How Tech Can Help Us Tackle Food Waste

06/10/2016 11:39

The phrase 'food waste' conjures images of supermarket wheelie bins brimming with delicious and perfectly edible food. Campaigners' torch lights have increasingly focused on supermarkets' wastefulness, and so we'd imagine that supermarkets are the biggest contributors to the estimated 10million tons of food wasted every year in the UK.
But guess who the biggest food waste culprit is? It's us.
Rightly, supermarkets are beginning to change their ways. Last month most of the top 10 responded to a survey from the Evening Standard's 'Food for London' campaign. For the first time, they revealed data on the amount of surplus food and the amount that is redistributed to charities. The paper estimates that, on average, supermarkets are donating only 3.2%, or 7,806 tonnes. It's a start, but big plans are afoot. Many have ambitious targets for redistributing their surplus through Fairshare - a group that 'saves good food destined for waste and sends it to charities and community groups who transform it into nutritious meals for vulnerable people'.
But perhaps this has all diverted attention from the biggest contributors to the food waste problem. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, UK households throw 7million tons of good food away every year,  dwarfing the 210,000 tons thrown out by supermarkets. Most food is wasted once it leaves supermarket doors. So there's an opportunity for supermarkets and food retailers to really make an impact on the food waste issue, by helping their customers to be less wasteful too.
So how can we be helped to be less wasteful when it comes to chucking out food?
Challenging people to be less wasteful is difficult, because it means challenging deeply held feelings about what is and isn't okay to eat. A lot of food is wasted in the form of scraps from the kitchen, food approaching or past its sell-by date, and left overs. The idea of wasting less by eating these is plainly disgusting, making much of our food waste seem unavoidable.
However, both supermarkets and ourselves can learn from innovative start-ups that are working to change how we think about food. True, our sense of disgust is the result of evolution - we're hard-wired to steer clear of dodgy food. But it's also the result of beliefs and attitudes that make up our food consumption culture. And this can change. 
A second hand food market might not sound too appealing, but it's one that OLIO has been working to create. Too often, we buy too much and end up throwing it away.  The app aims to solve this by enabling neighbours and local shops to share their surplus food. So far, 50,000 people have taken part.
And if next-door's marmalade doesn't appeal just yet, then perhaps a restaurant quality meal might. Through Too Good to Go's app, you can order food from local restaurants that would otherwise be thrown away. Meaning that you can eat like Jay Rayner for no more than £3.80 per meal.
So it's becoming easier to waste less. But more importantly, these companies are introducing us to an alternative way of getting and disposing of food, and making it okay - even appealing - to eating food cooked for or bought by someone else.
The other big factor behind our waste is the idea that stuff is 'off'. When you think about it, our current way of working this out is pretty unsophisticated. But the James Dyson Award-winning Bump Mark can tell us when food is actually unsafe to eat. Originally designed for visually impaired consumers, the 'bio-reactive' label becomes bumpy when the food starts to decay. So fewer sausages will make the sad journey from shelf to fridge to bin.
With plans to expand, these innovators will shape our consumption culture - how we think about and use the food we buy.
But why should supermarkets bother following their example? Surely it wouldn't make sense to encourage customers to buy less.
First, it would be good for their brands. More than ever, us consumers are interested in the impacts of our shopping. So there is a chance to challenge us to behave more responsibly, and in turn show that supermarkets really believe in reducing food waste.
Second, it wouldn't necessarily be money lost. By wasting less on the basics, we could finally afford that luxurious cake on the next aisle.
Changing our wasteful behaviours would be a challenging and delicate task. But for brands looking to show how they are different from their competitors, it represents a real opportunity to stand out and build on their waste reduction efforts - and help us, the shopper, throw a few less sausages in the bin.