Waste not, want not. This much-loved proverb is believed to have first been used in 1772 and, according to the Collins Dictionary, means: "If you do not use too much of something now, you will have some left for later when you need it."
In today's throw-away society, the phrase has new, wide-reaching implications. Waste is a constant fact of life – and may well mean that future generations will "want" for much. We buy electronic goods that are cheaply made and expensive to repair, so we regularly dispose of items that are supposed to be valuable. Instead of demanding longevity in the objects we use, we buy new ones, falling right into the hands of big corporations that practically build in obsolescence. And even the thriftiest among us are more than likely guilty of one form of waste that's doing enormous harm to society and to our planet. We throw away far too much food.
According to the most recent statistics published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), each year around the globe, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is "lost" or wasted. This figure amounts to a third of all food produced for human consumption. There are nearly a billion malnourished or starving people around the world, with approximately 36 million dying from lack of food every year. Just a quarter of the food we waste could keep them properly fed. Quite apart from the humanitarian aspect of food waste, it also generates 3.3bn tonnes of carbon dioxide, which accelerates climate change, and represents a pointless use of natural resources such as water and land.
It’s a problem of staggering proportions that leaves many of us wondering whether our actions can really make any difference. Before we go any further, though, let’s define what we mean by food waste. It’s edible food that is lost, left uneaten or thrown away – it does not include rotten foodstuffs. It’s the stuff we scoop off our plates and throw in the bin once we’ve had enough to eat. It’s the aesthetically imperfect fruits and vegetables that never make it onto the shelves of supermarkets. It’s the food thrown away that’s past its best-before date, but is still perfectly fine to consume. It’s the fish that are caught and thrown back into the sea even though they are dead because they’re not deemed big enough. Food waste comes in many forms and is a global epidemic.
And yet, growing awareness and concern about the issue is leading some to claim that 2018 will be the year when minimising food waste becomes a bona fide trend. This is being preceded by a huge surge in veganism, as consumers become increasingly concerned about what they are putting in their mouths, where it comes from and how they can be more responsible in the way they source it.
There is a tangible appetite for change, if you'll excuse the pun. Last May, Multiply Marketing Consultancy, a creative agency in Abu Dhabi, launched an initiative called #FoodNotTrash, aimed specifically at raising awareness about food waste. Digital and print campaigns in cinemas and across communities in Abu Dhabi aimed to bring the issue to the forefront of people's consciousness, by supplying advice about shopping responsibly, storing food and reusing leftovers.
“We optimised our reach to spread awareness by sharing useful tips and recipes. As a creative and marketing agency, it is in our DNA to communicate messages about the causes that we believe in, and we are thrilled by the response we have received. We hope that the good habits of reducing food waste will continue in 2018 and become a lifestyle to all those who pledged,” says Samia Bouazza, managing director of Multiply Marketing Consultancy.
“The response was huge, as we have reached over one million people through various traditional and digital channels,” adds Nihal Fahim, marketing account manager at Multiply. “All those who pledged, did it out of a sense of responsibility on a personal and a moral level. By signing this pledge, people are simply keeping a promise to themselves and society, that they will help by reducing their personal food waste.”
Change is underway on a micro and macro level. The Cove Rotana in Ras Al Khaimah has been recognised by the emirate’s Waste Management Agency as the hotel with the highest standards of daily waste segregation in the emirate. Inspired by Rotana’s global sustainability programme, Rotana Earth, the resort has adopted an array of sustainable practices. According to management, by the year 2021, these endeavours will contribute greatly to the municipality’s stated goal of preventing 75 per cent of generated waste from ending up in landfill.
Since May 2016, when RAK’s municipality launched the initiative (which is mandatory for all hotels under its jurisdiction), more than 500 tonnes of recyclable material have been diverted from landfill – something that The Cove’s general manager, Timur Ilgaz, is extremely proud of. “We are stepping up our efforts, starting by concentrating on waste segregation at source to significantly decrease waste being sent to landfill or ending up as litter in Ras Al Khaimah,” he says.
Every department within the hotel is responsible for separating clean and dry recyclables from wet organic waste, using specifically colour-coded rubbish bags and bins. The Cove’s guests also have access to colour-coded recycling bins, which are available throughout the resort’s grounds.
Thanks to the technology that The Cove has invested in, this waste literally goes back into the ground, after it is processed in a Liquid Food Composter (or LFC), which automatically disposes of food waste by turning it into compost that's used for nurturing the grounds's plants and greywater. Used cooking oil from the hotel's restaurant kitchens is recycled into biofuel, too.
It’s encouraging to see hotels and restaurants embracing change (some eateries have done away with buffets altogether – if you’ve ever seen what’s left after a Friday brunch, you might understand why) but, ultimately, it is up to individuals to address how waste is managed in their own homes. And this might call for some critical self-appraisal on our part.
Ivano Iannelli is one of the world's leading experts in sustainability and carbon emissions management, and is currently the chief executive of Dubai Carbon – an organisation founded in 2011 by the Dubai government and the United Nations to help create a low carbon and green economy. He says that, judiciously imposed, regulations can encourage businesses and households to reduce food waste and better manage surplus.
“Public awareness is an important step in changing the food culture,” he advises. “Dubai and its #ZeroFoodWaste campaign is a good example of a strong public-awareness campaign. While these larger scale solutions have proven to diminish [greenhouse gas] emissions from organic waste, many smaller scale actions can also be adopted at the household level and simple tips can help reduce the foodprint.”
What he says next should give us all some food for thought: “Consumers tend to throw away edible food because they’ve bought too much or prepared meals that are too large. A first step is therefore to reduce the amount of food: buying only the food needed is the simplest way to reduce your ‘foodprint’. Another simple tip is to enjoy meat in moderation and consider ways of reducing this protein-rich waste. Livestock currently produce more climate-relevant gases than the transport sector worldwide.”
Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City is a prime example of the UAE’s forward-thinking approach to sustainability. Nicholas Cary-Brown, Masdar’s head of sustainability, says that many of the waste streams in our cities are already well-managed, with excellent levels of metal recycling, for instance, but that there is still work to do when it comes to food waste. Increasing demand for local produce should help. “Think about all the robust packaging needed to export food thousands of kilometres to our stores,” he says. “Which in itself is a waste. It’s difficult to know how much food to import, so sourcing locally would remove a lot of that guesswork and help reduce waste. Supply streams are much easier to control when dealing with local growers and farmers.”
He says that food waste causes contamination to packaging materials, rendering them unsuitable for recycling – a side-effect few of us have probably considered. “At Masdar, we encourage our [food and beverage] tenants to serve customers using glass containers that they get a refundable deposit for reusing. This kind of initiative helps with educating people and, when you stop to consider that 7 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are created by waste food, it’s vital that people get the message about the ways in which we all impact the planet.”
Waste not, want not.