UAE's love of takeaway meals creates food waste problem

Survey reveals most people have food delivered home more than once a week and order too much in restaurants

About 40 per cent of those who participated in the survey said they often over-order food. Photo: DronG
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The majority of people in the UAE are ordering takeaway meals several times a week, creating a problem with food waste, a survey has revealed.

Most people, 57 per cent, admitted to ordering takeaways more than once a week, according to the study, How the UAE Eats: National Household Food Waste Survey 2023.

About 40 per cent of those who participated in the survey said they often over-ordered.

The survey of more than 6,000 people in the UAE was compiled by the National Food Loss and Waste Initiative, Ne’ma, and the Behavioural Science Group and was unveiled at Cop28 on Sunday.

“We see there is a big issue with over-ordering so collaborations with delivery apps could help residents order the right amount,” said Rasha Attar, Behavioural Science Group director at the Office of Development Affairs.

“There is an appetite to cut food waste in the UAE, but it's hard for households to reduce their food waste. They need specific knowledge, practical advice, and wider policy solutions.”

About 40 per cent of food is wasted in the UAE, costing Dh6 billion each year, according to the survey. The UAE announced a nationwide action plan to cut food waste by 50 per cent by 2030 last month.

The study said 38 per cent of people questioned reported over-ordering food while only 53 per cent said they take leftover food home with them.

The survey showed that respondents “had an appetite” to reduce their food waste with 85 per cent seeing it as a major problem that affects national food security, and 87 per cent believing that everyone had a role to play in reducing food waste.

Of those who participated, more than half (57 per cent) saw food waste as harmful to the planet.

More than two-thirds of citizens (67 per cent) said it was difficult to avoid food waste, while 55 per cent of UAE residents said the same.

The most common items wasted were bread and bakery items, according to 36 per cent of people, followed by vegetables (34 per cent), and fruit (31 per cent).

More than half (52 per cent) said they often buy food based on what is on special offer, while 25 per cent buy food “without knowing what to use it for”.

About 65 per cent said they checked use-by and best-before dates before buying food, 16 per cent said they knew what those terms meant.

Just under two-thirds (63 per cent) said they don't separate their food waste because there is no easy way to do so where they live.

Health concerns were the reason given by 42 per cent as to why they don't reuse leftover food.

“We know that people are interested [in reducing food waste] both UAE nationals and expats, and that is good news, but they actually don't know the very specific strategies,” said Ms Attar.

Changing attitudes

Part of the problem around food waste in the UAE is down to the culture and traditions in restaurants, said one expert.

“The culture of takeaway food from restaurants is more in line with the western culture, it would be great if it was the norm to have staff ask if 'you would like to take that home' instead of 'can I take your plate',” said environmental scientist Dima Maroun, who is also the co-founder of Thriving Solutions, a sustainability consultancy.

“I believe if people were given the option, they would take it.

While there is an issue with food waste, Ms Maroun said restaurants and supermarkets are succeeding in getting the message across to the public.

“Some hotels and restaurants have campaigns and signs to make their guests aware of food waste, some retailers repurpose their “ripe” foods as ready-to-eat meals and drinks,” she said.

“I have heard more people mention that they do not like to waste food, so the awareness campaigns that have been launched in the UAE are making a difference.”

Education is crucial

As far as one of the region's leading hospitality groups is concerned, education is vital when it comes to tackling food waste.

“Food waste generally occurs because of a lack of awareness, unhelpful social norms and a defective choice architecture,” said Emma Banks, Hilton's vice president of F&B strategy and development for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

“With lack of awareness being a primary driver of food waste we have found direct messaging within the restaurant environment a powerful driver of change – and a guest’s concern is piqued once they understand the scale of the problem.

“Throughout our food waste initiatives, we have not seen any adverse effect on guest sentiment which is positive – in fact, we have been able to break through the food waste awareness barriers with an educational and interactive approach.”

About 40 per cent of the food produced in Dubai ends up being wasted, according to the emirate's Carbon Centre of Excellence.

Part of the challenge in Dubai is that it is so popular with tourists, who are seldom concerned with moderation when trying to enjoy their holiday, said a senior figure from a sustainability consultancy in the region.

“Holidaymakers tend to be more hedonistic than everyday residents, as their focus is more on pleasure and individual enjoyment,” said Marcos Salla, director of Agriculture, Food and Beverages in the region for sustainability consultancy Dss.

'The moral obligation for environmentally conscious consumption is often low on the level of priorities of travellers.

“Hotels and restaurants tend to respond to this by offering large portions and unrestricted consumption. This can become a vicious cycle of consumption that encourages waste.

Updated: December 13, 2023, 9:32 AM