Back at uni, some of my more militantly eco friends would go to the Exeter Sainsbury’s at 3am to dumpster dive, which, 10 years ago, seemed quite scandalous. But it made sense when they explained – over bowls of koshari they’d created with the spoils – that they weren’t just in it for the free food.
A third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted, amounting to a global total of 1.3 billion tonnes a year, according to the most recent UN figures. The food takes water, labour and energy to produce, store and transport, not to mention the harmful emissions produced as the food rots. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases behind the US and China.
I’ve always been pretty good at not wasting food at home, but a decade ago there didn’t really seem like there was much else I could do about it – and I wasn’t prepared to jump in a bin. Today, we’re much more conscious of the impact of wasted food. Also, you don’t have to dumpster dive to do your bit – apps such as Olio, Karma and Too Good To Go are helping restaurants and individuals share unwanted food, while veg warriors Oddbox are filling delivery boxes with fruit and veg saved from landfill.
I resolved that for a week I’d try to eat solely using food-saving apps and cafés – as well as using a wonky veg box and whatever I could get from zero-waste shops for cooking at home. The aim was to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible, too. So no more Pret dashes, no big supermarket shops and no late-night Deliveroo orders. Read on to see how I fared...
The Weekend Before
In order to prep, I nip to Planet Organic on Friday evening before a friend’s birthday dinner to fill up some cloth bags with a few pantry essentials. I’m hoping for some granola but there is none, so I opt for oats instead. I also get a big bag of rice, some almonds, milk chocolate buttons and coffee beans. It comes to £11.37, with way less waste, though you still have to use a label for scanning at the till.
On Sunday evening I spot a kilo of frozen shredded duck for £14 and a huge bag of herbs, spices, sauces and seeds for £26, both listed on a food waste app by a restaurant on my way home from a friend’s house. I turn up and it’s a massive, three-foot-tall box of catering-size stuff, lots of it in date for months. A great deal but way too much to carry, so I take what I can lift and leave the rest, reasoning that getting an Uber for turmeric is excessive.
At this point I start to feel a little disillusioned. The food was being chucked out by a temporary restaurant in a street food market which was closing, and if all that is going in the bin at the end of just one pop-up stint, it really highlights how much needs to change.
I perk up at about 10pm, when I finish making oat milk from scratch (a really easy process that involves blending and straining), using far fewer ingredients packed in plastic than buying pre-made.
Breakfast is overnight oats made partly with the mixture leftover from making the oat milk, more oat milk and some grated apple from my veg box. Honestly, without the nut butter, honey and berries I’d usually add, it’s not great, and even topping it with some pomegranate and orange doesn’t make a huge difference, but it’ll do. The oat milk is a success in my coffee, ground from the beans I bought on Friday.
At lunchtime, I spend a fair bit of time faffing on apps (I first order something in Brixton, 20 minutes away, but in the end have to forfeit my £2.99 because the buses are on diversion and there’s no way I’ll make it in time). Eventually I find a Moroccan carrot and turmeric super salad (£2) going from a kitchen in Vauxhall, where they make Pollen + Grace vegan salads to sell at places like Whole Foods. And a cardamom cacao pot (£1.50) for dessert. Someone didn’t pick up an order, so they give me some extra salads and other meals with a few days on the best before dates for free – win! I share them with my vegan housemate, as there’s no way I’ll get through them.
My Oddbox arrives (a small fruit and veg box costs £11.49 and saves 7kg of CO2 and 2,115 litres of water). I feel a bit stressed now because I have possibly more food on my hands than I can eat, but there’s lots of great fresh produce, with very little packaging. Dinner is duck with hoi sin sauce from Sunday night’s app haul, plus spring onions and cucumber from my veg box. Sadly no pancakes, but I make rice instead.
Breakfast is coffee, a Danish pastry (free) procured via Olio by my boyfriend, from a café en route home from his work, and a mango, kiwi and apple smoothie I make from my veg box. I’m working at home again today so I find a recipe for a duck, fennel and orange salad, and despite a substitution (spring onion instead of red onion), I have pretty much all the ingredients. It’s my proudest moment yet – I would totally serve this to friends. Although my first cheat happens here. Salad with no dressing = misery. So I add olive oil from a plastic bottle.
For a mid-afternoon snack, I have some zero waste crisps, with biodegradable packets and produced using power generated from farm waste (Two Farmers, available in Whole Foods, £1). Dinner is a daal pot from yesterday’s vegan haul (free) with chocolate buttons for dessert.
Breakfast is another smoothie, Danish pastry and a coffee. And lunch is stir fry from the veg box, made with toasted seeds, garlic puree, dried chillies and ginger powder from Sunday night. For an afternoon snack, I have some Sea Chips salmon skin crisps, made with offcuts and with compostable packets (£1.50, Sainsbury’s), which are surprisingly tasty, like a fishy pork scratching – but apparently much healthier.
I know tomorrow is going to be busy with deadlines, so I decide to bulk-buy. I try the apps for anything local first and set up a 'magic bag' order, filled with a surprise selection of items that would’ve gone to waste from a local café, but it’s cancelled half an hour before the pick-up time. I have to rethink, and go further afield. Not knowing what I’ll get means I drastically over-order and come back with two magic bags from Costa (£3 each), filled with sandwiches, wraps and a pastry, another magic bag of cake (£3) from one of my favourite bakeries in Borough Market, and a magic bag with a salad, some cakes and a smoothie (£3.59) from an independent coffee shop, plus two baguettes (£2.25 each) and yoghurts (£1.20 each) from a sarnie place.
Dinner in with the boyfriend is highly romantic chicken, bacon and avocado sourdough baguettes, followed by the rescued cake (the highlight: red velvet, lemon and Victoria sponge). He ends up taking the sandwiches to work the next day.
I have an orange, yoghurt and a pastry, which is quite dry by now. Lunch is a chicken, avocado and feta salad from yesterday’s magic bag, plus a Rejuce made with wonky mixed berries (£2, available in independent shops). Tonight I cheat again – I’ve had a work dinner in the diary for months and I can’t bail (if I don’t eat it, it’ll go to waste, right?). I really, really enjoy the red wine, which has been off-limits all week.
Breakfast is an apple and a mango, turmeric and chia seed vegan pot left from earlier in the week (free), with coffee. I’m working in Shoreditch today, so I meet a friend at a café called Bean & Wheat, a zero-waste initiative that saves wasted food from its more upscale, adjacent sister restaurant, The Frog. Eating out is a big part of my life, so I’m happy that restaurants with a zero-waste ethos are starting to open in the UK (outside London there’s Silo in Brighton and Poco Tapas Bar in Bristol). I have a beautifully wobbly burrata with pea hummus and fresh mint, on toast (£7), and some kombucha.
Since I’m in town, picking dinner from the apps is way easier – I choose California and prawn tempura rolls from a nearby sushi joint, 10 minutes’ walk from where I’ve been working. For a house party this evening I’ve tracked down some Black Cow vodka, which is made from leftover whey from the cheesemaking process (£28), which I mix with Dash sparkling water, infused with wonky berries like raspberry and blackcurrant (£1.29 per can, Ocado).
What I Learned
Overall, my week of zero-waste eating was fairly easy, although it was a time commitment, since I had to travel a lot for my meals. I’m based in London in a fairly urban part of Zone 2, in Camberwell, but the challenge would have been much easier had I been coming into town on a daily basis (I kept missing cut-price fancy bread and doughnuts from St. John Bakery, for example, as well as meals from places like Bala Baya and Ugly Dumpling). Had I been based outside London, though, finding leftover food to save from restaurants would have been much harder, as choices are still fairly limited.
I also found that it was difficult to save on plastic while using food waste apps – most restaurants don’t use compostable packaging, and the food is generally already packaged up when you arrive, so bringing your own Tupperware is tricky. That’s the one key thing I’d have liked to see cafés and restaurants doing better.
These options are great for someone who’s unfussy, with no dietary requirements – though the magic bag thing meant I bought more food than I needed. Karma, though, has lots of options where you can choose which meal you’d like to buy, which I think is ultimately better if you’re trying to avoid food waste.
The apps tend to sell meals for half the usual price, or less. And overall, I think I spent a bit less on food than I usually would in a week; day-to-day stuff, including eating out, came to about £40 and the stuff I forked out on at the start of the week will last me ages. Long term, after getting the hang of the apps, I definitely think I’d save more money, so I’d say it’s pretty sustainable financially. And I have enough leftover duck in the freezer to throw a dinner party with.
It turns out you can eat pretty well from the zero-waste food initiatives out there. There are still a few gaps to fill: zero-waste options for granola, cereals and condiments, for example. I probably couldn’t stick to using the apps all the time as there’s travel involved, but I’ll definitely keep an eye on them when I’m in town, keep my Oddbox coming every week and fill my cloth bags with oats and grains rather than buying packaged stuff whenever I can. There’s a lot of perfectly good food going to waste out there – and it’s a whole lot easier to get your hands on than rummaging through bins at 3am.
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