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This week I’m super excited to share with you an inspiring and thought-provoking Cocoon Conversations with my fellow University of Portsmouth graduate and food waste expert, Dr Lilly Da Gama, aka The Food Waste Doctor! After following Lilly’s PhD journey and seeing her passion for food waste reduction I knew I had to speak to her to find out more. So grab a cuppa, get comfortable and read on…

Tell us a little bit about yourself…

Oo, where to start. So my name is Lilly, I have a PhD in managing food waste reduction in the packaging development process which focused in part on exploring the environmental balance between food and packaging waste. During the process of completing my PhD I was made a ‘Food Waste Specialist Consultant’ to the United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organisation and basically I’m on a bit of a mission to get more people trying to tackle food waste.

What was your motivation behind The Food Waste Doctor?

Well during my PhD I learnt so much about the environmental and social impacts of food waste and I just thought ‘how is this the first time I’m hearing about this?!’. We’re living in such an amazing time of consumers standing up for what they believe in and for the planet but food waste is so under discussed that most people don’t realise it’s something they should be fighting as part of the drive to slow climate change. I really wanted to do whatever I could to spread these messages and use what I’d learnt to try and help people reduce food waste in the homes and through that make an impact on some of the environmental damage caused by food waste.

What are the biggest environmental impacts of food waste?

The waste itself is a huge contributor to global warming gases, in particular methane, which we know is over 26x more potent in global warming than carbon dioxide. But what we also have to bear in mind is that when we waste food we not only waste all the environmental impacts that went in to producing that food, but also place higher demand on the agricultural system to provide more food. So we know that globally, approximately 40% of food produced is wasted. What that means is that we’re growing almost twice as much food waste we actually need. This means we’re in the region of using twice the energy, twice the water, creating twice as much soil erosion and deforestation, the list goes on!

Why do you think food waste has become so extortionate without many of us even realising?

I think it’s a bit of a mix of reasons. Firstly, our lifestyles have changed slowly over time so it’s kind of snuck up on us. We’re doing weekly or fortnightly shops now instead of daily shops so produce needs to last far longer. We have so many other options in terms of takeout and restaurants and we lead busier lives, so who can blame someone for deciding against cooking with the food they bought one day and ordering a takeout instead?! The problem is the food in the fridge then goes to waste.

The other side of it is we’re really not taught to cook with what we have anymore. Very few people can take whatever’s in their fridge and turn it in to something delicious. And that’s a huge part of it, it needs to taste good or no one’s going to want to eat it and it ends up in the bin.

And a big part of it is the change in attitudes towards food, we’re not really taught to value it anymore. As consumers we tend to see food as plentiful and don’t really see an issue wasting it. I’ve heard so many people say ‘but it’s biodegradable’ and what they don’t realise is that as it biodegrades it’s causing damage to the planet.

Are there some foods that we waste more than others? And why do you think this is?

Yes definitely, top culprits in the UK are fresh fruit & veg, milk and bread. It’s again a case of not knowing how to use what we have in the fridge, fresh food just not having as long a shelf life as we need to fit in with our lifestyles and a mentality of ‘better too much than too little’, which is definitely not the case where it comes to food waste.

What are your top 3 tips for anyone wanting to cut down on their food waste?

Oo, only 3! Ok, I’d say:

  1. Plan your meals – it’s such a cliché and people are sick or hearing it but it definitely helps and honestly I’ve found it such a stress reliever to come in from work and be like ‘Ok, what’s on the meal plan for today’ rather than staring at the fridge for 20 minutes trying to figure out what I can make before giving up and ordering a pizza.
  2. Weigh your waste – it sounds so weird and when I tell friends I do this I get some really weird looks! But it’s so hard to a. improve and b. even realise what you’re doing wrong in the first place when you’re kind of mindlessly throwing things away. Weighing your food waste at the end of each week give you a target to try and reduce and also makes you think about why you didn’t use that food, was it a lack of planning, a forgotten ingredient or that sneaky midweek takeout?
  3. Watch your portions & stop being scared of leftovers – ok, that’s two but three just isn’t enough! A really simple way of reducing waste it to put food in the middle of the table and tell people to help themselves. A lot of waste occurs in the home from the ‘chef’ over portioning for people. Plus if it’s been on someone’s plate you’re more likely to throw it away than to use it the next day. Keeping it in the dish means you can portion it up for tomorrow’s lunch without wondering if little Timmy’s licked it!

What do you think large corporations can do to reduce their food waste?

This one I actually can answer in 3!

  1. Question everything. So much waste occurs because we follow ‘the norm’ without really questioning it. So why do we peel potatoes before we make roast potatoes? Is it necessary? Why do we still use paper packaging for flour bags even though it gets punctured all the time? What could we do with these orange peels that could be good for business?
  2. Look for the opportunity in food waste – there is so much opportunity for innovation, money saving and adding value in reducing food waste, half the battle is changing your mind set to look for it.
  3. Hire The Food Waste Doctor of course!

What role do you think plastic packaging has to play in reducing food waste?

Currently, a big one. The relationship between food and it’s packaging it so unique. I completely understand and support the drive to reduce our reliance on single use plastics across so many different platforms like straws, but food is so reliant on packaging, plastic packaging in particular, to protect it from bacteria, oxygen and mechanical damage. An example I’m always asked about is cucumber – ‘Cucumber has a natural skin, it doesn’t need packaging!’ – but that thin piece of plastic adds weeks to its shelf life which gives consumers longer to use it and protects it in a global supply chain where its go to survive long enough to even make it in to the customers home. Eventually I believe we will find an alternative material which is able to protect the food as well as packaging does but is more sustainable and I believe we need to keep striving for that. But in the meantime banning or removing all plastic is simply replacing one form of environmental damage (plastic) with another (food waste).

Are there any initiatives you feel the government could introduce to reduce food waste?

So many!! A huge one is education for consumers. But another big one for me is readdressing current policy surrounding packaging taxation. Companies I worked with during my research often felt restricted to the point of scrapping food waste reducing projects because of how taxed they would be for the increase in packaging it caused. Or they feared fall out from consumers or retailers. The narrative surrounding food and packaging needs updating and the Government could do a lot to support this.

Thank you Lilly for such an insightful and open discussion! If you want to find out more you can visit The Food Waste Doctor website or follow Lilly on Facebook and Instagram.