Food waste: beating bourgeois etiquette

The thermos: the world's most underrated invention?

Why is it a social faux pas to bring a half-eaten cheese to a dinner party? Food waste is one of the most irrational and soluble problems of the modern world, but tackling it is not simply about logistical questions such as supermarket sell-by dates and discount policies. We must also ask fundamental questions about our food culture, and the values which make wasting food more socially acceptable than thrifty consumption.

The European Parliament sounded the alarm this week, warning that nearly 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted every year in the EU by households, supermarkets, restaurants and the distribution chain. Meanwhile 79 million citizens live beneath the poverty line and 16 million rely on food aid.

These figures are shocking but hardly surprising; it seems that everyone has a personal horror story about food profligacy. Workers at an elite London catering company were expressly forbidden from taking home the leftovers from corporate dinners, according to a friend who worked there. And anyone who has attended events in the European Parliament will be aware of the lavish buffet spreads on offer. Unfortunately most people are too busy hobnobbing, networking and lobbying to get through the mountains of options and courses, meaning that much of it goes to waste. No wonder MEPs have cottoned onto the problem.

There are some promising solutions out there for tackling waste in the retail and catering industries, e.g. using public procurement to favour companies who donate leftovers to food banks, and requiring supermarkets to heavily discount damaged or near-expired items. However, as much as 42% of EU food waste is accounted for by households. Leverage is harder to achieve when the target is 500 million citizens who have extremely diverse ways and means of wasting food.

Public awareness campaigns are the likely approach. However, if they are to make a real dent in the mountains of food waste amassed by individuals, they will have to go beyond the narrow logistical questions. The problem is essentially cultural.

Corporate culture and bourgeois etiquette

In the cities where most Europeans live – and where most of the food is wasted – a culture of plenty still prevails, and is surprisingly pervasive. While one office varies from the next, corporate culture remains, by and large, hostile to thrifty and diligent forms of consumption. Lunches packed in tupperware and coffee in a thermos flask are still a rare sight in and around Brussels’ EU quarter. What are more prevalent are discarded cappuccinos in polystyrene cups, and corporate lunching in restaurants and cafes, often involving excessive portions and ample waste, while at home the remains of last night’s dinner go bad in the fridge. Tonight’s dinner ingredients might meet the same fate, given that for many people the working day often drags on to the point where there is little time or energy left to cook – and a takeaway becomes the easiest option.

Peer pressure is hardly limited to the office. Middle class socialising involves multiple dinner parties and brunches; they may be so regular an occurence that it becomes difficult to realistically plan and get through the food you have at home. The result is a handful of half-used items which may have to be thrown out at the end of the week. Yet it is almost unthinkable to bring half a Camembert, or an open bottle of red wine, to someone else’s house. Instead we shell out for fresh nibbles or drinks, often paying a premium at whichever shops are still open, and end up wasting the semi-used items.

The resulting wastage is extremely avoidable, especially when considered that none of the people involved in the social interaction are likely to be actively hostile to economical use of one’s food. Why would they be? We are simply unused to seeing an already opened item brought to a dinner party, and the fear of the unknown makes us frown at it.

Companies can provide microwaves and eating areas for their staff, and many already do, but ultimately the amount of people who take advantage will depend on the prevailing social values. And supermarkets can make it advantageous to buy smaller, more manageable items, but the financially comfortable shopper may still choose a bigger, more expensive portion, and end up wasting much of it, because social values do not tell him/her to do otherwise. As with the broader sustainability debate, much will depend on whether peer pressure can be turned on its head; the change will happen only if it becomes as socially unacceptable to waste food as it currently is to recycle and finish old items in the company of others.

Bike renaissance – breaking the cycle

The transition must occur in society’s collective conscience – and a well-timed public intervention can help to set the tone. Public investment in city bikes has been a huge success, both practically and symbolically. People who do not own a bike have been encouraged to sign up to the schemes and cycle to work. Meanwhile, the growing legions of city bikers will have encouraged others, perceiving a bike-friendly culture, to get their own bikes out of the garage. Seeing these bike users back on the road reinforces the commitment of city bike users to uphold their choice, and so on.

The renaissance of the bicycle, essentially a regression back to a less sophisticated form of transport, shows that modern urban populations can shun the accepted paraphernalia of a modern, sophisticated life, and pick a simpler, more sustainable, and more rational option. The same can happen for food waste, providing that we are able to create a thermos-friendly, lunchbox-friendly, and leftovers-tolerant culture. To do so effectively, we must not underestimate the weight of peer pressure and unwritten social rules.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author only.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti