It’s pretty cathartic – taking a sharp-edged shovel and transforming an orange orb into a sloppy mess. Don’t fret, as I have not become an All Hallow’s Eve vandal. Rather, that’s what it takes for a pumpkin to join a compost heap. Ghosts and goblins are not the only scary thing about Halloween; the food waste statistics are also pretty frightening. Last year, 18,000 tonnes of pumpkin were tossed in the UK post-Halloween. While UK households have actually made good progress in cutting food waste, this is still a hefty loss of often quite usable produce. In my book, any edible winter squash landing in the rubbish is a crime against humanity and the planet.
Let’s return to the smashing of pumpkins. With the wisdom of an Oxfordshire Master Composter, Oxford’s first ever Pumpkin Festival concluded with the preparation of half disintegrated jack-o-lanterns for OxGrow’s compost heap. The goal of the festival was to raise awareness around food waste and to save pumpkins from ending up in a landfill. In the UK, US, and Europe, we produce around twice as many calories necessary to feed the population, and yet between one third and half of that never makes it to our forks (maybe to our plates…).
To me it’s incredible that in this technologically-advanced day and age, so much of the low-hanging fruit of systematic efficiency is left unpicked, waiting to fall into a rubbish bin. Partly this is a behavioural issue – Human behaviour, especially related to something perceived as very personal, is notoriously difficult to influence. Yet, small modifications – like reconceptualizing the ‘use-by’ and ‘sell by’ dates – could shift how people act. A WRAP report noted that over 1 million tonnes of food is thrown out in households because a product has reached its “best before” or “use-by” date, cited by at least 1/3 of the UK study participants as the primary reason behind disposing of a product. Confusion over the actual meaning of these labels, and not using common sense about the state of a yogurt tub or a box of biscuits, seem to be root culprits. Marketing and advertising, improper food storage, and cooking too much also play prominent roles that account for the ghastly amount of waste on the consumer end.
Yet practices by institutional actors contribute a considerable slice to the food waste pie. An aesthetic perception, the ingrained mentality that beautiful is better, results in rejection of fruit and vegetables that don’t meet stringent size, shape, and appearance standards by market retailers. According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 30% of produce is never even harvested for this very reason! Gleaning, anyone? If Tesco is any indication of grocery’s importance, its announcement last year that almost 30,000 tonnes of food was wasted in just six months (with veg and bakery comprising 2/3) shows the state of play. It’s a fine line to walk, but the retailers are starting to address the balance between reducing waste of food and money, and ensuring that there is adequate food and variety for an increasingly demanding consumer.
At the end of the day, a landfill destination for organic material is such a tragedy because it is largely avoidable, and where it’s not, it can be returned to the ground from whence it came (in the form of compost…). I think it’s important to add the caveat, that if impact on greenhouse gas emissions or energy use is your primary concern, then methods of cooking and storage, as well as production, are probably of more interest than composting. Perhaps that’s why it’s important to keep a systems perspective, with people working on all pieces of the puzzle.