Finding treasure in the trash

How consumers and supermarkets can help cut down on a waste of resources

Juana Viúdez
A photo taken in June 2012 shows a group of people rummaging through dumpsters placed at the exit of a shopping mall in Madrid.
A photo taken in June 2012 shows a group of people rummaging through dumpsters placed at the exit of a shopping mall in Madrid.LUIS MAGÁN

There's a quarter chicken left over from dinner and it is dutifully placed in the fridge. But what to do with it? There are good old-fashioned croquettes, of course, but these days who has the time to spend all morning making them? Certainly not nearly as many people as in the past. All too often, the leftovers will end up in the trash.

But the European Union has mandated that all member states - their homes, supermarkets, factories and restaurants - must halve the amount of food that goes into the waste bin by the year 2025. For Spain, the order comes at a time of accelerating lifestyles and what sociologists are defining as a growing lack in cooking skills, and even a certain lack of interest in the value of food.

The Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry is working on a road map to solve this problem in the coming three years. The approach will be manifold, and it includes analyzing household consumption habits, fostering legal changes pertaining to food expiration dates, and raising awareness among citizens, restaurants and food distribution chains. According to the European Commission (EC), 42 percent of food waste occurs inside the home, while 39 percent may be blamed on production companies and another 14 percent on restaurants.

"We need to create an awareness and a commitment at all levels," says Fernando Burgaz, director general of food industries at the Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry.

Spain went from scarcity to plenty, and you still see this need to show off"

Food waste is also a cultural issue. Scandinavians, for instance, waste a lot less. "It is true that Spain went from a period of scarcity to one of plenty, and you still see this need to show off [that you can afford to leave food on the table], but this is just one element to take into account," says Cristóbal Gómez, a sociology professor at the distance university UNED.

Spain ranks sixth on the list of EU members that throw out the largest amounts of healthy, edible food: 7.7 million metric tons of it a year, according to EC figures from 2010. The five worst performers are Germany (10.3 tons), the Netherlands (9.4 tons), France (9.0), Poland (8.9) and Italy (8.8).

There are inspirational examples like Britain, which managed to reduce its waste by 21 percent in five years through awareness campaigns. For its part, France, where food waste can represent an annual expense of 400 euros for a family of four, has come up with a "national pact" that has spawned initiatives such as three supermarket items for the price of two, where the third one may be obtained later, when the other two have been consumed. Another campaign based on the "beauty lies within" slogan seeks to convince consumers not to discard vegetables just because they are not physically perfect.

But Spanish chains such as Mercadona argue that there is just no way to get consumers to take home a gnarled-looking carrot or potato. So instead they have decided to use these less beautiful products in other production chains, to make purées, jams and other processed foods. "The fact is [ugly veggies] don't sell well, and it's a pity," says Adela Torres, Mercadona's environmental department chief, at a food convention organized by the ministry.

Jazzing up leftovers

- Some classic Spanish dishes came about due to people's need to make the most of leftover food. For instance, there is arroz al horno or baked rice, a concoction from the Valencia region that uses the bits of stew that nobody ate the day before. Or torrijas, essentially day-old bread that is soaked in milk or wine before being dipped in egg and fried in oil.

- Chef Sergio Fernández has gathered his imaginative thoughts about "jazzing up the leftovers" in a book available on the Hispacoop website. There are ideas for dealing with Christmas sweets that got left behind, such as "marzipan muffins." "You can bring some glamour to these things," says Fernández. "I don't call them leftovers; I call them disassociated ingredients."

In Spain, per capita food waste is 28 kilograms a year, according to a study conducted by the Spanish Confederation of Consumer and User Cooperatives (Hispacoop) with backing from the National Consumer Institute. The products that get thrown out the most are, in this order, bread and cereals (20 percent); fruit and vegetables (17 percent); milk and dairy products, pasta, rice and pulses (13 percent); drinks (seven percent); and meat and processed foods (six percent).

This association has just published a recipe book to help people cut down on this wastefulness. "We have really lost our way [...] We throw out food and it doesn't even feel bad," says the chef Sergio Fernández, who wrote the recipes. "It is hard to be on top of the amounts you need if you don't cook regularly, but we do need to stop thinking of them as leftovers. It is food, and with a bit of imagination you can use them to make something really yummy."

Alicia Langreo, director of the research group Saborá, which specializes in the food system, believes that people just don't value food enough. "Food takes up a small amount of one's income, and even less so when your income is higher," she says. "In very poor countries even potato peels are put to good use, but over here, with chicken selling for two euros a kilo, it is very hard to get people to consider making croquettes or a lasagna with the leftovers."

Langreo, an agricultural engineer by trade, talks instead about changing people's attitudes to consumption. "Throwing out a pair of socks that just need a stitch or two or changing your home appliances when they still work also represents waste."

The fact is ugly veggies don't sell well, and it's a pity," says Mercadona

"It's not that you need to stop consuming; it's just that you have to add the word 'responsible' to it," adds Milagros Yagüe, deputy director for consumer regulations and associations at the National Consumer Institute. "In recent years we have all indulged in excess, consuming above our needs."

But not all is lost. Our consumer society also exhibits a strong social awareness about the need to eat healthily, for example. Cecilia Díaz Méndez, a sociologist at Oviedo University, talks about contradictory forces at play: some of them favor a rational use of food, while others hinder it. An author of many studies on food, Díaz associates food waste with a lack of knowledge regarding the right amounts of food to buy and what to do with the leftovers, as well as the fact that we have less time to spend in the kitchen and shopping for groceries.

According to the Eating Habits Survey conducted by the Agriculture Ministry, it is mostly women who buy the groceries and do the cooking (even among the younger age groups). "Their participation in the job market makes them work the equivalent of double shifts, and the lack of time is not going to help with optimal food management," the report reads. Despite this, the study concludes that food culture in Spain is still quite solid. "[Home cooks] feel very responsible about offering healthy food. They are able to overcome their schedule restrictions, and this goes a long way toward good food management."

So all that is left for us to do now is to appreciate the bounty offered to us by our leftovers.

Britain flies a flag for responsible consumption


The average British family throws away the equivalent of 24 meals a month. Bread, potatoes and milk head the list of products that go straight from the fridge or pantry into the garbage, for a combined household total of 7.2 million tons a year. Yet high though that figure may sound, it actually represents a 21-percent reduction of avoidable food waste over the last five years, thanks to the commitment of producers, distributors and retailers to responsible consumption.

Britain is a leader in the European effort to stop food waste through an agreement with the various agents in the food chain. Initiatives include innovative packaging that extends shelf life, offering consumers a variety of portions according to their real needs, and clearing up existing question marks over the "best before" and "use by" dates on labels, as they do not mean the same thing.

Additionally, some of the food-production surplus has been channeled toward food banks run by a variety of non-profit groups under the guidance of WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme), a group that acts as an advisor to the British government and receives EU funding. The plan has so far managed to cut unnecessary waste in food distribution by 8.8 percent and in households by 21 percent.

The next goal is to prevent another 1.7 million tons of food and drink going to waste by the year 2025, while running new awareness campaigns. WRAP's annual report underscores that despite people's concern over rising food costs, their average supermarket spending far exceeds their real needs. In fact, 60 percent of the products that get thrown out at home were perfectly fit for human consumption. The annual cost of such waste is estimated at close to six billion euros.

Tesco, the leading supermarket chain in Britain, has just admitted that 35 percent of the bagged salads sold at its establishments go straight into the waste bin, and the same goes for its bakery products, not to mention 40 percent of its apples. This unprecedented disclosure by the multinational came with a public commitment by Tesco to reduce its 3x2 offers, one of its leading commercial weapons until now.

Tesco's decision has placed added pressure on the competition to come up with similar initiatives. Companies that care greatly about their image and like to portray themselves as environmentally responsible made this move years ago. Since 2007, Marks & Spencer has managed to substantially reduce food waste by doing things like selling soon-to-expire food at generous discounts. Campaigns like Love Food, Hate Waste, which were widely covered by the British media - where consumer issues always figure prominently - have also contributed to this shift. The campaigns warn consumers not to buy "with their eyes," filling their refrigerators with items they don't need and buying larger packs simply because they are on special. Buyers are also entreated not to seek cosmetic perfection in fruit and vegetables.

Overcoming esthetic prejudices and learning to buy just enough food to cover the real needs of a household could go a long way toward changing the unbelievable figures released by WRAP about last year's food consumer habits: 86 million chickens were wasted over the course of the year, as well as 24 million slices of bread and 5.8 million potatoes a day.

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