I refuse to use my food waste recycling bin, and I’m not sorry

bin.jpgFLIES. Dozens and dozens of tiny flies. And a terrible stink. I snapped shut the lid and tried not to gag.

I’d been warned about this discovery. Warned that the thin liner in my food waste caddy would have disintegrated as its contents quietly grew mould and turned to sludge in the corner of the kitchen.

I held my nose, tipped the contents into a bin liner (a proper black plastic, non-disintegrating one) and gave the caddy a hot bath. Then I dried it off, climbed up a stepladder and placed it on top of the kitchen cupboards, never to be used again.

The Scottish Government would not be happy with me. I am not doing my bit. If everyone did their bit, and half of the country’s food waste was recycled, we could apparently power a city the size of Dundee for six months with the green energy produced.

The Scottish Government would not be happy with me. I am not doing my bit

I’m not quite clear whether this statistic takes into account the cost – in time, fuel and man power – of collecting and processing one million tonnes of food waste. Presumably if significantly less was to be collected, transported and treated, we might struggle to break even.

To clarify, I’m not a recycling refusenik. I am an enthusiastic user of my big blue bag, thanks to which I only have to put the rubbish out once a fortnight at the very most. I make the most modest of contributions to the wheelie bins for my six-in-a-block, and dutifully carry my empties to the bottle bank the morning after the night before (OK, maybe a week after the night before, if we’re being strictly accurate here).

Supermarkets are the heroes here, and consumers – you and me – the villains. Right?

The problem with food waste is that it is too often framed as a consumer problem rather than a producer one. At a glance, the numbers seem to bear this out. While it is tricky to obtain accurate data, the European Commission’s statistics-gatherer Eurostat has given it a good go, surveying and extrapolating across EU member states. It found that 42 per cent of food waste – the biggest share – came from households, with waste from food and drink manufacturing just behind at 39 per cent. Food service and hospitality racked up 15 per cent, and retail a mere five per cent.

So supermarkets are the heroes here, and consumers – you and me – the villains. Right? Well, not according to an inquiry by the House of Lords that drilled down into the detail of the European research and concluded that retailers were dodging their responsibilities. After all, excess food does not simply materialise in people’s kitchens, gifted by the food fairy, and consumers cannot make unconstrained choices about what to buy. “Retailers must ensure,” the Lords said sternly, “that incentives and promotions offered to consumers do not transfer waste from the store to the household.”

Legislating for this is tricky, and voluntary measures can only go so far. If Tesco has a surplus of apples to sell, it will create a promotion in order to shift them. If bulk-buy deals on perishables were to be outlawed to discourage people from buying more than they needed, the result wouldn’t necessarily be less waste – it could just be more waste attributed to the stores and less to the consumers.

The helpful people at the European Commission want to encourage everyone to plan a week’s meals in advance, freeze their bread and rotate their cans

A bit of creative thinking is required here. Of course retailers want to wring as much money as possible from their customers, but this needn’t mean cajoling people into buying food they won’t eat. The helpful people at the European Commission want to encourage everyone to plan a week’s meals in advance, freeze their bread and rotate their cans, but many will not unreasonably conclude that life’s short and miserable enough without partaking in such joyless activities. Instead, why can’t couples and individuals simply buy the quantities they need – on a whim, or a fancy – without being stung in the purse? Single-person households have been on the increase for years, and are expected to overtake homes of two by 2031, so why is it near impossible to buy 100g of cheese from the local high street? Or a single apple that doesn’t cost as much as as a bar of chocolate? When a pint of milk is 45p but four pints are only 99p, you can’t blame the solo tea drinker for pouring some of the white stuff down the drain and adding a jumbo carton to the recycling bin.

Those who stuck around at the Scottish Parliament after yesterday’s Budget rammy were treated to a debate about delivering Scotland’s food waste target (an ambitious 33 per cent reduction by 2025). Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham insisted the Scottish Government was focusing its attention “all along the food chain, from farm to plate,” reeling off a list of worthy initiatives including the Good To Go doggy bag scheme in restaurants and work by Zero Waste Scotland with bakeries and breweries to create models of best practice. She highlighted the Courtauld Commitment to which dozens of retailers have signed up, but made no mention of the tactics that encourage consumers to buy more than they need. And while Tory MSP and farmer Peter Chapman nobly came to the defence of funny-looking fruit and veg, he failed to clarify who was turning up their nose at this wonky fare – the little man, or the big store?

Talk of targets it cheap – real action to challenge big businesses will take courage.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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