It was mid-autumn festival last week and I enjoyed one of those big hotel international buffets with my family in the evening. It seems that the size of the moon at its most inflated influenced the diners on the surrounding tables into similarly over-sized food portions which they piled onto their big white moon like plates. Ok; no big deal if some festival excess is enjoyed, but when there is no intention to actually eat the food then I get mad!
It seems that taking large plates of all the food available at the all-you-can-eat buffet and stacking them on the table just in case you might want a nibble from each is the fashionable way to go. Diners left the restaurant with tables still piled high with untouched food plates of meat, fish, fruit and cake which was then dumped by staff straight into the waste buckets.
Earlier this year Chinese officials were banned from hosting buffets as China's leaders have stressed austerity as they try to rein in extravagant feasts and luxury spending. Having attended many of these over the years it seems to me that little of the food was ever eaten and the waste was inordinate.
I grew up, as did many of the baby boomer, post world-war generation, with the idiom ‘Waste Not Want Not’ ringing in my ears from repeated reminders from my learned elders. It doesn’t seem so long ago that getting enough food in China was a common problem, so it rather baffles me that it is generally the older generation noticeable for their determination to force fatty foods down their obese grandchildren and turn a blind eye to food waste on their tables.
What are the consequences of this behaviour?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Report - Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources points out that the waste of a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year is not only causing major economic losses but also wreaking significant harm on the natural resources that humanity relies upon to feed itself. At world level, the total amount of food wastage in 2007 occupied almost 1.4 billion hectares of land; equal to about 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land area and 1/3rd bigger than that of China. Food production affects natural resources such as water, land and biodiversity.
Food is wasted at many stages, from production, storage, processing and distribution, but losses at consumption stage are at record levels of over 30% in industrialised Asia, which includes China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, well above the world average of 22%. The carbon footprint of the wastage occurring at the consumption phase comes from energy used for cooking, but it also includes the energy used when the food was grown, stored, processed and distributed, and then the end-of-life of the discarded food, such as landfill, must be factored in.
Farming is a major threat for biodiversity worldwide whilst food wastage has both a financial and a social cost, not to mention its contribution to global hunger. China’s food production is particularly water intensive and reducing the costs linked to food wastage can demonstrate tremendous economic benefits. A high social cost is due to food wastage depleting resources on which the poorest are most dependent. In addition to the waste of water and other limited resources embedded in the wasted food, if countries wasted less, it would liberate agricultural land and other resources to grow something else.
A Saudi cleric named Saleh al-Fawzan has issued a fatwa against all-you-can-eat buffets in Saudi Arabia.
Raising awareness about food wastage
Rigorous data on the scale of food wastage across the supply chain is currently lacking. This is primarily due to the lack of a universal method of measuring food waste at the country level and across the different levels of the food production and consumption. Equally, nations and corporations are under no obligation to report their food wastage data. Major communication campaigns are needed to raise awareness of the issue at all levels, particularly with education in schools, but clearly the older generation are in urgent need of a little “reprogramming”.!
Incentives or Disincentives?
There are obviously many ways to provide financial “disincentives for wasting food”. In the US some restaurants have been known to charge for food taken from the buffet and not eaten and customers have even been banned for repeatedly taking food they don’t then eat.
"They told us we are not welcome there anymore," said Dershem, a repeat customer at the Dragon House buffet. "We waste too much food. But the buffet is all you can eat. And you know kids. They won't always eat everything and they want something else."
Studies have shown that supplying smaller plates and not providing trays can significantly reduce food waste at buffet restaurants whilst Scandinavia’s largest hotel chain has reduced food waste by not only reducing plate sizes but adding signage encouraging customers to help themselves to food more than once (ie. signalling that they didn’t have to overload their plates the first time because they could always come back for more): the effect of these measures in combination was a 20% reduction in food waste.
For 12 Francs, the customers taking the buffet spread at the Patrizietta Restaurant in Losone, Switzerland can eat to their hearts fill. But there is a condition - “No one is allowed to waste food; and if they do they will be charged five francs extra”
The Korean Ministry of the Environment has driven pilot projects throughout the country, installing the Volume-based Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system on collecting containers which charge fees in accordance to the weight of organic waste bags leading to an average 25 percent reduction in household food waste.
What can you do at Home?
The list below (EU Commission (a), 2011) gives an overview of possible tips to reduce food wastage at the household level when purchasing and consuming food:
Serve small amounts.
Serve small amounts of food with the understanding that everybody can come back for more once they've cleared their plate. This is especially helpful for children, who rarely estimate how much they can eat at once. Any leftovers can be cooled, stored in the fridge and used another day.
Buy what you need.
Buy loose fruits and vegetables instead of prepacked, then you can buy exactly the amount you need. Choose meats and cheese from a deli so that you can buy what you want.
Buy ugly fruits and vegetables.
They are perfectly good to be consumed and you are indicating your willingness to go over the aesthetic barriers which could go a long way to save large quantities of fruits and vegetables from the bin.
Don't throw it away!
Fruit that is just going soft can be made into juices. Vegetables that are starting to wilt can be made into soup.
Use up your leftovers.
Instead of scraping leftovers into the bin, why not use them for tomorrow's ingredients?
Learn to understand the sell-by and best-before dates.
These are often simply manufacturers’ suggestions for peak quality and are not strict indicators of whether the food is still safe for consumption.
When you buy new food from the store, bring all the older items in your cupboards and fridge to the front. Put the new food towards the back and you run less risk of finding something moldy at the back of your food stores!
If you only eat a small amount of bread, then freeze it when you get home and take out a few slices a couple of hours before you need them. Likewise, batch cook foods so that you have meals ready for those evenings when you are too tired to cook.
Keep a healthy fridge.
Check that the seals on your fridge are good and check the fridge temperature too. Food needs to be stored between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius for maximum freshness and longevity.
 Kallbekken S and Sælen H (2013). ‘Nudging’ hotel guests to reduce food waste as a win–win environmental measure, Economics Letters 119 325–327