For a nation that loves its food, there is a staggering amount of it wasted in the UAE each year. Statistics show that 3.27 million tonnes of food are wasted in the region annually – that’s about 350 kilograms per person, which in monetary terms equates to Dh13 billion worth.
In Abu Dhabi alone, data provided by on-demand home-service company Helpling reveals that food makes up 39 per cent of all waste in the capital, while in Dubai it makes up 38 per cent, and only gets worse during Ramadan (55 per cent) when more food is produced.
Globally, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year, almost 1 billion people are undernourished and another 1 billion go hungry. Perhaps just as concerning is the fact that consumers in industrialised countries waste almost as much food as the net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa (222 million tonnes wasted compared with 230 million tonnes produced), according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
As it is all over the world, the amount of food that is wasted in the UAE is of increasing concern, and today, on World Food Day, what better time than now to highlight the ways in which we can reduce the region’s food-wastage footprint.
There has been much discussion around this topic in recent times. At a forum on Sustainable Waste Management for Companies in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the director of environmental outreach at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, Fozeya Al Mahmoud, said: “The key environmental challenge we face is waste management.”
She added that the increasing population and amount of food being consumed was contributing to the problem.
Emirates Environment Group head Habiba Al Marashi agrees, saying education followed by action are the first steps to bringing about change.
“Public awareness is very important to increase the enthusiasm and stimulate the drive for taking action,” she says. “The environmental issues the UAE faces are typical of any growing nation. The UAE has a great influx of tourists, which is good for the economy but leads to the presence of many eateries, hotels and restaurants, which in turn leads to a greater amount of waste.”
Al Marashi says it is crucial that people and companies realise their actions have environmental consequences. “People must take care not to purchase more than they require. Exercising restraint and limiting their purchases will play a huge role in reducing wastage.”
The waste-management authority in Abu Dhabi, Tadweer, recently announced an ambitious 25-year recycling plan it hopes will be picked up across the region. In Dubai, in an attempt to reduce landfill use, the Municipality has announced plans to increase fees at landfill sites and build 13 recycling centres across the city.
Half of all food wasted here – the equivalent of five bowls of rice per person a day – is produced at home. This is no surprise considering that so much of the culture is built around food. In the Arab culture particularly, it is not uncommon to be considered a poor host if your table is not piled high with food. The same goes for hotels and their buffets – the concern is around what is left over afterward. Grocery stores, restaurants and cafes face the same problem if food is not sold before it expires.
This year, France tried to implement a law banning supermarkets from throwing away food. While it was scrapped on a technicality, supermarkets are being urged to donate unsold food to charities or offer it as animal feed or compost.
Takeaway is an option for consumers who dine out locally, but some places require diners to sign a waiver beforehand. The Anantara hotel group’s waiver states that the customer is aware that the food and/or beverages (and they are listed) have been produced upon request, and that the individual has been notified that the items are for immediate consumption, and to be transported in a temperature-controlled environment.
Stores such as The Change Initiative (TCI) in Dubai, an organic shopping and retail store with a cafe, are bound to being waste conscious due to the fact they are branded “sustainable”.
According to TCI cafe’s head chef, Yogesh Goswami, the company has a number of wastage measures in place.
“We do our orders on a daily basis rather than in bulk and if food is left over we pack it up for our staff to take home,” he says. In addition, Goswami says TCI has gradually implemented portion-size controls (all dishes are between 80 and 100 grams per serve); maintains its fridge temperatures so the food doesn’t spoil; and any peels are cooked and boiled to make garnishes. As for expired goods, or those goods that are approaching their use-by dates, Goswami says the food is given to staff.
A Leopold’s of London spokesperson said the coffee chain, which has stores in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, reduces waste in a variety of ways, including educating staff and making purchasing adjustments according to demand.
“Every week, the team completes a wastage report that includes prices, ideas and improvements – this way we have a wastage tracker,” he says. “It is up to the head chefs and restaurant managers to purchase food items wisely, and our items are separated into dry waste, wet waste, etc, and then managed that way.”
As a way of using its leftover food, Leopold’s prepares meals for its staff each shift. “The meals are simple dishes usually with chicken, rice, fish, potato, vegetables, curries, etc – the production of these meals helps to move the leftover items,” he says.
Despite the staggering amount of waste amassed in the region, Helpling’s data shows that nine out of 10 residents say they are concerned about the issue. Emirati mother-of-four Fatima Hamad says she is very proactive when it comes to preserving leftover food.
“If my parents were not conscious about food waste, I wouldn’t be worried about it much,” she says.
“I try my utmost to not waste food … I always pack the leftover portion and distribute it in the neighbourhood.”
Hamad believes food is one of the greatest blessings and says Islam constantly reminds its followers to show gratitude by not wasting any.
This quote from the Quran is one she believes says it best: “Eat and drink, but waste not by extravagance. Allah does not like those who waste.”
According to the experts, if we don’t start being more aware and more mindful, the greater the effect on the environment.
“People need to understand that small individual actions are worthwhile and can lead to big contributions to reduce our carbon footprint,” says Al Marashi.
With this in mind, here is a list of tips to help reduce food waste.
When you are at a social event or gathering avoid piling your plate full of food. The trick is to be sensible when choosing what you eat or order. This may seem daunting at first, but it can be done gradually by ordering more conservatively at first – for example, you could cut out one dish up front and if you’re still hungry you can order more.
Plan your meals
Planning your meals for the week before heading to the grocery store will not only help save time and money, but will also reduce food waste. You’ll know exactly what you need for each day ingredient-wise, and if you stick to your list, you won’t end up with things you don’t need. Check out meal-planning website www.emeals.com or the FoodPlanner app for inspiration.
Make friends with your freezer
Why not spend a few hours on the weekend cooking a few meals for the week? This will stretch out the offerings and make food last. In addition, make the most of the food you buy and find out what types of food can be frozen and for how long.
Compost what you can’t eat
For the apple cores, corn husks, mouldy strawberries and other bits you can’t eat, composting is the way to go. It can serve as a fertiliser for the garden and can, over time, help improve the quality of your soil. For those who live in an apartment,take a look into the Bokashi composting kit (www.bokashidubai.com). This system is ideal if you want to turn your kitchen waste into organic compost.
Don’t shop when hungry
Only hit the supermarket when you’re not hungry, otherwise you will likely wind up with a whole heap of food you didn’t actually need. Going shopping on a full stomach will help you avoid those impulse buys.
Cook less and be more aware
Make enough food for the number of guests at the table. If you have six people, don’t cook for 10. According to the Prophet Mohammed: “The food of two people is enough for three, and the food for three people is enough for four.”
Store food properly
Proper storage of certain foods can drastically affect their longevity. Make sure you have a cool and dry cupboard or storage for any dry, long-life products. Sealed plastic containers, jars with lids, and resealable bags are ideal for these foods. Choose a container that has space for the product without allowing too much air in.
Reuse and recycle
Many items that you throw away may be suitable for another purpose. For example, you can use old lemons to disinfect surfaces or to clean the inside of the fridge out, and coffee grounds can be used in lots of inventive ways also, from unclogging a blocked kitchen sink to getting rid of the smell of garlic from your hands.
Take leftovers away
Where and when you can, consider taking home leftover food from hotels and restaurants. That way you can have it for lunch the next day, or dinner the next evening. But be aware that some hotels may ask you to sign a waiver before doing so.