This is a story about minimising food waste. Before you decide whether you'll bother reading it, consider these facts:
Food wastage is the biggest pollution issue on the planet, bigger than cars and industry. If food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
The average Australian throws away one in five grocery bags of food each week – that's around $1000 of food thrown in the bin every year.
Australian foodservice businesses produce more than 250,000 tonnes of food waste every year, generating around 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases (CO2 equivalents) annually. On average, cafes and restaurants bin 120g of every plate served, the equivalent of half a muffin or a small steak.
Global food waste is a massive social, economic and environmental problem that can't simply be put back on large businesses to fix, it needs every individual and individual business to work together to resolve it.
Why is food waste such a problem?
The first issue regarding food waste is that many of us are barely aware we're doing it, and have no idea just much damage it's causing the planet.
"I think there are some misconceptions about what happens to food or organic material when it goes to landfill," says sustainability expert Dianne McGrath. "People assume it's similar to compost and going back to the soil but they're two totally different processes. In a worm farm or compost system, there's a lot of aeration, which has a big impact on the process of breaking down food and so on, whereas in landfill it gets covered over. As such, some of the gas it creates as the food starts to degrade is methane, which is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas."
Not only does food waste contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, it also represents thousands and thousands of litres of wasted water from paddock to plate – for example, just 1kg of wasted beef equates to 50,000 litres of water going straight down the drain.
To help tackle the issue head-on, McGrath, as part of a research team at RMIT University, has launched the project Watch My Waste, aimed at helping businesses reduce their food waste. Consumers can also take part by completing a survey on their experiences with food waste the last time they ate out.
Reducing food waste within food businesses
Businesses participating in the project have reduced their waste on average by 40%. Some of this has been achieved by making changes in the kitchen in terms of more efficient preparation processes, reusing items typically thrown away, and ordering smaller amounts of fresh food more frequently.
But McGrath's research has found the majority of food waste is occurring out thefront, on our plates, the solution to which is screamingly obvious.
"Smaller portions!" urges McGrath.
"It's about having options – different size options, but also options about what goes on the plate," says McGrath. "The most common things left on plates are those considered to be sides – things like chips, salad, garnish – people tend to not even consider a garnish to be food at all!"
For businesses, being smarter with portion sizes will not only help them minimise waste but actually allow them to make more money.
"Sometimes businesses don't consider they can change the portion size they receive from the supplier," says McGrath. "For example, you could cut your schnitzel size in half and serve two plates of food instead of one. As long as they're not being overcharged, people don't mind. In fact, our research found that when served a smaller portion, we saw less waste, more customers were satisfied with their meals and the businesses were more profitable."
Another way consumers can help minimise food waste is to ask for a doggy bag for their leftovers. You have every right to ask for one.
Businesses are also becoming more proactive in dealing with waste with methods like composting and worm farms. Mesa Verde in Melbourne's CBD is a rooftop restaurant with its own worm farm, and grows a lot of its own herbs, chillis, etc on site using the castings produced. The City of Sydney Council, meanwhile, instigated a trial in the Newtown eatery precinct of a larger-scale centralised worm farm for local food businesses, Soffritto and Newtown Boost Juice.
"We love contributing to the worm farm," said Soffritto restaurant owner Matthew Green. "It saves on costs and minimises landfill from our restaurant."
An alternative method of disposing of food waste is with a food waste dehydrator. Explains McGrath, "Similar to composting but much faster, they reduce the size of the waste by about 80% in 24 hours by using extreme heat and microbes. It produces this beautiful, nutrient-rich material which can then be used as a soil additive just like a compost."
Melbourne's Ladro restaurant even sells the material back to their inner-city customers to use in their own herb gardens or small courtyard gardens.
Another obvious – and socially rewarding – option for businesses dealing with surplus food is to donate it to people who need it most. Food rescue organisations such as Oz Harvest, FareShare, Second Bite and Food Bank are all on hand to rescue and redistribute quality surplus food, while apps such as Yume (http://theyumeapp.com/) and Olio can also be used by businesses (Olio can also be used by households) to notify people of excess stock that would otherwise go to waste.
Reducing food waste at home
Fancy an extra $1000 in your household budget each year?
"It's pretty simple," says McGrath. "Cook to recipes, go shopping with a list, start meal planning. Again, buy small amounts of fresh produce more frequently, because fruit and veg are the number one things that get thrown away."
The second highest thing that gets thrown away by households is leftovers. Dish up an extra serving and put this straight in the fridge of freezer so you have a ready-made meal for lunch or dinner whenever you need it – it's ideal for single households or time-poor professionals.
You should also ensure you're storing your food correctly. Keep food in airtight containers or jars and take care when storing fruit and vegetables.
A freezer is a great option for storing meat, bread and leftovers, but you might not also be aware that your freezer is also perfect for extending the life of those vegetable items you often don't get through, such as garlic and ginger. Herbs can also be frozen in olive oil in an ice cube container, ready to be thrown into a meal while you're cooking.
Another area of unnecessary food wastage is caused by the confusion around the difference between use by dates, best by and best before dates.
"The only one people should really pay attention to is the use by date, as foods marked with that have to be consumed by that date and businesses are not allowed to legally sell them after that date either, for health and safety risks," says McGrath. "But if it's 'baked on', or 'best before' or 'best by' or 'baked for', it doesn't matter, it's completely about quality... and quality is very subjective!"