London is expensive and informative. I’m woefully woke and sickeningly skint. Nowhere, perhaps with the exception of LA or Shanghai, would it be harder to hide from the deafening impact of my own thunderous carbon footprint while being relentlessly pressured to buy more stuff.
The free magazines outside tube stations scream zero waste guilt. You must buy tinted lip moisturiser in recyclable aluminium tubes, not those devilish plastic pots. Buy one in each colour! The next column is a real-life horror story: the toxic plastic microfibers from your clothes are polluting rivers and oceans via your washing machine and suffocating aquatic organisms. Only purchase clothes made with natural fibres from now on!
Instagram Search is similarly determined to whisk me down the zero-waste rabbit hole. Earnest models match grave expressions with bikinis and boardshorts, grasping bulging bags of single-use plastics they have collected along tropical beaches. Videos of the whirling Pacific Garbage patch induce a dizzying sense of vertigo at the sheer expanse of eternal trash human beings have made.
Beyond the thin, slippery pages and endless scrolling digital grid, I can’t escape carbon and plastic pollution around the city. Every fresh lungful of polluted air is heavy, gritty. The pavements are littered with plastic packaging. I feel gluttonous and ashamed of my complicity in all this and re-forge a broken promise with myself to attempt a zero waste lifestyle. Homemade lunches, refillable wine bottles, home-grown herbs, maybe composting? A spell of daydreaming later and I am convinced my tiny apartment and 4×3 foot balcony can accommodate a level of self-sufficiency akin to 1970s BBC sitcom “the Good Life”.
Until this wholesome new urban life of self-sufficiency materialises, I need an army of durable, non-plastic containers, string bags and reusable wrappers. At least, the hordes of zero waste bloggers I’ve been following tell me these are essential: an investment. Buying more stuff feels counter-intuitive, but I venture West, to zones abundant with zero waste homeware stores. Inside one, I lift a price tag on a set of glass lunchboxes and shudder involuntarily. I scrutinise their fragility as I recall the ocean of reusable coffee cups I’ve bought and somehow lost over the past year, before fleeing empty handed.
Food-wise, a complex groceries map is the only way to survive the weekend staples shopping marathon. Cycling my janky old bike down Hackney Road is a high speed, Olympic-level sport. The pavement and tarmac have become an obstacle course and I dodge the debris of discarded plastic bottles while balancing a heavy backpack stuffed with bulk buy spaghetti. The weekly cross-city grocery shopping route is now a five-hour roundtrip; a slow, gruelling marathon.
Each evening after work, the labour intensive craft of combining suspicious looking fridge scraps with bulk buy, zero waste ingredients sucks away the hours. Eating out is impossible. Life and leisure evaporate in a zero-waste haze.
Downtrodden, I remember one budget-conscious blogger recommended Amazon as a treasure-trove of sustainable toiletries and other essentials. Unable to shake the image of a tiny seahorse navigating the high seas, its tail wrapped around a plastic cotton bud, I sneak Amazon open on my browser. 100 biodegradable bamboo cotton buds for only £2.95. Undeterred by the universal Doctors’ advice not to poke cotton buds deep inside your ear canal, nor by my mum’s recent cotton bud related earache saga, I click ‘Buy Now’. The next day, the package plops through my letterbox. Since seeing that National Geographic seahorse, I have spent 10 long months deprived of the unbridled relief found from wiggling a sterile foreign object inside my ear.
Amazon first entangled me in a Prime subscription by offering one month free. After months of nudging emails and adverts for Prime membership, I finally succumbed to the allure of binge watching the TV adaptation of Philip K.Dick’s “the Man in the High Castle.” Free TV! Foolishly, predictably, I forgot to cancel the subscription before the end of the month months and they hit me with a full annual subscription fee. £79. As a disorganised graduate student with towers of textbooks to buy, the staggeringly low prices and convenience of next day delivery helped me post-rationalise that Amazon Prime was a bargain.
In this latest dalliance with Amazon, the algorithm was tightening its grip while I was weak with the exhaustion of zero waste living. The intimacies of my search history means Amazon guesses what I am up to and what my idealistic hopes and dreams are. Then, the product recommendations begin. The gadgets, the bulk buys, the “customers who buy this bought this”. Buy buy buy. So cheap!
I start reading posts from Polly, a zero waste budget blogger who helps assuage my guilt for supporting such a notoriously unethical company with soothing advice that boycotting Amazon is a privilege. She recommends some tactics for overcoming their wasteful packaging including emailing Amazon customer services to add a note on your account to avoid plastic packaging and using Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging service, which avoids the box around a box fiasco. Then, there is Amazon warehouse which sells second hand items. Decidedly happier, I scroll for more tips, until she hits me with the bombshell advice to avoid next day delivery, as it is terrible for the environment. Clumping purchases into one order helps minimise the carbon emissions associated with your order. Damnit. It dawns on me that everything about Amazon Prime is enabling and encouraging me to go hog wild buying zero waste products when really I should be buying as little as possible.
Although products are affordable, I am buying things I don’t really need and spending more than I budgeted for. Perhaps one reason local suppliers aren’t stocking these products at affordable price points is because Amazon undercuts everything. It’s a false economy. Local shops just can’t compete with London commercial rents to pay. The Amazon algorithm has data about my innermost concerns and manipulates me with clever marketing tactics. Perhaps, rather than sitting behind a computer screen or trekking to West London to shop zero waste, I should chat with local shop owners and encourage them to stock zero waste products. Then support them by buying from them. Huh.
“Don’t waste cucumber skin and seeds—turn them into a cooling summer drink”.
“How to make the most of ripe tomatoes”.
“Is it safe to eat mouldy jam? Theresa May thinks so”.
These are just some of the titles of the many food waste articles that have recently been flooding the media (with some interesting articles, and others less so). In the U.K., brands and people have all been pledging to reduce their food waste. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition about food and our relationship to it called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate.
So why all the fuss? Because not only is food waste morally unethical, but also our food consumption habits must undergo huge transformations in order to stop the planet from crumbling down or burning up. To lift the mood on that heavy but urgent topic, I wanted to have a more careful look at what’s happening around food waste, who are the people actually changing the game, and what’s next technology-wise.
The first step toward a world where food waste is not an issue is changing our attitude and approach to it. This concept is not recent (during wartime wasting food was out of the question), but today, the urgency surrounding that matter is added on top. We’re not going to transform the problem of the huge quantity of food wasted only by drinking beer made from surplus bread or by learning how to properly peel off the trickiest aliments. But what these ideas are about is exactly what needs to become common thinking: approaching food with a different mentality and being aware of how much food we waste for no justifiable reason at all.
In London, the Brixton Pound Cafe is doing just that and more. This pay-what-you-can surplus food cafe is a radical space with radical ideas where anyone can enjoy veggie and vegan food. Screen Shot talked to environmentalist and the cafe’s chef Sean Roy Parker about food waste and why making surplus food look sexy is the way to go. “The issue is that food waste is shrouded in secrecy because supermarkets’ habits are criminal, why would they want you to know how much food they throw away every day?” Parker notes, adding that “By turning surplus food into affordable meals, we are solving two problems simultaneously: reducing food waste and tackling income inequality. The bonus is that the food is fantastically healthy and tasty”. This attitude is one that local communities should adopt concerning food waste, because every little helps (even Tesco’s ‘reduced’ items).
But what about the rest of the U.K.? The rest of the world? Too Good To Go is an app operating in twelve countries, with its main goal being to save some food—food that is ‘too good to go’. The app allows you to see what food you can pick up in your vicinity before it gets thrown away at the end of the day from restaurants and food shops. This way, you can support your local businesses while contributing to a better environment. Simultaneously, the businesses get to reduce their waste and get potential new customers to try out their food. Still feeling sceptical? Too Good To Go’s website states that since 2016, the company saved over 746,760 meals in the U.K. alone.
Talking to Screen Shot about Too Good To Go’s early days, marketing manager Anoushka Grover said, “When we first started, the concept of food waste wasn’t really understood. Once you show people the consequences of their actions, everyone is a lot quicker to take a stand and make a change. Conscious consumerism has been on the rise for a number of years, but we’ve definitely seen it snowballing over the last few years”. So what’s next for Too Good To Go? “We have set some goals for 2020 which include inspiring 50 million people to take action against food waste, partnering with 75,000 food businesses, impacting legislation in 5 countries and supporting 500 schools in educating about food waste, ultimately saving 100 million meals from landfill”, Anoushka told us.
The last element that could make a big change in this food waste cycle is technology. We frequently use it to solve other problems, so why not try implementing it here as well? IKEA is attempting to cut food waste in its kitchens (think about all those meatballs) with an AI bin designed to recognise and monitor what gets thrown away. This ‘intelligent’ bin was made by U.K. technology startup Winnow Vision and uses a camera and smart scales to keep track of what types of food end up in the rubbish bin. Winnow estimates that it has saved almost $30 million worth of food so far.
Awareness of food waste is definitely there and on the rise, but the global response it has received so far is inadequate considering the size of the problem. We need to understand that food waste is not only happening on our tables, it’s also happening with farms and food companies, meaning that all the resources that went into making your food go to waste as well.
There is currently a lack of data and research that are needed in order to accurately estimate the full social, economic, and environmental benefits of food waste reduction. That said, let us be mindful of the bigger picture and make a change—whether it’s by scraping off mould on your jam like Theresa, contributing to the Brixton Pound Cafe, or using apps like Too Good To Go.
This article is a result of our Screen Shot workshop held at the V&A on Friday 28 June during the FOOD: Bigger than the Plate exhibition. In this participatory installation and therapy session, participants gave us the ingredients for the perfect food waste article.