How Tinder Food Apps and Dumpster-Diving Restaurants Could Help End British Food Waste

Every year, Britain sends 13 million tonnes of food to landfill—something new initiatives like “zero waste” London restaurant Tiny Leaf and Olio, an app that lets you swap unwanted food with people nearby, hope to combat.

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May 9 2016, 9:00am

When it comes to wasting food, Brits are some of the worst offenders. Every year, we send 13 million tonnes of food to landfill—more than any other country in Europe. Globally, two billion tonnes of food are dumped, making food waste the third largest carbon-emitter—bigger than any country except China or America. And with an estimated 2.4 billion more people to feed by 2050, it's not a problem we can—or should—ignore.

Here in the UK, it's the supermarkets that often take the brunt of the blame, with news reports focusing on how much food is discarded from their shelves and what they are or aren't doing to help tackle the issue. But they're only a part of the problem. The food supply chain is a giant, messy beast with waste happening at every level in myriad ways. As such, there is no simple solution, and no one single person or business that is responsible.

READ MORE: The MUNCHIES Guide to British Food

But things are beginning to change. Last month, the UK's major supermarkets agreed to reduce their food waste by 20 percent by 2025 as part of the Courtauld Commitment, and in recent years several small business and charities have been taking matters into their own hands and giving new life to food that would otherwise be left to rot.

However, half the battle—or at least a hefty chunk of it—is about changing the public's perceptions of what food waste really is.

Rubies in the Rubble have been using surplus fruit and veg from farmers and markets to make their award-winning jams and chutneys since 2010, after founder Jenny Dawson became aware just how much fresh produce was getting thrown away.

"I wanted to make a brand that raised awareness around the need to value our food supply and how many resources go into making food that isn't even eaten," Dawson tells me. "I wanted to create a fun product that was a solution to the problem, but that was also a way letting people buy into that solution."

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Workers at the Toast Ale brewery in Hackney mix discarded bread with water to ferment into beer. Photo by Laura Martin.

Toast Ale, a beer launched in January using some of the 328,000 tonnes of bread we discard ever year, works using a similar principle: create a delicious product out of stuff that would otherwise go in the bin, and educate people at the same time.

"I remember my first Borough Market stall and people didn't think there was such a thing as food waste," says Dawson. "They imagined the old stuff in their fridge rather than this enormous scale of perfectly good food being thrown away. Some of it doesn't even get to the supermarkets—I would speak to some farmers and what they would call the 'rejects' are the 'naturals,' i.e. carrots that grow like boring old carrots. Even now we go into meetings and talk about food waste and realise that people are looking at us as though we're talking about rotten stuff. It isn't."

With an estimated 2.4 billion more people to feed by 2050, food waste is not a problem we can—or should—ignore.

If you need any more convincing that most of what is chucked away is perfectly edible, you just need to pay a visit to Tiny Leaf—London's first restaurant serving food made from produce otherwise destined for the dump. It's not the first establishment of its kind in the UK. Silo in Brighton has been doing a similar thing since 2014, as has the Real Junk Food Project. But situated in West London and frequented by the Made in Chelsea lot, Tiny Leaf is perhaps pioneering in its endeavour to elevate the eating of food waste to a fine dining level.

"The primary motivation with the restaurant was to raise a flag about food wastage," says Tiny Leaf's Alice Gilsenan. "It's not about the hard sell, but about showing how things can be done differently. We're about constantly evolving. Our menu is a basic spine, but depending on what we get we will swap in and add in things. Six months from now the whole menu will look different."

While Tiny Leaf and Rubies in the Rubble are showing what can be done with the food that's thrown out by farmers, shops, and supermarkets, the waste that is accumulating in our homes is going untouched. And there is a lot of it. Household waste accounts for almost 50 percent of all food thrown away in the UK, with almost seven million tonnes of grub being binned a year.

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A vegetarian dish at "zero waste" London restaurant Tiny Leaf. Photo courtesy Tiny Leaf.

Given that most of that waste (60 percent) is avoidable and could have been eaten had it been managed better, it's clear we need to change our habits and behaviours when it comes to consuming. Food app Olio tries to help us do just that by encouraging people to share surplus food—those extra carrots, a pint of milk, the Christmas pudding you're never going to eat—with our neighbours.

"For some people, the whole concept of sharing food with your neighbours is radical and crazy, but actually human beings have been sharing food for the past two million years," founder Tessa Cook tells me. "It's only really in the past 50 years that we've lost that skill."

The idea of the app is simple: upload pictures of the food you would like to give away, or browse what food is available in your area. It's a bit like Tinder but with more tins of tuna.

"85 percent of the items that go on Olio get picked up. Our problem is supply. Sharing food with a neighbour feels phenomenal. And that's what people love about Olio," adds Cook. "They first join because they hate the thought of food waste—our research found that one in three people are physically pained at throwing away food—but it's the community thing that people love."

And that social aspect is important.

"People imagine food waste as the old stuff in their fridge rather than this enormous scale of perfectly good food being thrown away. Some of it doesn't even get to the supermarkets."

"Our mission is to stop food being thrown away and whoever is closest to take it and eat it," says Cook. "But there are some people who are using Olio and it's making a real difference to their lives."

The knowledge that such food waste exists alongside food poverty is, for many, deeply unsettling. And that's where a charity like Food Cycle—which takes surplus supermarket food and turns it into hot meals for those that need them—comes in. Like Olio, Food Cycle was founded by the desire to end food waste, but also tries to redistribute it to the vulnerable and socially isolated. Since starting in 2009, Food Cycle now has 24 projects across the country and cooked over 125,000 meals.

READ MORE: How Beer Made from Leftover Bread Could Help End Global Food Waste

"It has always been very much a grassroots movement of people getting together locally saying we want to do something about food waste," says Food Cycle's Clare Skelton. "We're very different to a food bank or soup kitchen as we're saying, 'What can we do with this perfectly good food, but what are the added benefits of cooking it and eating it together?' It has a really positive affect, not just on individuals and mental health, but how it helps build a feeling of community and strengthens bonds between people."

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Food Cycle volunteers at a training conference in London. Photo courtesy Food Cycle.

Ultimately, we all need to reconsider how we think about and treat food.

"It's about having respect for food and not just chucking it because it looks a bit bashed about," Skelton says. "It's thinking, 'What can I do with this?' because it's cost the Earth in resources to make it and deliver it to you."

Dawon adds: "For me, the biggest change in the West would be consumers learning how to value food again. We need to treat it as a treasured resource rather than a cheap commodity."

Soon, we may not have a choice.

Want more stories on Britain's food innovators? Check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food, running every day this week on MUNCHIES.