London's food cycle sees a lot of waste. Here are some ways you can make the most out of your groceries (and your wallet).

London’s food cycle sees a lot of waste. Here are some ways you can make the most out of your groceries (and your wallet).

Food is essential to fuel the human body. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to learn, talk, walk, achieve – let alone conquer outer space.

But sometimes we take more than we need.

The lonesome piece of chocolate cake leftover from your birthday slowly hardens, radiating a pungent odour from within your fridge. The grapes that once decorated your fruit bowl slowly shrivel up, casting a shadow of guilt over your conscious. All that awaits them is the bin.

On average, 70 per cent of a person’s food waste is avoidable. As a country, we annually throw out over six million tonnes. In London, a variety of boroughs have adopted composting schemes to encourage the so-called food cycle.

What happens to the peelings, rotten fish and the cartons of milk we keep forgetting about?

West London Waste (WLW) recently partnered with the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to educate residents on what they can do to ensure leftovers are put to use. Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond offer reduced home composting bins. There, locals can materialise compost for gardening and cultivating vegetables.

Currently one of London’s leading boroughs, Hillingdon collects three bags of rubbish every Monday: one for landfill, another for recyclable material, and the final for food and garden waste. Their process, which only began a few years ago, is highly appreciated by residents like Vanessa Hare, a 54-year-old advertising account manager.

“My partner does his best to eat as much as possible to avoid wasting,” she claims, “but, on average, we probably generate about two small caddy bags a week.” Hare, who has lived in London for over 30 years, acknowledges the vast development that has occurred in terms of local waste.

“Back in the ’80s, there wasn’t much focus on recycling at all,” she says. “I don’t remember many people in my street making use of the few resources we were given at all.” She sighs, adding, “But landfill has reduced considerably, and I know this because I’m putting less and less in the landfill bag.”

London Food Waste
Like many Londoners, lack of space has prevented Vanessa Hare from keeping a compost bin to treat her own soil. Photo: Vanessa Hare

Her house opens up onto a narrow garden, which Hare has filled with endless arrays of flowers and pockets of water. Like many of her neighbours, lack of space has prevented her from keeping a compost bin to treat her soil. She resorts to buying it instead.

“It’s not cheap – I think it’s about £12 every couple of bags,“ she says, “but I often watch Gardener’s World and wish I had a heap of compost. If I had space, I would do it now.”

Where does it all go?

Alongside five of its neighbouring boroughs, Hillingdon council have signed a contract. They agreed that all future food waste collections will be transported on a train directly to a new energy recovery facility. It is at an industrial complex operated by SITA UK Limited, just outside of Bristol.

Councillor Bassam Mahfouz, Chair of WLW commented: “For too long we have been sending waste to pile up to rot in landfills.”

Landfills – sites designated to piles of our unwanted rubbish – are another increasingly worrying issue. When left unattended, the breakdown of this waste produces methane gas, polluting our environment. This plays a crucial role in rising global temperatures. The less we deposit in these sites, the better for the environment and ultimately, better for our health.

This pledge means that 40 per cent of the material being recycled today will be raised to over 50 per cent of London’s overall waste by 2020.

This contract, in addition to services WLW have already adopted, presents a brighter future for London’s Food Cycle. Other methods currently in motion today include Windrow Composting, Vessel Composting, and Anaerobic Digestion. Together, they output fertiliser, soil treatment and fuel for both heat and power.

As each of these methods runs within enclosed compartments, they do not pollute our atmosphere. Instead, they use their own bacteria overtime to breakdown alone and transform into fertiliser or fuel.

Other ways to lessen the waste

Besides transforming our rubbish into energy and farming tools, simply saving food from the bin in the first place will also benefit us.

Hare suggests simply eating it, laughing: “Get my partner Julian round and he’ll eat it for you.” Additionally, she recommends avoiding “bog-offs” such as enticing ‘Buy one, get one free’ offers, which encourage consumers to purchase unnecessary items.

From an office in Hackney, 38-year-old Laura Gaga promotes food saving activism across the internet.

Her blog, Reduction Raider, delves into her personal experiences with food waste. She shares tricks she has learnt to minimise her environmental footprint. Her Instagram account, updated multiple times a day, exhibits new bargains and recipes, which are shared with her mass following in hope of heightening social awareness.

Gaga recounts the beginning of her journey: “I was more conscious of it – I would start seeing it around me. Families, homes, friends, in the workplace, out at restaurants.”

How will avoiding waste personally benefit us?

London Food Cycle
Laura Gaga: “The first place you should start shopping is your own kitchen.” Photo: Margie Nomura, founder of Desert Island Dishes

She believes that the issue concerning food waste should be talked about more, but she also feels it could have a contradicting effect: “The more information we have, the more people tend to shy away… they will turn a blind eye.” As humans, we all do things that primarily benefit us, so the best way to approach it is by presenting it as financially worthwhile.

“I know I was excited when I first came across yellow stickers… by the amount of food that I could buy for the fraction of the price!” She laughs. The secret to her bargains is simple. All of the reduced food items at Tesco and Sainsbury’s left untouched because of their sell-by date or ripped packaging.

“No matter who you are, we all want to save money on food,” Gaga adds.

How much of our personal spending is waste actually costing us?

Over £14 billion is being wasted on our groceries. This means that the average UK citizen could save £60 a month through very simple changes. One way is through Gaga’s yellow sticker method. Another is through the Love Food Hate Waste app, providing meal planners, shopping and portion guides – as well as recipes for food that has surpassed its sell-by date.

Gaga also recommends taking “a hard look at how much you are spending through a monthly food diary”. This way, you think before leaving for the supermarket. The first place you should start shopping “is your own kitchen”.

The extra mile

Composting at home is the final option. Everything from vegetable peels, egg boxes and tea bags can be stored at the end of your garden. For individuals in flats, an ice cream tub by the sink will suffice.

“The world’s not an island; none of us exists in isolation,” says Gaga. Aside from the landfill space running out every year, our food waste also affects the people around us.

These are three ways she says we can become more mindful:

  1. Take restaurant leftovers to a homeless person on your commute the next morning.
  2. Keep your vegetable peelings for stock, and give the fruit you know you won’t eat to your colleagues.
  3. Take a moment to look at the food that is going in your bin – the domino effect it has might enough to stop you next time.