Clear Your Plate: Cutting Food Waste

Scraping leftovers into the bin is doing more damage to the environment than we realise, but there are ways we can put food waste to better use

Feature by Becca Inglis | 02 Sep 2019
  • The Refillery

The war on plastic is on. Judging from the past year, it looks like we’ve finally gauged the amount that we’re clogging up our oceans and are now galvanised to do something before we end up living on a literal plastic beach. Paper straws are advancing across our cities’ bars and cafes. Takeaway cups are being dropped with joyful abandon in favour of bamboo keep cups. Single use plastics will be banned in the UK from next April. There’s still work to be done, but things are looking positive. 

So you can imagine our surprise when Zero Waste Scotland announced this year that food waste is a worse contributor to climate change in Scotland than plastic waste. The goalposts, it turns out, have moved, and your fridge is the next frontier to fight for a greener future. Looking at Scotland’s waste that was collected in 2016, about 988,000 tonnes of it was just food – and 600,000 tonnes of that came out of our houses. That’s compared to the 224,000 tonnes of plastic that was collected that same year. 

“Food waste is actually a bigger contributor to climate change than plastics because there is so much more food waste than plastic waste,” says Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland’s Chief Executive. “When we waste food, we also waste all the resources that went into growing, preparing and transporting the food that ends up on our plate. The situation gets even worse if food waste is then left to rot in landfill, where it emits methane, a damaging greenhouse gas.”

Plastic, methane and food waste

We’re all pretty well-versed in our carbon footprint by now, and know to cut down on things like flying and heating to offset our personal mark on the environment. But what about methane, the ‘other’ greenhouse gas, second only to carbon dioxide in terms of its role in humanity’s impact on the climate? Around 40% of methane is released into the air from natural sources, and 60% comes from us via cattle farming, biomass burning and food waste. “In the short term, this is many times worse for the planet than carbon dioxide,” says Gulland. “If it were a country, food waste would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the United States.”

That doesn’t mean that we can let up on plastic, but rather that we should reimagine how we think about waste. The argument has been made before that we need a little plastic packaging in our lives to help our food last longer in the fridge – no prizes for guessing that many supermarkets have tended to take that line. That was shown to be, pardon the pun, trash last year by Zero Waste Europe, who concluded that Europe’s annual food waste has actually increased alongside our growing use of plastic. 

Plastic wrapping our food may even be making the issue worse. Single people, you’ll know the pain of being forced to buy a multipack of fruit that you know you’ll never manage to eat on your own. There’s also the small format packaging problem. One report found that French beans exported from Kenya were being top-and-tailed to fit supermarkets’ length specifications, wasting about 30-40% of the produce grown in the process. Convincing Tesco to change their sizing rules is expected to save 135 tonnes of edible crop a year.

The Refillery and SHRUB

Kelly Wright, who left her career in food manufacturing to open the plastic-free store The Refillery in Edinburgh, argues that while packaging is sometimes appropriate, supermarkets are often overzealous with its use. “In certain food groups, you need to protect that produce. Things like meat and fish, that's quite important from a contamination point of view,” she says. “But my own view is that we do not need plastic on fruit and vegetables. If you buy bananas in a plastic bag, you have to buy what's in that bag, so that encourages more food waste. Everything that we sell is loose, so the customer can buy exactly what they need for that day or that week.”

Most of what The Refillery sells is dry goods, which has a longer shelf life and can be weighed out to help customers buy what they know they can finish. There is also a simple solution for food approaching its use-by date – put it in a free food bin, where customers can help themselves to last-minute scran on the cheap. “We don't throw anything away unless it's mouldy or would present a risk to somebody,” says Wright. “If people want to take it and make something wonderful with it, they can. It encourages people to be more creative with their food, doesn't it?”

Confusion over use-by dates and best-before dates is responsible for a huge amount of food waste in the UK, with the SHRUB Coop estimating that 54,000 edible meals are thrown out every week in Edinburgh alone. Because of this, several 'rescued food' initiatives have sprung up around the country, which intercept food from supermarkets before they go to landfill. SHRUB Coop’s Food Sharing Hub launched the city’s first rescued food supermarket in January this year, which encourages volunteer members to repurpose food donated by local businesses that would have otherwise gone in the bin. 

The cost of membership is pay-as-you-can, which organiser Sydney Chandler hopes will encourage people to reflect on the worth of what they are eating. “The idea of keeping food in the system, not discarding it, making people aware of the value of food, is hopefully creating a different relationship to food,” she says. The goal is to keep food from landfill for as long as possible, which goes as much for the packaging it is donated in as the biodegradable waste. “There's no point saying we're not going to take any food in plastic, because then the food gets wasted and that's counterintuitive to me,” says Chandler. “We have Tupperware offered for free for anything loose, but that has been donated to the shop or by individuals to the community pantry. So again, it's not creating waste. It’s trying to give things a second life.”

Food sharing, and The Real Junk Food Project

SHRUB’s Food Sharing Hub already organises workshops with the university to help students plan key recipes for their rescued edible goods, and they hope in the future to bring those into the wider Edinburgh community. “Not only to take very basic ingredients and make nice meals with them,” says Chandler, “but also to take items that might go in the bin if you don't know how to keep them properly and look into techniques like fermenting, pickling and things like that. If you've got a whole load of milk that you're not going to get through, you can turn it into yoghurt or into cheese rather than throwing it out."

There are all sorts of creative uses you can put aging ingredients to, as demonstrated by The Real Junk Food Project’s branch in Glasgow, which previously teamed up with the Williams Bros brewery and Freedom Bakery to create 50 cans of beer from old bread. Their intercepted food has turned up at events as varied as weddings, a free Boxing Day dinner, and an initiative by Glasgow City Council to supply meals to children over the summer holidays. “The environment is at the core of what we do but there is often an overlap in to food poverty,” says Laura Wells. “Some of the events that we put on are pay-as-you-feel, so people can pay with their money, skills or time. We welcome help from everyone.”

If we’re going to tackle food waste, then the change has to come first from our own cupboards. There’s plenty of advice available, but how willing are consumers to make the necessary adjustments to their cooking habits? “I think people are becoming more mindful of how and what they consume – buying local, opting for produce not in plastic, planning meals and only buying what you need – but I think the logistics of it is what still needs to be tackled,” says Wells. 

For Wright, these logistics are less about thinking things anew and more updating tried and tested ways of getting your groceries. “A lot of our mature customers that come in say ‘we used to do it like this, this is not new’,” she says. “But what we're trying to do here is make it a little bit slicker, a little more accessible for people that have grown up in the convenience era. It's a big step for people that are used to buying things in packets and are a bit detached from food. Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland’s Chief Executive, calls it ‘back to the future’.”
The Refillery, 39 Newington Rd, Edinburgh,
SHRUB Coop, 22 Bread St, Edinburgh,
Find out more about The Real Junk Food Project Glasgow at