As China’s leadership announces reducing food waste as a priority, we take a look at how other countries are tackling the issue.
Jeong Ho-jin dons a pair of plastic gloves to show off his most proud achievement as a district official in Seoul, and then uses his keys to unlock a large, rectangular contraption that looks like some kind of futuristic top-loading washing machine. Loaded with bins half-filled with decomposing ginseng, lettuce and other meal remnants, this, it turns out, is South Korea’s high-tech solution to food waste.
Jeong works in one of two districts in Seoul where the high-tech food waste management program is being piloted. The program works by giving each household a card that has a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded in it containing the user’s name and address. They scan their card on a small card-reader on the front of the high-tech bin to get the lid to open, then dump the food waste into the bin and onto the scale at the bottom, which gives a numerical reading of the waste’s weight and disposal cost.
“Before this everyone paid the same flat rate [for disposal] and they would just throw their food waste away without thinking,” said Jeong.
The apartment complex Jeong took me to is like many in Seoul, made up of tall, grey cookie-cutter buildings. Everything is clean and orderly, save for the heaps of trash bags and food waste bins he’s thrilled that the foreign media are interested in learning about. Fortunately for both of us Seoul’s winter is hanging on into March for one last chill, so we don’t need to plug our noses as we chat over vats of discarded leftovers.
Each household is sent a bill for the total disposal costs at the end of the month. The bills aren’t the type that we all dread finding in the mailbox. Residents are charged per kilo of waste discarded and officials say the average household ends up with a monthly bill of around 1,300 won (about 72 pence). That isn’t much, of course, but it will double over the coming year. Public services like utilities, waste disposal and transportation are exceptionally inexpensive in South Korea compared to western countries.
Getting rid of food waste is a matter of particular urgency in South Korean households. Korean food tends to be fragrant, as much of it is fermented, an old custom for preservation through cold winters. Most Korean meals are based around some kind of soup, meaning after almost every meal there’s some amount of thick, pungent stew to dispose of.
South Korea also has a population of more than 50 million in a mountainous space smaller than Iceland. This population density makes proper waste handling extra important. Last year, the government started a nationwide program to charge residents according the weight of what they were throwing away, a change that officials hope will lead to a nationwide reduction in food waste.
The Ministry of Environment has said that the goal is to eventually reduce total national food waste by 20%, thereby cutting waste treatment costs.
“Before people could see the mess, but they couldn’t see the weight. Now they know exactly how much they’re throwing out, and that can create a kind of psychological pressure to waste less,” said Kim Min-seob of Seoul government’s environment management division, the body responsible for food waste policy.
Officials in Seoul hope that the program will eventually be implemented throughout the country, but are facing problems with limited funding. The machines required for the system cost 1.75mn Korean won (about £980) and have the capacity to serve 60 households.
The system will face a funding crunch this year. Costs for the program had been covered almost evenly by Seoul city government, the national government and the district, but the city-level funding is being discontinued after this year.
Officials will need to find a new source of funding before the program can be more widely implemented, though there are plans to expand it this year to Gangnam (of the famously catchy Psy tune) and Songpa, two of Seoul’s more upscale districts.
In the less affluent north of the city, Oh Bok-hee owns an apartment building where she acts as landlady and superintendent. Her neighbourhood doesn’t have the shine of Jeong’s complex, but it has the same issue of large amounts of watery, stinky food waste being produced each day. On the weekly rubbish pickup days, she sometimes finds herself elbow-deep in the bags chucked out by her tenants.
By Steven Borowiec
Few foreigners forget their first encounter with America’s all-you-can-eat celebration of excess on a plate. Mine came at a long-vanished place in Beverly Hills called RJ’s Rib Joint. The ribs themselves were ridiculously huge, more than any human could reasonably expect to down in a sitting. But the real attraction was the salad bar, where I could pile my plate high with exotic vegetables and nuts I’d never seen in pre-foodie England and come back as often as I pleased.
I was a teenager at the time, so my appetite was more than a match for my surroundings. I remember being fascinated and just a little repelled by the sight of half-gnawed racks of meat being casually discarded when diners grew tired of them; of trial salad dressings slopped over nuts, sprouts and fresh veggies only to be summarily rejected; of giant cocktails ordered and abandoned in a chaos of napkins, spilt ketchup and dollar bills.
My parents, who endured the rationing that followed the second world war and never let us forget it, would have been appalled. So would the teachers who routinely inspected our school lunch tables to make sure we’d eaten up. Half of me got a huge kick out of breaking the rules of my upbringing, while the other half suspected my grandmother had been right to declare, imperiously and often, that Americans had no souls.
This was the early 1980s, before supersizing, the obesity epidemic and the first awareness that food waste might be contributing to climate change. Waste and excess were huge problems then and have grown only bigger since – 50% bigger, according to Jonathan Bloom’s 2010 book on the subject, American Wasteland.
Americans, by many estimates, now waste more than 40% of their food, compared with a global average of around 30%. About 20% rots in the field, or gets discarded in the packaging process, or is rejected before it reaches the supermarket because of imperfections, many of them as trivial as a single browned leaf on a head of salad or a small bruise on an apple.
A lot more gets thrown out because expiration dates come and go – even though the food itself, in many cases, is still perfectly good. A shocking amount gets stashed into overstuffed home refrigerators and forgotten behind the milk or the leftover Thai takeout until it stinks up the place and gets chucked days or weeks later.
There is no shortage of staggering statistics: a total of 387bn calories wasted every day, in a country where 50 million people struggle to get enough to eat; discarded food accounting for 14% of the contents of American waste dumps and producing methane and other greenhouse gases; millions of animals needlessly slaughtered; at least 2% of the country’s total energy resources expended on uneaten food; $100bn a year lost to the national economy.
“The supersize mentality is quite disgusting,” says Rick Nahmias, who runs the nonprofit Food Forward in Los Angeles that is attempting to point the culture in a different direction. “It’s wasteful on the outside and gluttonous on the inside and speaks very poorly of us as a nation.”
Since the economic meltdown of 2008, when soup kitchens started reporting record demand, a number of movements aimed at combating waste have sprung up. In Los Angeles there are now clubs dedicated to foraging – digging for edible roots, mushrooms and plants on public lands – and there is even a trendy restaurant in Los Angeles, Forage, that showcases what they recover.
By Andrew Gumbel
One of the things that struck me on moving to Sweden was how obsessive my Swedish wife is about wrapping everything in the fridge in plastic, with every fragment of leftover food placed in a little sealable plastic bag.
She says it reflects a difference in temperament, but I suspect it also says something fundamental about Swedishness, borne of the need to carefully store and preserve food through the long Scandinavian winter — think of the size of the Tupperware section in your local IKEA.
According to Hans Naess, a Swedish food entrepreneur, Sweden’s food culture has its origins in poverty and climate.
“For a long time, we were a very poor country, so in a very strong conservative way we have to eat everything up, and in the culture it’s very ugly to throw away food,” he says. “Our culture is about preserving food for the winter, so we were drying meat and smoking things and using every other way of preparing and conserving food.”
Left-over boiled potatoes frequently reappear at breakfast, sliced cold on crisp bread, or knackebröd — another preserved food. Then there’s pyttipanna, a hash made from leftover meat and potatoes, served with a fried egg.
Despite this, Swedes still each throw away an estimated 100kg of food a year, making them not that much more virtuous than people in the UK, who, according to the latest figures from the anti-waste organisation Wrap, throw away 110kg.
“Nowadays in the city, we have a new culture, where we look at the best-before date on the product, and if it’s after the best before day, we throw it away,” Naess says. “There’s lot of debate about throwing away food.”
Sweden’s response has been to turn all this waste into a resource. In 2011 a national target was set which aims for 50% of the country’s food waste to be turned into biogas by 2018.
In Malmö, we stick our food waste into frustratingly flimsy paper bags, and drop them into a plastic bin downstairs from where they go to make the gas that powers the city’s buses. Malmö uses anaerobic digestion carried out by bacteria and other methane producing organisms to produce methane gas. Each batch spends three weeks in the digester to complete the process. The resulting gas is then purified so it can be used for a fuel. Each paper bag apparently produces enough to drive a car 2.5km.
“About two years ago we took a political decision in the city of Malmö that all the food waste should be recycled,” explains Daniel Skog from Malmö’s environment department. “We collect the food waste to make biogas, which we upgrade to natural gas quality. If we have too much, we can just put it into the gas grid.”
When it comes to recycling food waste in Sweden, Malmö is leading the way, aiming to recycle as close to 100% as possible, double the national target.
Last year, 62.5% of the fuel for the city’s 177 buses came from biogas. By the end of next year, when a new larger scale biogas plant is completed, this should rise to 100%.
“What we want to do is take all the sewage sludge from the toilets and use that to make biogas too,” Skog says. “The food waste would be enough, but it’s not realistic to gather every single apple core and banana.”
By Richard Orange
Read the article here.