Ireland produces approximately three million tonnes of waste each year, and food waste is accounting for roughly one million tonnes of that.
From an environmental perspective, the level of food waste is hugely significant. It is also extremely expensive from a personal financial perspective.
Throwing out those leftover carrots you never got around to making soup with? What about those yoghurts long past their best-before date? Food waste is costing the average Irish household €700 each year but as well as hitting your pocket, it also hits the planet; the more than one million tonnes of food waste in Ireland decomposing in landfills is releasing the greenhouse gas methane, which is at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. As part of the Climate Action Plan, Ireland has committed to halving food waste by 2030.
Although these numbers may seem overwhelming, all is not lost. You still can help reduce this harmful practice by following the easy tips in this article.
Remember, when it comes to food waste, every bit helps!
1. Prepare a list
Smart shopping is the key to reducing food waste. Highly competitive supermarkets can lull us into a false sense of value with multi-pack food discounts and so-called ‘value’ offers that often only exacerbate the food waste scandal. Examples include two-for-the-price-of-one offers that make us feel we are getting value for money, but can often lead to over-purchasing.
The most effective means to reducing food waste is have a shopping list that is based on needs and usage. Note food items that are not used and refrain from buying until it is used in full. This will help you reduce emotional or impulse buying or being tricked into unnecessary buying.
2. Learn to understand expiration dates
“Best before” and “Use by” are just two of the many confusing terms companies use on food items to alert us when a product will most likely go stale or go off.
The problem is many people get confused and as a result, dispose perfectly good food on the incorrect belief the food is not fit for consumption.
According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, a ‘best before’ date is used for food products such as canned, dried, ambient, frozen foods etc. Many foods that are past their ‘best before’ date may be safe to eat, but their quality may have deteriorated. Typically, a ‘use by’ date is used for fresh, ready-to-eat and chilled foods such as yogurt, milk, meat, unpasteurised fruit juices etc.
The ‘best before’ means the food item should generally be perfectly safe to use after that date whereas the ‘use by’ date means that it is not.
So, on a range of common food items that may have exceeded the ‘best before’ date by a few days or more, this should not be seen as instruction those food items should be discarded. This also means that families can avoid unnecessary food waste and also, in the long run, keep a little more money in their bank accounts.
3. Store food correctly
Improper storage leads to a massive amount of food waste. Many people are unsure how to store fruits and vegetables, which can lead to premature ripening and, eventually, rotten produce. For instance, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers and onions should never be refrigerated.
These items should be kept at room temperature.
Separating foods that produce more ethylene gas from those that don’t is another great way to reduce food spoilage. Ethylene promotes ripening in foods and could lead to spoilage.
Foods that produce ethylene gas while ripening include:
Bananas, avocados, tomatoes, cantaloupes, peaches, pears, green onions,
Keep these foods away from ethylene-sensitive produce like potatoes, apples, leafy greens, berries and peppers to avoid premature spoilage.
4. Remember, food isn’t a modelling agency
In a world of social media profiles, the quest for ‘perfection’ is ever-present. In fact, this trend has leaked its way into the food world, especially when it comes to fruit and vegetables. So-called “ugly” fruits and vegetables get passed up for produce that is more pleasing to the eye… producers have even been adjusting their packaging to suit consumer demands. But “ugly” fruit and vegetables are as nutritious as the picture-perfect versions. Be brave and do your bit to reduce food waste by choosing slightly ‘imperfect’ produce or better yet, direct from the farmer at the many farmers markets and road-side stands that populate the country during season.
5. Organise and manage your fridge
When it comes to managing your money, we always advise on keeping your money visible. By this, we mean carrying out an examination of your income and expenses on an annual basis; the same applied to your fridge. Clear it of clutter. This is a simple yet effective way of viewing which foods you have currently and what you really need to buy. In fact, why not apply the tactic that supermarkets apply and use the FIFO method (first-in-first-out). Of course, you can also rotate the foods to be used next by using the ‘use by’ dates also.
6. Compost where you can
Composting leftover food is a beneficial way to reuse food scraps, turning food waste into energy for plants.While not everyone has room for an outdoor composting system, there’s a wide range of countertop composting systems that make this practice easy and accessible for everyone, even those with limited space.
An outdoor composter may work well for someone with a large garden, while a countertop composter is best for city dwellers with houseplants or small herb gardens.
7. Bring your lunch
Although going out to lunch may be convenient, it will become costly and does contribute to food waste… and a personal finance expense that can really add up over time.
A helpful way to save money while reducing your carbon footprint is to bring your lunch to work with you. If you generate leftovers from home-cooked meals, don’t dump it, recycle it as next day’s lunch. But even if you don’t have leftovers at dinner, a simple packed lunch can save you over €1,000 or more per year.
8. Make green shoots from tea leaves
If you can’t fathom getting ready for your day without a hot cup of tea or coffee, chances are you generate a lot of tea leaves or coffee grounds. Interestingly, these often-overlooked leftovers have many uses.
Those with a green thumb may be delighted to know that tea leaves are organic matter that can improve the structure of your soil. They increase soil drainage, help with healthy aeration for plant roots and help the soil retain moisture and nutrients. Coffee grounds make excellent fertilizer for plants. The grounds are high in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are nutrients that plants crave.
9. Less waist for less waste
Ireland has an obesity problem that is getting worse. While this is a slight departure from the specific food waste reduction issue, it still forms part of a healthy mind, body and environment approach we like to advocate for at MoneyWhizz. Making sure your portion sizes stay within a healthy range doesn’t just help keep your weight down, it will also help you enjoy the benefits in the long run.
10. Freeze it
Freezing food is one of the easiest ways to preserve food. Plus, the range of food items that freeze well is pretty extensive. For example, greens that are a bit too soft to be used in your favourite salad can be put in freezer-safe bags or containers and used at a later date in smoothies and other recipes. During season, if you have favourite fruits, or pick them or even grow them, most can be preserved by freezing.
You can also freeze many leftovers from meals. However, as we have advocated for your fridge, it is important to ensure you manage your freezer and rotate items.
Your bottom line
There are endless ways you can reduce, reuse and recycle your food waste.
Not only will the practical tips in this article help you waste less food, they can also help you save €’000 over the course of a year. By giving just a little time to consider your food habits and the impact it can have on the environment, you can take small but important steps to reducing food waste… and the negative impact it has on the environment.
Frank Conway is Chair of the Price Monitoring Group at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. He is also a Qualified Financial Adviser and Founder of MoneyWhizz, the financial literacy initiative