The big fat footprint of wasted food
When your parents told you not to waste food, they were right in more ways than they perhaps realised. It’s not just a matter of principle, but also a matter of serious environmental consequences.
THIS CONTENT IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN INSPIRE 38 FROM 2011
Do you toss out hunks of Camembert without thinking twice? Or leave yogurt in the bottom of the carton? Most of us are guilty of such practices. Studies show that Europeans waste huge amounts of food, and only now are they starting to think about the CO2 consequences of bad habits and inefficient packaging.
“Between 20 and 30 percent of the food we carry home is thrown away,” says Per-Stefan Gersbro, managing director of Packbridge, an international packaging-industry consulting firm located in the Swedish port city of Malmö. “We were shocked about the actual numbers. People don’t believe them at first.”
Gersbro gives talks across Europe, raising awareness about food waste and helping find solutions within the packaging industry. He tells people a surprising fact: Most foods have a far bigger carbon footprint than their packages. Cheese is a particularly dramatic example, because cows burp up huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. If cheese waste could be reduced by selling smaller units, the impact would be significant.
In the European Union, a 5 percent drop in cheese consumption would save the equivalent of 4 million tonnes of CO2 every year. The increased packaging would add back only a small fraction of this savings amount. “You could easily double the amount of packaging material for cheese and still reduce the carbon load by quite a lot,” says Gersbro. As more and more people live alone, smaller packaging is key. Other solutions might include:
These allow consumers to use up one section of food – whether pickled herring or pâté – before opening another.
As much as 10 or 15 percent of food can get left behind in the container. Solving this problem might require changing the package’s inner surface to make it more slippery.
In this case, Europe could follow the lead of the United States, where resealable plastic zipper-type bags are already popular.
What about expiration dates?
Gersbro says people need to take them with a grain of salt. Too often, consumers toss out fresh food that would remain good for days or even weeks, merely because of the date stamp. Instead, they should learn to rely more on taste and smell.
Gersbro also educates people about the high cost of waste. Every year, a typical four-person European household spends 500 to 800 euros on food that doesn’t get eaten. He says, “People start to realise, ‘With that much money, we could go on holiday.’”
Suddenly that hunk of leftover Camembert starts to look a lot more appetising.
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