Resources on this planet are finite, although they can cycle round they can be used up and also locked up into a form that is rendered of no future use to us. This leaves us as a species with some pretty strong consequences, though these are at the extreme end of a spectrum, all the way points to an uninhabitable environment do make for a bit of a horror show. The Earth will continue on without us, regardless of our actions, it has the ability to exist and continue with other life getting along and adapting, it is the change in our environment that will be our demise (if it ever came to that!).
Like I say, hot and heavy for an introduction, but I felt it important to instill some context into why I engaged in the exercise I am about the explain. For those that don’t know me, my day job is as an Environmental Scientist. This role has always been about balancing satisfying the needs of a client and trying to push best environmental practice, sustainability and safety for every project. Working day-to-day in a waste management team, I have gained a deeper understanding of what happens to our rubbish once it is collected from the wheelie bins, crates, bags and caddies sitting on the kerbside on collection day.
Speaking on to friends and people who do not work in this industry, it is often a preconception among many that waste all either goes to a landfill or into a big factory where all the waste is magically sorted and recycled. Whilst there is some truth in this, it is also massively over simplifying matters. So, consider your own behaviour, how good are you at separating your rubbish at home? Does the odd banana skin or a few potato peelings make their way into the box for recyclables, plastics, glass and metals? Do you try and make the most of off-cuts from vegetables and fruit, or do you throw away half-used tins of beans away as they have grown mouldy?
Not only does this behaviour waste a resource and place additional pressure on the Environment (okay, hyperbole to an extent – but if everyone does this… that is a lot of waste and energy lost), on top of this, there’s the waste of money. The mixing of wet food waste in with recyclable materials can make it impossible for reclamation of materials like plastics, metals, paper and glass – even with gradually improving reclamation technologies we currently have at our disposal.
Looking at the waste hierarchy (above), the prevention of generation of waste is the first action for sustainability, with the next stage is to ensure the waste is separated into the correct fractions for collection by your local waste authority. For example, avoid putting food/contaminated plastic food trays in recycling bin with other recyclable materials. Try to use up as much food as possible and avoid binning it – at least try to compost it at home or putting it into a food caddy for composting by the waste collection authority. Another potential outlet, albeit one of limited scope for most of us is to pass on scraps to anyone who keeps chickens or pigs (Although always consult owners and veterinary advice before doing so!).
Recently, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been presenting a series trying to curtail the food waste on a large scale, with supermarkets dictating to producers what they should be growing and providing to the shelves. As you may or may not have seen, this produces a large amount of ‘ugly’ vegetables and fruit (which are often anything but) which the supermarkets will not take, due to it being ‘off-specification’. This is waste on a huge scale and when considering the rise of foodbanks and food charities, a pretty sickening blemish on us as a society. You can follow Hugh’s exploits here: [https://twitter.com/HughsWaronWaste] and get involved here [https://wastenotuk.com].
So what else can be done on a ‘ground level’ in our kitchens? One of the best ways to cut down on food waste is to get good in the kitchen and at cooking.
Learning to cook is a gradual process, just like any other skill, developed by trial and error, repetition, practice and no little imagination. Though there are a few things you can do to get started and ensure that you are prepared to make the most of the fresh and perishable items you cook with;
- Stock up on dry and tinned goods, even frozen items such as peas and sweetcorn can be used to add ballast to many dishes, including soups and risottos. Herbs and spices are key in providing flavour to dishes where there a lack of ‘focal point’ and bring something to the fore as that focus. As a rule of thumb in my kitchen, I always have pearly barley, various beans dark and lentils in dried form, dried soya mince (just add fried onions and dark soy sauce whilst frying – works to produce something that works instead of beef mince). Ensure you have tinned chopped tomatoes and tinned chickpeas available – always ready to make a quick homemade curry.
- Try to be clever with what you buy in the first place; some vegetables will keep in there fridge or cupboard longer (carrots, potatoes, squashes, leek and, celery) than softer, more perishable items (most fruit, peppers, herbs and salad leaves).
- Go ‘off road’ with your cooking. Recipes are often only a guideline when you’re cooking at home; a lot of dishes which are considered ‘classics’ only became so because certain items were available abundantly in a given region and seasonally. There is little need to buy everything you need for a single one-off dish, only to find yourself struggling to use up certain items left over from what you’ve bought following the preparation of the one-off masterpiece! This is where a bit of cooking initiative comes into play and good cooks thrive. It isn’t a difficult skill to learn, just ask around if in doubt, read up and practice. There are plenty of resources out there to help you learn to think of your feet whilst cooking.
- Keep off-cuts of vegetables in a sealed plastic tub in the fridge – by the end of the week you’ll have a small pile of vegetables which whilst unappetising, can be boiled up with some herbs. Herbs such as thyme, bay, peppercorns and cardamom pods can help produce a lovely vegetable stock as a base for gravy, soups or even for addition to curries and stews. If you’re feeling brave, you can even blend down some of the softer elements from the boil to leave in the soup and provide a bit of texture and roughage.
- In relation to the last point, this is where you need to too-up; utensils and cooking gadgets can be a life saver – I would struggle in a kitchen now where I didn’t have a blender and a slow cooker to draw up for certain dishes which are good for using up leftover food.
- Inspect your fridge daily; are there any smaller items left over and lurking at the back of the shelves? Are there small bags of herbs or salad buried under newer items of food? If the latter results in a yes, then bring those items back to the top and find a use for them.
- If you find it helps, plan your meals out a week at a time, this approach is often favoured by families and will help with those less able to think on their feet with an ad-hoc cooking approach.
- Making extra; If you have made too much food, you can set a portion aside and put this into a plastic takeaway box (available from curry houses or chinese takeaways, failing this, from oriental or specialist supermarkets) which will readily freeze down. These will then be ready to be used up as a homemade microwave meal. Better than a supermarket sandwich and often better than a takeaway, depending on what you have prepared!
- If you have room, maybe consider getting a compost bin for the food you don’t use, this can be spread on the garden and even used to feed and provide a growing medium for your own herbs, fruit and vegetables.
- There are no stupid questions; if you’re struggling to know what to do, how to cook or get an idea how to cut down on wasted food, there are plenty of websites out there now.
I have spent a good deal of time looking at my own cooking habits recently, and although I have been resourceful, there is always room for improvement. This is why I joined in with the HubbubUK #ExpressYourShelf Challenge, following their kind invitation to do so in October of this year. The hashtag and challenge were used to highlight any tips that food bloggers or other interested parties could pass on to other people via social media to improve their cooking habits and techniques, not to mention the passing on of potentially excellent home economy advice. The outcome of such a challenge is to hopefully limit and where possible, eradicate food waste. The challenge was also carried out in conjunction with Tesco and Society and the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign.
By a bit of awkward timing, I wasn’t in a difficult position food-wise; I received the invitation to join in after I had been on the weekly shop and as such, wasn’t forced to into the position of showing off my initiative, although I like to think I did my best and used what tricks I could over several twitter broadcasts during the last couple of weeks in October. This meant I had to be a little more creative in developing the tips I was sharing, though it wasn’t impossible; getting into good habits and using up as much food as you buy doesn’t necessarily mean getting by on scraps all the time. It is more about just being clever about what you have in and how you use it at any given time.
I would advise anyone interested in trying to improve their own home economics and cooking to try the approaches above and have a look at the links provided if they think they can improve. I certainly learned a few things over the course of this exercise!