As people look for ways to do their bit in the fight against climate change, there's one area where we can have a massive impact with relatively minimal effort: food waste. According to WRAP, if food waste were a country, it'd be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Project Drawdown's 2020 report singled out food waste reduction as one of 'the most powerful climate solutions'.
But it's one thing to make sure we eat everything on our plates. What about the food waste that's coming out of supermarkets?
Under the Instagram handle @anurbanharvester, food waste campaigner Matt Homewood is shining a light on this often-overlooked issue. With a Master's degree in Climate Change and a passion for tackling food waste, Brit-born Matt is currently based out of Denmark, and is on a mission to convince the country’s 2,700 supermarkets to address their annual food waste. His ultimate goal is to make supermarket food waste illegal in Denmark and beyond.
We recently got the chance to speak to Matt about his efforts, his top 4 heavy food hauls to date (done on a bike, no less) and his view on how we need to tackle this issue on a local and global level. If you don’t have time to watch the whole interview, read a shortened version of the interview below.
Beth: Why is it that most of the conversations going on around food waste are consumer-focused? Why isn’t supermarket waste talked about as much?
Matt: Consumers currently waste around 37% of total food waste in Denmark, whereas supermarkets waste 23%. The way I see it, people are throwing their own money down the drain with every fridge clear out. But supermarket chains profit from these kinds of wasteful business models, which means they have no incentive to change. There’s also no requirement for transparency, which means (short of dumpster diving, which I know isn’t for everyone) people aren’t going to learn about the waste because it’s not something the supermarkets want advertised.
Matt is one of a growing number of activists demanding and asserting a need for transparency. A self-declared ‘eco dumpster diver’, Matt has found some BIG waste food harvests in his time. Last Christmas, he recovered 150 kgs of cow’s cream. After 3 trips to collect it all by bike, he got it home, photographed it (see below) then did the maths. The haul equated to 3 tonnes of CO2e, or 57 cow’s worth of milk. This is not uncommon.
Beth: Let’s rewind a bit: why is food waste such bad news for the climate?
Matt: I originally became interested in the topic of food waste after coming into contact with Project Draw Down – an American organisation dedicated to figuring out actionable climate solutions. The project offers sector-based solutions to climate issues that can be acted on today. For me, the challenge of food waste was the one that spoke the loudest. Given that the issue of food waste trumps flying and meat consumption hands down, it’s something I believe needs to be urgently tackled at policy level.
Beth: But it’s not a straightforward solution, is it?
Matt: No. We need to appreciate the multifaceted nature of the food system as a whole in order to change it. For example, we as a world waste food, and yet 700 million people at certain points in the year experience ‘food insecurity’ (lack of access to nutritious food). In the globalised, industrial north, we throw away mountains of food, yet still decide to order take away instead of learning how to cook what’s about to go off in our fridges. The more affluent a society, the less respect it seemingly has toward food.
Beth: It seems obvious that education around every aspect of food production and consumption is vital. How close are you to illegalising food waste in Denmark?
Matt: I’m happy to say that my (and a handful of other food waste activists’) efforts have received a lot of media attention in recent months. I’m currently collaborating on a wide-scale PR campaign for June to put pressure on the big supermarket players (who own numerous other smaller brands). There are only a few key people in charge who we need to reach, who hold the levers of power.
Dumpster diving in Denmark is so easy and it’s huge here. The country is a big open fridge for five months of the year and people north and south are all diving to find massive hauls. Via Facebook, we’re going to take advantage of that and do a grassroots dumpster diving campaign across the country to get the media’s attention. It will showcase just how many countrywide harvests are actually going on, and how much waste is really happening on a daily basis.
Beth: Are the food waste apps that are popping up doing anything to help the issue?
Matt: In terms of supermarket waste, a lot of them cap how much individuals can buy in each store, which means that existing efforts are falling into another display of greenwashing, and not facilitating the kind of change that is desperately needed. I believe legislation is needed; we need to force supermarkets to sell their food at prices that fluctuate depending on supply, demand and the proximity to the sell-by date.
Beth: For readers and listeners keen to help fix the broken food system, what are some practical steps they can take today?
Matt: A great place to start is to go straight to the source. If you want flour, try and find a local miller. It’ll be better, fresher, purer. Fruit and veg boxes from local farmers or farmer’s markets is a great way to pay food producers more of the total value and sidestep the monopoly of big supermarket chains. Also – get inspired to cook from scratch and learn about the seasonality and locality of foods on your doorstep. I think going back to old, local principles is really a great place to start.