Words by Circe Hughes

There are certain things that have become second nature to all the eco-minded people out there, whether it’s something as simple as recycling or the more hardcore end of things, like washable loo roll (that’ll win you major greenie points). But one symptom of the 21st century’s wasteful culture and a major contributor to our output of greenhouse gases flies a little under the radar: food waste.

It’s the leftovers from last night that don’t look attractive enough to take to work, the mouldy bread that you bought last week and forgot to eat, the fresh food that didn’t leave the shelves before its ‘sell by’ date – all of which ends up in the bin. In the UK, we chuck away around 9.5 million tonnes of food in a year, a statistic that contrasts starkly with the 9.7 million Brits currently experiencing food insecurity according to a report published by The Food Foundation last September.

More than the weighty social implications, wasting food or not disposing of surplus correctly has an immense effect on the environment. Once it’s been thrown away and begins to rot, food produces methane, a familiar aggressor and currently the runner-up to the most potent greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. 

At this point, you’ve probably heard this all before: “the planet is being confronted with a crisis – *the* crisis – and here’s what you’re doing wrong.” We’re not going to tell you that. The key players need to be held accountable and the usual suspects (coal, oil and natural gas) are still responsible for a significant 70% of global methane emissions, which rose to nearly 135 million tonnes last year.

But something that’s interesting about food waste is that it’s generated more by households than businesses. According to a report published by the Waste and Resources Action Progamme (Wrap) in 2018, 70% of the food waste produced in the UK comes from households. And London, being the metropolis that it is, is a real hotbed for food waste. ReLondon’s report from the end of 2021 found that the city’s households generated 931,000 tonnes of food waste.

But, at the same time, Londoners are becoming more and more eco-conscious and, with that, increasingly aware of the issues surrounding food waste. Martyn Odell is the man behind Lagom Chef, the sustainable at-home cooking account on TikTok (@lagomchef). He says of London, “there is a huge [anti-food waste] wave building and there are a lot of people who are doing amazing things in the space. It is a very tricky balance trying to get the messaging right with the current cost of living crisis but there are so many solutions to food waste.”

Martyn has built up a 1.1 million-strong following on TikTok with his niche of demonstrating how you can use up any surplus food at home instead of throwing it away – that alone will give you an idea of the popularity of the movement against wasting food. And, you’ll be happy to hear that it’s entirely possible to cut down on food waste, even if you’re dealing with a packed schedule. 

One way to do so is to have a solid drystore at all times, as Martyn puts it, “this is the backbone of your kitchen. Spices, lentils, pulses, oils, vinegars, pastes, sauces, etc. – these ingredients don’t go off. By having these things in your home you can make dishes on the fly and plug in fresh ingredients when you need to.” As for your fresh food, “forget about ‘best before’ labels and go with your instinct,” Martyn says. While ‘use by’ dates shouldn’t be ignored at risk of being made ill, ‘best by’ dates aren’t always so prescriptive. “Some things are still just as good weeks, if not months, after those dates,” Martyn says – with the proviso that they aren’t actually mouldy.

This one may come as a surprise, but Martyn also advises us to forgo the weekly food shop. “We bloody live in London where you can get anything when you want it,” he says, “so, just buy what you need when you need it.” Seems simple enough. This should be paired with some idea of your week’s plan, though, “I know what London’s like, there are so many offers off drinks or events pretty much everyday. Have a rough plan so you don’t go and buy loads of stuff.” And if you don’t feel like cooking, you can try apps like Too Good To Go, which frequently offers discounts on meals from popular restaurants and chains. 

For all the ways that living in London can actually make it easier to reduce your food waste, Martyn does note one way in which it can be a little harder. “One thing that I think London has always struggled with was the lack of neighbourly community,” he says, “our block of flats has a really strong bond/community and there is a lot of sharing of food. I make a lot of food for my videos on social media and sometimes I make more than I consume, so I pass it along to my neighbours and they love it. I think we need to not think it’s weird and build these relationships.”

But, if you don’t have that kind of relationship with your neighbours – as the 21st century saying goes – there’s an app for that. Olio isn’t just for food, but it’s an online marketplace where anyone with a smartphone can pass on anything they no longer use to someone who needs it, thus reducing waste. And the events and food delivery company Dinner Ladies has devised an especially engaging way to get Londoners to put their excess food to good use with The Wasted Supper Club, where guests can bring their back-of-the-fridge ingredients and have them cooked into full meals by professional chefs.

Since sustainability is at the heart of the Dinner Ladies’ operation, The Wasted Supper Club came as a natural development. Emily Plunket, the co-founder and executive chef of Dinner Ladies, says, “as a young and growing food business it’s important for us to make sure we are paving the way for the future by learning how we can adapt and strive to be better”. And, as part of that mission, they wanted to share what they know about cutting food waste with their customers, giving them the chance to be a “part of the journey and watch their produce transform into something delicious on their plates”.

Guests at The Wasted Supper Club bring their unused fresh ingredients, tinned or dried goods and the Dinner Ladies chefs find imaginative ways to transform them into a selection of expertly-prepped dishes. At their most recent event, a particularly popular one was stale bread gnocchi, where the potatoes where substituted for a mixture of leftover bits of bread – Emily says, “it was absolutely delicious”. Afterwards, diners are given a recipe card to take away that’ll inspire them to make meals at home with their surplus food. “People often say they find it hard to pair ingredients and use spices, what we are trying to show them is that easy vegetarian cooking doesn’t have to be overly complicated to achieve great flavours and textures,” says Emily.

And they’re not the only ones in town making something positive out of food waste. FoodCycle is a London-based organisation aiming to not only target food waste but food poverty and loneliness in communities across the UK. In London alone, they operate 19 projects, providing free communal meals all made with surplus produce from local businesses. They work with charities City Harvest and The Felix Project, as well as smaller supermarkets and greengrocers, to serve up quality meals at which people from walks of life can come together and enjoy good food and company. 

FoodCycle’s impact is undeniable. “This month we saved 5.2 tonnes of surplus food across our London sites and so far in 2023, we have saved over 25 tonnes,” says Alix Guerber, FoodCycle’s London Area Manager. And aside from the high number of guests at their community meals, plenty of people want to be involved behind the scenes of their London projects “some are so popular with volunteers that we have wait lists,” says Francesca Selwood, FoodCycle’s London Regional Manager. “It’s amazing that so many of the London community are generous enough to give up their time to help others and hopefully gain some useful skills and good company along the way,” she continues. 

And their work has not gone unrecognised. Just in the past year, FoodCycle’s long standing Finsbury Park volunteer team received a Civic Award from Islington Council, “several of those senior volunteers at Finsbury Park have been with FoodCycle for many years and make it what it is,” says Alix. As for the next year, Alix says, “we’ll continue to expand and go where we’re needed to provide support for the people who benefit from our services, from older guests to refugees and asylum seekers, homeless people and those affected by mental ill health or tight budgets.”

But, for now, let’s look back at how we as individuals can keep our food waste to a minimum. FoodCycle’s volunteers are constantly coming up with new ways to implement slightly-past-their-best ingredients into recipes – all of which you can check out on their website. Emily’s tips include making stocks with the ends of vegetables and soups with leftovers, trying to create at least two meals from each food item, and cooking with housemates to reduce waste (as well as energy bills). More than any pollutant generated at home, the environmental effect of food waste can be impacted by small changes in the way we shop and cook. As Emily puts it, “ultimately food waste massively damages the environment. Prevention is the best cure”.