Why I am giving up food waste for Lent

This month we have a guest blog from journalist and cookbook author Sarah Rainey on why she is giving up food waste for Lent.

On Tuesday night, along with millions of others up and down the country, I ate pancakes for dinner. This year, I didn’t even bother with the token savoury course… I went straight to a stack of big, fluffy American-style pancakes, slathered with gooey Nutella and topped with berries. Basically the dream dinner (although I’m not sure my arteries would agree).

But Pancake Day – or Shrove Tuesday as it’s properly known – is about more than stuffing our faces. Traditionally, the aim was to have a massive feast to use up the indulgent foods in the house – eggs, butter, sugar – before the 40 days of Lent began.

Sure, it has religious origins, but if you strip it back to its basics, it’s all about food waste. Crazy to think that thousands of years ago we were thinking about using up leftover foodstuffs so they didn’t end up in the bin.

Several millennia may have passed, but sadly those early intentions seem to have fallen flat. In 2019, food waste in the UK is worse than ever. According to waste reduction charity WRAP, the average British family throws away £810 worth of food a year, amounting to £20 billion – or 7.3 million tonnes – of household waste a year.

Globally, the scale is even more astonishing. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, this equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of food worldwide – equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereal crop.

At the same time, 795 million people in the world are suffering from chronic malnutrition and undernourishment. In the UK alone, 8.4 million people struggle to afford a meal. What we’re doing is not only shameful, but it has an enormous and cruel human cost, too.

So what can we do about it? As someone who works a lot with food – I’m a freelance journalist and cookbook author – it’s something that particularly concerns me, and I’m becoming more and more aware of the sheer amount of perfectly-good food that gets thrown out after articles and photoshoots.

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Food left over after a recent shoot – all saved by using the OLIO app.

Some of the worst instances I can remember in recent years include: two entire Christmas dinners (one involving a goose; the other a turkey) being chucked in black bin bags after a festive photoshoot; the remnants of a dinner party – including canapes, crisps, wine, champagne and a pie – ending up being dumped because nobody wanted to take them away; three perfect replicas of cakes from the Great British Bake Off being left in the corner of an office to go mouldy; and countless examples of free press samples of biscuits, crisps, fresh and frozen meals, vegetables and soft drinks simply being binned because nobody could be bothered to find them a home.

Listed like that, it’s a horrifying indictment – and that’s just what I’ve witnessed in my own work. Recently, however, I’ve started taking a stand against food waste, thanks to a clever initiative called OLIO. Set up by two food-lovers in 2015, OLIO is a community-based sharing platform for surplus food, enabling users to advertise food they’re looking to give away – and connecting them with others nearby who have a use for it.

I downloaded the app on my phone six months ago and I’ve never looked back. Items I’ve donated on the platform to date include: a selection of festive cheeses (don’t ask… one was Wensleydale and gin-flavoured), a random selection of alcohol minis (including Dubonnet – the Queen’s favourite drink), and – most recently – a haul of leftover food from a shoot comparing M&S to Waitrose, including ready meals, crisps, two whole chickens, burgers, sausages and veggie lasagne.

You can also give away non-food items on the app. I’ve recently found happy homes for an old (but perfectly functioning) trouser press, and a set of four slightly-rickety kitchen chairs.

Not only is it a chance to get rid of surplus produce without throwing it in the bin, but it gives you the opportunity to meet other, like-minded people in the community – and make a connection in the process. The lovely woman who came to collect my most recent OLIO offering told me she shares food with her neighbours, and messaged again after distributing it to say how delighted they all were with it – and how they were planning a huge communal feast.

The great thing about OLIO is the convenience: you don’t have to go anywhere, as it only connects you to people nearby, so chances are someone will come and collect leftover food directly from your door. There are, of course, lots of other options out there: most big supermarkets have food donation points near the tills, and you can give directly to a food bank, of which there are 1,200 throughout the UK.

On an individual level, the solutions are relatively straightforward. It’s just a case of knowing what’s out there – and making a conscious effort not to take the easy option and throw food you no longer want, or that’s on the cusp of going off, in the bin. On that note, the government’s Love Food Hate Waste website has a whole host of recipe ideas for using up leftovers – from hasselback potatoes to spiced dahl.

The bigger picture is a little trickier. It’s all well and good donating a few bits here and there – but what about the national food waste issue; how do we solve that? FareShare is one of the initiatives at the forefront of this problem. Its army of volunteers redistribute surplus food from the catering and hospitality industry to almost 10,000 frontline charities and community groups in 1,500 towns and cities, where it’s needed most. Last year alone, they handled enough food for 36.7 million meals.

Big supermarkets have a key role to play in all this, with many partnering up with FareShare and similar charities (especially around Christmas time) to encourage shoppers to donate. But many have gone a step further and set up food waste initiatives of their own.

I recently attended an event at a community centre in North London, where Tesco is joining forces with Jamie Oliver to launch a landmark Community Kitchen. The aim is to train 1,000 community cooks – both in London and across the country – on how best to use the surplus food that’s donated to them on a daily basis by neighbouring supermarkets, giving them the skills and confidence they need to feed those in need.

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Jamie Oliver in full flow at the Community Kitchen event

While many of them are experienced in the kitchen, the problem, Jamie explained, is that surplus food is so unpredictable – 100 sweet potatoes one day, 10kg lentils the next – that it can be difficult to know how to turn it into nutritionally-balanced meals. As an example, he whipped up a dish in under ten minutes: minestrone soup, made with tomatoes that were past their best, crushed bits of leftover pasta, and some parmesan cheese that was heading for the bin. And I tell you what, it tasted AMAZING. Proper proof that ‘food waste’ doesn’t have to be wasted at all.

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Jamie’s food waste minestrone

So, next time you find yourself clearing out the fridge, or hovering over the bin about to throw something perfectly edible away, STOP RIGHT THERE. Could you turn it into something tasty? Or could you give it away to someone who could? The answer, I’ve found, is pretty much always yes.

Join me, for the next 40 days, in giving up food waste for Lent. It could be the start of a lifetime habit – and it’s definitely a better option than depriving yourself of chocolate or crisps.

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The UK’s First Plastic-Free Coffee Packaging – The Inside Story

Last week, Percol announced they were launching the UK’s first plastic-free coffee packaging, aiming to stop 1.3 million pieces of plastic ending up in landfill each year. Was it difficult to achieve? Is it good for business? What advice would they give to other trail-blazers who want to do the same? I had a coffee with Ollie Richmond, their Trade & NPD Manager, to percolate on some of these questions…

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Q. What’s the history of Percol Coffee?

Percol is a brand with a great story. We are proud to have been pioneering ethics and sustainability since we started back in 1987. We were the first ground coffee to earn the Fairtrade mark and the first to offer organic arabica. We’ve got a long history of making sure the people and environments that grow our coffee are supported, respected and protected. We’re now proud to launch the world’s first plastic-free packaging for ground coffee and beans.  

Q. How much plastic waste do coffee drinkers produce?

The takeaway coffee market has received a lot of negative press recently over the amount of non-recyclable waste it creates, and rightly so. People in the UK throw away 2.5 billion coffee cups a year, of which less than 1% get recycled! So, how is the coffee industry responding to an ever increasing drive to be sustainable, not only in coffee shops but in consumers’ kitchens? 

Over 100 million non-recyclable coffee packs are produced and used each year – you’ll notice the ‘not yet widely recycled’ OPRL symbol on the back of ground or beans coffee packs. As a UK retail coffee brand which sells more than 4 million products a year in supermarkets, we have an important role to play in reducing the impact we are making on the planet, and providing customers with more sustainable choices – without compromising on taste, quality or our ethical sourcing.

Q. Why is Percol Coffee going plastic-free now? Does it make business sense?

Like many, we want to do more to reduce the amount of packaging (and particularly plastic) that we’re using. So we’ve looked at all our products and have taken bold steps to find sustainable packaging alternatives, starting with our ground and beans. Ultimately our aim is to give customers a plastic-free option.

Being the first has meant taking risks and the new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is significantly more expensive than what we used previously. However, we were passionate that this was the right decision to take in order to reduce our impact on the planet.

Q. What were the biggest challenges to going plastic-free? What advice would you give to others who want to do the same?

There is no silver bullet. There will always be pros and cons to any alternative solution so it’s important to understand these and make an informed decision that you think is right for your business. The best solution to one type of packaging issue may not necessarily be the same for another. With that in mind, technology and innovation are constantly improving the options available – we’ve made a decision which we think is best at this point in time but we’re open to change if a better solution comes on to the market.

Q. Did you consider a circular economy model, where packaging could be returned to you and reused?

Our new plastic-free ground and beans packaging is certified home compostable. This means the customer can throw it in their local council food waste bin where it will be industrially composted and break down in 12 weeks. Alternatively, in their home compost bin it will break down in 26 weeks.  

We feel this is the best alternative to the multi-layer, non-recyclable plastic packs on the market. Composting is nature’s circular economy and compostable packaging, when organically recycled, is a true cradle to cradle solution. Our packaging – once broken down – can be used as a soil improver.

Q. What about all the people who don’t have food waste bins? What happens to your packaging if it ends up in landfill?

We would always strongly encourage our customers to put our new home compostable packaging in their local council food bin or home compost bin. If neither are available, we’d encourage you to speak to your local council about having a food waste bin put in place for your home. The UK sent 7.7million tonnes of Biodegradable Municipal Waste (BMW) to landfill in 2016* – this could be avoided through increased food waste collection.

If our home compostable packaging is put in your regular refuse bin, it will go through the local waste system where it’s likely to enter a landfill or an anaerobic digester. If landfilled, the packaging will act like organic waste – such as a banana peel – which may slowly break down but is likely to remain inert due to the lack of oxygen and moisture required to start bio-degradation. 

Q. Is the aim to differentiate Percol from its competitors, or would you like them to follow your lead?

By being the first in the market to launch compostable packaging, we expect this will differentiate us from our competitors. However, we hope others will ultimately follow or innovate in this area. We would encourage others in the coffee industry to be brave and invest in sustainable packaging solutions.

Q. How much plastic will this change save?

This move will strip out over 1.3 million pieces of plastic from our business, which equates to 2-3 tonnes of plastic a year. 

*(UK Statistics on Waste Statistical Notice October 2018)

Work Photo

 

 

Thanks to Ollie for answering all my questions!

Five plastic-free changes that have stood the test of time

My wife Sarah and I were inspired to give the Marine Conservation Society’s Plastic-Free July challenge a go. Instead of trying to drive every last piece of plastic from our lives, we focused on making a few lifestyle changes that might stand the test of time.

Here’s what is still working for us three months later…

1. Wonky veg

BsQ9RF6lQBSb4MjR6Eu52QCrazy that all of this is “too wonky” to be sold in supermarkets!

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Can OLIO become the Facebook for food waste?

The concept of the OLIO app is beautifully simple — it allows you to exchange food and other items that would otherwise have gone to waste with others in your local area who want them.

It now has over 325,000 active users, 15,000 volunteers and is available globally. Since its launch across the UK in January 2016, strangers have met over 100,000 times on their doorsteps to exchange food that would have gone to waste.

I interview Sasha Celestial-One, the co-founder and COO, to find out all about it.

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