halls. Meals that were once dictated by Mom are now only limited by the students’ preference and the various food items being offered. Food options range from the basic pizza, burger, and fries, to the more extravagant sushi and dishes from around the world. With the availability of a tray, students’ taste buds and hunger are satisfied by the opportunity to sample several entrees during one meal.
Yet, despite how appealing that sounds, students are taking advantage of the dining opportunities without any regard for the consequences their actions have on the environment. Students have developed a lack of concern for the environment through their belief that getting a lot of food is not a detrimental issue because so much food is already provided. Instead of using trays simply to make carrying several things less of a hassle, students are misusing the trays offered in the dining halls by taking advantage of the space it provides and getting more food than they will actually consume. What students do not realize is that this leads to greater food waste, which then results in a greater usage of plates and silverware, more water being required for washing, and ultimately, money being wasted. Although these problems cannot be completely abated, implementing a trayless dining policy will reduce the amount of wasted food, thus reducing water and energy consumption and increasing students’ awareness about their choices in the dining hall.
When I enter the dining hall, the first item I grab is a tray. Even when I see food that I want to eat right away, it has become second nature to grab a tray since they have been available since the start of the school year. Although I am now more aware of the food choices I make, at the beginning of the school year I fully took advantage of the food variety and the spaciousness of a tray. By the time I made my way around the dining and chose a place to sit, I usually had one to two large dishes of several entrees, a plate of salad, and a bowl of fruit regardless of how hungry I was. By the end of the meal, I may have eaten half or ¾ of my entrees, most of my salad, some fruit, and threw away all that was leftover. This means that for every meal I ate, which was about ten times per week, I used one tray, four plates, and threw approximately a quarter of my meal away. By the end of the week, I would have thrown away enough food to constitute 2.5 meals and used ten trays and 40 plates that would need to be washed. According to “Trayless Dining,” a presentation on a trayless dining test study ran by a group of University of Michigan students, there were approximately 9,700 students (in 2009) and seven dining halls that served a total 2.5 million meals per year at U of M (4). Based off this information and the numbers I gathered, the 2.5 million meals served per year would result in approximately 6.25 million meals thrown away and the use of 2.5 million trays and 10 million plates. Imagine how much water and energy would have to be used to deal with that.
In order to determine the attitude of other students toward the food and
After gaining insight on the experiences of students in the dining hall, I decided to hear the other side of the story of someone who actually sees the amount of food being wasted at the end of dining hours. Truc Nguyen, a sophomore who works in the dish room at the Mo-Jo dining hall, has the jobs of taking trays down and pitching dishes into the machine and taking them out. When asked how much food she sees being wasted when she is working, she responded, “I see tons of food being wasted. Sometimes, there are plates of food that looks untouched.” Truc believes the reason behind this is that students usually take more than they can eat while servers also tend to serve more food than will be consumed. She also revealed that the cleaning process for dishes and trays consists of “putting them through once and if they are still dirty, we put them in until they come out clean. For utensils, we put them in twice. First, a pile and then we sort them and run them back through” (Nguyen). On average, enough water is required to wash utensils for two cycles while plates and tray may require even three or four cycles, which is already a large amount of water. As long as students are increasing their use of trays, plates, and silverware, the amount of water necessary for cleaning will continue to increase even more. Also, according to Truc, students have a tendency to overestimate their hunger, thus the convenience of a tray causes students to feel inclined to get enough food to fill the tray which results in them being less aware of what they are actually getting and just how much. On the other hand, students are not entirely at fault since it is revealed that servers also serve too much food.
Although the availability of trays contributes to students getting more food than they will eat, there may be an underlying reason behind their actions. According to University of Michigan’s Housing, a standard meal plan of 150 meals and ten guest meals, not including the $200 that is set aside for Blue Bucks and Dining Dollars, costs $1605. If you do the math, one meal costs approximately $10, which many people would consider a hefty amount for one meal when a budget is crucial in college. Also, “unused meals expire at the end of the academic year and are not refundable” (U Housing) so even if students want to ration their meals throughout the semester, it would be a pointless attempt since the meals would just expire and go to waste. In order to get their money’s worth, students attempt to get as much food as possible so that they feel like their money is being put to use. I admit that this is one of the main reasons why I take so muchfood, and I’m sure many others would admit to the same.
A possible solution to the problem of having a meal plan where it costs $10 per meal is having the University implement a new policy where any unused meals can be refunded so students will be less inclined to take enough food in order to make the most of their money. If dining halls began allowing students to take food from the dining halls to later eat, students would also create less waste during their meals. However, creating a new policy to refund unused meals may take time to get approval and may not even be financially possible while giving students the opportunity to take food from the dining hall may lead to abuse of this privilege and cause additional problems.
However, the food waste in dining could be dealt with through another method. By targeting the trays in the dining halls, a more feasible solution would be to enforce trayless dining.According to ARAMARK, a professional services organization, “trayless dining decreases waste, conserves natural resources (namely, energy and water)… Economically, it reduces the cost of these same inputs (energy, water, cleaning agents), as well as the fees associated with waste removal. Socially, trayless dining can provide education and awareness about environmental issues...” (3). After conducting a study with more than 186,000 meals served at 25 institutions, the institutions collectively generated 11,505 fewer pounds of waste on days when trays had been removed. On average, food waste quantity was reduced by 1.2 ounces to 1.8 ounces per person per meal which represents a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in per-person waste (3).ARAMARK also determined that on average, a tray requires one-third to one-half gallon of water to wash (4). With the complete removal of trays, this water consumption used for trays could be significantly decreased.
Although it may be predicted that many students would object the removal of trays, however, a test study was already conducted right on the University of Michigan’s campus. In 2009, a group of students believed that trayless dining would decrease the amount of food waste and water consumption, so they tried it out at the dining hall in Markley. Before the actual study, a pre-survey was provided in order to gauge the opinions of residents. From the results, a little over half of the students agreed that they would accept a trayless dining policy (Trayless Dining, 11). At the end of the study, a post-survey was also given in order to determine the satisfaction of students based on the amount of food they wasted. According to the results, almost half of the students were satisfied with how much less food they threw away (Trayless, 14). At the end of the entire test study, the students determined that a total 50.355 lbs of food waste was reduced which was calculated to be approximately 0.105 lbs of food waste reduced per person. Dish washing at the end of each meal shift was also determined to be 30-45 minutes less than usual (Trayless 18). After additional calculations, they predicted that a total of 262,500 lbs of food waste per year could be reduced (Trayless 19), which will ultimately save a lot of money.
If students continue to waste food as they do now, the University of Michigan will continue to spend money on buying more food to replace it and even more on the energy required to wash the dishes and trays and remove the waste. Fortunately, a costless solution of creating a trayless dining policy and having servers serve a smaller portion of food can be the start to becoming more “green”. Until then, students should take the time to become more aware of their choices in the dining hall. Whether it is adopting the trayless method or making the effort to sample food before getting more, students can make their own difference and decrease the overall amount of food being wasted and energy being used on their terms.
Adair, Abby. Personal Interview. 19 Nov. 2010.
Kelly, Kristen, et al. “Trayless Dining.” Schroeder, Jeff. 15 April, 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
Kelly, Kristen, et al. “Trayless Dining.” Chart. Schroeder, Jeff. 15 April, 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
Kononenko, Kevin. Personal Interview. 17 Nov. 2010.
"Meal Plans 2010 - 2011." U Housing. University of Michigan. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
Nguyen, Truc. Personal Interview. 18 Nov. 2010.
“The Business and Cultural Acceptance Case for Trayless Dining.” ARAMARK. ARAMARK Higher Education. July 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2010.
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