Growing appetite to cut back on food wastage

Updated: 2013-02-06 07:40

By Cecily Liu in London, Caroline Berg in New York and He Na in Beijing (China Daily)

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Growing appetite to cut back on food wastage

Growing appetite to cut back on food wastage

Diners have the stomach for the fight to save leftovers, report Cecily Liu in London, Caroline Berg in New York and He Na in Beijing.

Every few weeks, Lu Jinhua's family meets for dinner at a restaurant close to her home in Beijing's Chaoyang district. But the happy mealtime almost always ends with an unhappy scene: Her children will insist that Lu leaves the table before she can embarrass them by asking to take the leftover food home in takeaway bags.

But on Sunday, the 63-year-old Beijing resident was delighted to discover that the restaurant had implemented a number of changes. A poster on the table clearly stated, "Save food, don't waste it". Instead of persuading customers to order a wide range of expensive dishes, the waitress suggested a small order that could be supplemented later if people were still hungry. At the end of the dinner, Lu's daughter even volunteered to ask the waitress for doggy boxes.

"This is the happiest dinner I had in that restaurant so far, and I am so glad to see these changes. I used to live in a rural area and I'm well aware of the hardships farmers endure," Lu said.

A campaign against food wastage is sweeping China, a country where 128 million people live below the poverty line.

Every year, food valued at 200 billion yuan ($32 billion) is thrown away in China. The volume is equivalent to the amount consumed by more than 200 million people during a 12-month period.

A proposal published in January, opposing waste, is part of a drive by China's new leaders to fight extravagance and advocate thrift.

Following suit, many provinces have launched their own, more-detailed versions. Central China's Henan province has ordered that business meals for cadres should feature no more than four dishes, and alcohol is prohibited. Meanwhile, the southwestern province of Guizhou has set a time limit of 45 minutes on meals paid for by the public purse.

The public has also adopted the idea, resulting in a surge in anti-waste rhetoric. For example, the Beijing Catering Trade Association, Beijing Cuisine Association and Beijing Western Food Association launched a joint anti-waste initiative in late January, which garnered a rapid response from many catering enterprises.

Smaller portions

At Quanjude Group, one of China's biggest restaurant chains, cards written in red print remind customers to order sparingly, while also pointing out that they are encouraged to take leftovers home to eat later. To discourage customers from ordering more than they can eat, the group has started to use smaller serving plates for portions. The new plates are roughly half the size than before and hold half the amount of food. Prices have also been altered to suit.

The campaign has also attracted large numbers of young people. In January, a proposal initiated on the micro blog service Weibo calling on Beijing residents to eat everything on their plate attracted the participation of 2.74 million people within the first two weeks.

Liu Qinglong, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Public Policy and Management, was happy to see the change in attitude toward food wastage, but he said he's waiting to see how things pan out over the long term. He expressed concern that the new move may be short-lived and will fade away in the face of traditional cultural pressures.

"Ostentation and preserving face have been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years," he said, pointing out that people don't like to be seen taking food home from restaurants for fear that neighbors and friends may think them stingy or poverty stricken.

He suggested the government should introduce a media and social supervision mechanism to combat these perceptions, while also advocating the establishment of a special office to oversee payments made with public funds.

"Without effective and detailed implementation, the phenomenon will not last long," said Liu.

Although research by China Agricultural University in 2008 estimated that 50 million metric tons of food - one-tenth of China's total grain output - is wasted every year, the problem is equally, if not more, acute in industrialized countries and the phenomenon can be observed in almost every developed nation.

Roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year - approximately 1.3 billion metric tons - is wasted, according to a study commissioned by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.

China Daily examined the situations in the United Kingdom and the United States to see how those countries fare and how they intend to change their situations.

The United Kingdom

Food waste is a huge problem in the UK, where abundant availability has led to consumers not appreciating the value of food as much as previous generations, when times were harder and food much scarcer.

Private households are responsible for almost 50 percent of the food thrown away in the UK every year. UK families discard 7.2 million metric tons of food and drink annually, costing the average household 480 pounds ($756) a year and rising to 680 pounds for families with children, the equivalent of around 50 pounds a month, according to the website Love Food, Hate Waste, in November 2011. The website is affiliated with the nonprofit Waste and Resources Action Programme, which has government funding from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Graham Jukes, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, a nonprofit organization, said that household waste often results from consumers throwing food away even though it is still edible.

"For our food sold in supermarkets, there is often a 'use-by' date, which complies with the labeling requirements. These dates are fixed so there is a leeway to ensure the food is safe, but many people just throw away food after the 'use-by' date passes, when in fact the food may be perfectly good to eat, and maybe 60 years ago they would have eaten it," he said.

Jukes said the attitude of UK consumers toward food waste has changed dramatically since the Second World War. "The wealthier a society becomes, the more it is able to throw good food away," he said. "People think: 'I'm reasonably well off, so I don't mind having excess food. It demonstrates we're not in a bad situation anymore!"

In recent years, successive UK governments have launched campaigns to encourage consumers to reduce waste. A system was also created whereby industry players feel financial pressure: Restaurant owners are required to separate their food waste from other types. They then have to pay professional collectors to take waste away. The system is intended to dissuade businesses from binning excessive amounts of waste.

The UK has no formal legislation on reducing food waste, said Jukes, and legislation relating to food waste is often implemented for the purpose of ensuring food security.

Industry associations that promote the sustainable handling of food waste also play a key role in raising awareness of the issue among individuals and restaurants.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association is a nonprofit membership organization established by individuals in the catering industry in 2010 to help restaurants adopt sustainable practices. It has about 1,100 member restaurants.

"Many restaurants had the best of intentions, but didn't know how to change," said Tom Tanner, the SRA's media manager.

SRA staff provide member restaurants with advice and information that can help to reduce food waste. They advise restaurants to provide smaller portions and encourage customers to use doggy boxes to take leftover food home.

A survey carried out by the SRA in 2010 found that the average London restaurant threw out 21 tons of food waste every year; 30 percent of the waste came straight from customers' plates.

"Some restaurants serve large portions or lots of cheap side dishes. The customer may not realize how much food they have ordered, and can end up paying for something they cannot eat," said Tanner.

The results of the survey prompted the organization to launch a campaign in 2011 called "Too Good To Waste". The campaign encouraged consumers to feel comfortable about asking for doggy boxes for leftover food and encouraged waiters to offer them at the end of a meal.

"In the UK, people are either too embarrassed to ask, or they assume the restaurant won't be allowed to give them doggy boxes," explained Tanner.

The SRA also urges member restaurants to prepare food in quantities likely to match customer requirements. "For example, if a restaurant expects 50 customers during the evening, we encourage them not to prepare 50 portions of the evening's special dish. It's better to run out than throw away," he added.

So far, the campaign has proved successful and many member restaurants have also been able to reduce costs by employing the SRA's suggestions.

In the United States

In the US, $165 billion is spent every year producing food that never gets consumed. So where does the land of fiscal cliffs and budget cuts stand on the issue of food wastage?

According to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, US citizens wasted around 40 percent of all edible food. In addition to burdening people's bank accounts, food wastage also results in a wide range of other costs.

Neglected food wastes 25 percent of all freshwater used in the US and 4 percent of total US oil consumption. It costs $750 million just to dispose of the food, and the ensuing 33 million tons of landfill waste accounts for millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If just 15 percent of the wasted food were saved, it would be enough to feed 25 million people in the US.

"Not wasting food in the first place is, of course, the best solution both environmentally and economically speaking," said Matt de la Houssaye, program associate for the Coalition for Resource Recovery, or CoRR, office in New York, which works to establish common frameworks for collection and recovery systems for food waste in urban environments.

To do this, CoRR, a subsidiary of Global Green USA, seeks partnerships and reports on innovations in the field to spread ideas and unite communities to create efficient and environmentally sound food consumption and disposal practices.

Among a growing list of company partnerships, restaurant chain Pret A Manger has teamed up with CoRR to examine ways of averting 75 percent of the company's total generated waste and also to establish recycling facilities for 80 percent of its stores.

Pret's motto, "Made today (gone today)", reflects the fact that the food it sells is made to suit the prevailing conditions, thus cutting waste to a minimum.

In its recycling scheme, Pret shops have introduced "co-mingled" recycling where one bin is separated into four separate containers for food, plastic and cans, boxes and cups and all other trash. The system allows for simpler separation of various types of waste, which is later processed at a recycling plant.

"There's actually been a great growth of interest in the commercial sector and among community members in addressing food-waste issues," said Houssaye.

New York-based actress and mother Laura Sametz would attest to this. When her son entered public school on the upper west side of Manhattan, she was shocked at how little attention was paid to "green" practices.

Consequently, Sametz joined the school's parent teacher association and started a campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues such as food waste.

She also joined four other concerned mothers in Manhattan's District 3 school area to pilot a composting program in eight schools. The pilot allowed them to test the viability of separating and composting food waste, including meat and dairy, kitchen scraps and sugarcane food service trays.

The result was an 85 percent reduction in overall garbage generation, and the number of garbage bags used in each cafeteria every day was reduced to eight from 54.

If the program is expanded across the entire school system, the total saving on garbage bags is estimated at more than $1 million annually, with an additional saving of approximately $1.1 million in garbage disposal fees.

The initiative caught the attention and approval of the New York City Department of Sanitation, which has now assumed responsibility for its operation and development. At present, more than 40 schools, and counting, are using the compost program.

"I believe change begins in the school," said Sametz. "When the students learn, it begins a ripple effect and when the parents take notice, so does the government."

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(China Daily 02/06/2013 page6)