Kelly Parsons hears from the campaigners hoping to tackle the city’s bad food waste habits.
It might seem odd to call food waste the capital’s latest fad, but whether it’s several tonnes of wonky fruit and veg being cooked up in Trafalgar Square, your local eatery offering up a ‘doggy box’ for leftovers, a growing band of temporary food-waste restaurants ‘popping up’ around town, or the Michelin-starred fine dining establishment turning its food scraps into art installations, this autumn you might find it difficult to get away from the stuff.
Not literally of course – of London’s estimated 2.7million tonnes of organic waste per year, the majority is whisked out-of-sight to landfill, by barge down the Thames to Essex and by road to other sites in counties like Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and West Sussex. Another considerable chunk is incinerated at two huge plants in Edmonton and Lewisham. While much of the 49,000 tonnes of food waste (from around a third of households) currently collected by London councils – including Islington, Richmond and Ealing – is processed to produce renewable power, by the likes of BiogenGreenfinch, at an anaerobic digestion facility in Bedford.
But as BiogenGreenfinch’s technology director Michael Chesshire is first to point out, such approaches should only be there to deal with unavoidable ‘arisings’ as they are referred to in food waste parlance. His sentiments are loudly echoed by the band of campaigners currently flying the flag for food waste reduction in the capital, a burgeoning movement which some put down to the current economic climate. “The austere times we’re living in are turning people’s attention back to some of the old-fashioned ways of the generation that lived through rationing,” says the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s (SRA) Mark Linehan. “People are realising there are finite resources, that it’s economic madness to throw out good food and that landfill space is fast disappearing.” Steve Wilson, founder of the People’s Kitchen food waste project in Dalston, has a similar take on the catalyst. “Landfill is getting close to bursting point, but food price rises have also had an impact: in times of recession the issue of waste becomes more valid.”
Leading the London charge is food waste campaigner and ‘freeganism’s posterboy’ Tristram Stuart. At lunchtime on 18 November, with the support of the Greater London Authority’s food team and a host of charities, he’ll be staging a repeat of his 2009 ‘Feeding the 5000’ event in Trafalgar Square (www.feeding5k.org): another batch of imperfect fruit and veg that would otherwise be thrown will be stirred up in giant-sized cauldrons and handed out to passers by to highlight the issue of unnecessary food waste. “Feeding the five thousand has been a hugely successful campaign and achieved many of it aims,” says Tristram, “but ultimately there is still a lot of food being wasted, which is why we are running the event again. Plus, everyone enjoys a lovely feast, and there are going to be lots of interactive things to do, most involving eating food rather than throwing it away.” The event will mark the launch of a new campaign inviting citizens and businesses to sign a pledge to cut food waste.
The famous biblical feast has inspired a project being run in six West London boroughs too, albeit on a smaller scale: the charity Wastewatch, in conjunction with government-funded project Love Food Hate Waste and the West London Waste Authority, is holding four ‘Feed the 1000’ events with local universities, feeding 1000 people for free using the same amount of food as the average family wastes each year.
Smaller still are the city’s pop-up restaurants putting food-waste on the menu. They include the People’s Kitchen, a food waste and community cooking project run by Steve Wilson at Passing Clouds in Dalston; the Dinner Exchange, set up in 2009 to provide lavish fine-dining freegan dinners; and People’s Kitchen at the People’s Supermarket, which cooks up food the cooperative store of TV fame hasn’t sold. Food distribution group FoodCycle, which already runs two permanent community cafés in Haringey and Bromley-by-Bow, also recently hosted a pop-up restaurant in a disused Old Street office.
With London’s restaurants producing around 250,000 tonnes of food waste each year, a third of which the SRA estimates is avoidable plate waste, dining out is a good place to start. A new ‘Too good to waste’campaign being launched by the SRA in October is getting London’s restaurants such as Wahaca, the Three Stags, Café Spice Namaste, Oxo and Modern Pantry to address the issue. Whilst they may not go as far as East London Nigerian restaurant, Obalende Suya Express, which famously introduced a £2.50 fee (donated to Oxfam) if diners didn’t clear their plate, they will be encouraging customers to take home any leftovers in biodegradeable ‘doggy boxes’, a new take on the doggy bag. “Our consumer research shows that UK diners have never thought to ask for a doggy bag, find it embarrassing or mistakenly believe restaurants aren’t allowed to do it,” explains the SRA’s Mark Linehan. “One of the main aims of the campaign is to break the taboo – to make it ok to ask to take leftovers home.”
There’s no doubt food waste is going to be hard for Londoners to ignore during the next few months, and we all have a role to play in tackling it. However, as Tristram Stuart points out, “food waste isn’t something we should feel guilty about. Solving the problem is actually an enormous opportunity to reduce our environmental impact and release pressure on global food supplies. That’s what we’re inviting people to come and demonstrate by enjoying a free lunch made from food that otherwise would have been wasted: it’s time to stop wasting food in our own homes, and to let food businesses know we want them to do the same.”
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