On my first day at school with the set intention of minimizing my personal production of food waste, I was served the biggest bowl of noodle soup I had ever seen. I am talking comically large: like, my own personal serving platter. I had never even seen the giant bowls that the soup was being served in at the school before. My first thought was perhaps I was noticing their size because of the enhanced attention I was placing on food waste, followed by the brief thought that perhaps I was being punked, but I quickly ruled both of these explanations out: these were simply special, jumbo bowls for special, jumbo soup day.
The lunch lady—always so kind and generous with me—gave me a knowing smile as she dished a double serving of noodles into my bowl. I held the heaping dish steady, balanced atop my lunch tray, to keep it from sloshing over as I walked to my seat.
Food waste in Korea
As I noted at the end of my previous blog post, the world wastes one third of the food produced for consumption every year. More than 40% of those losses happen at the retail and consumer level in industrialized countries like the United States. This means that a lot of what is wasted is chucked from grocery stores or dies at home in the back of our refrigerators. Interestingly, South Korea is often cited for its national focus on reducing and recycling food waste. According to some sources, the country now recycles 95% of its food waste—in the form of fertilizer, animal feed, and energy. Compare this to the United States, where some 97% of food waste is sent to landfill where it rots and releases methane into the atmosphere.
A pay-as-you-waste system is implemented in Korea in an effort to discourage all waste production. At a basic level this means consumers must dispose of waste—food and otherwise—in type-specific bags purchased at grocery stores. The idea is that the more waste you produce, the more bags you need, and the more money you spend, hence deincentivizing waste production. Food waste is handled differently depending on the city. In some cities, there are specific bags required for disposing of food waste only; in others, bins are provided by housing for food waste dumping. I have even watched videos about robotic food bins that charge you monthly based on the weight of the food waste your household produces—a little dystopian, sure, but they also might be on to something. These more aggressive systems exist in the extremely dense capital of Seoul, while in the rural parts of the country where we live in it feels like more of a free for all.
One large contributor to all the waste, in Korea and elsewhere, is grocery stores. While I get incredibly frustrated with the amount of plastic packaging required for nearly any food purchase in Korea (I will be diving into that more in February), there is one area where I do want to applaud Korean grocery stores. In an attempt to limit waste—and therefore limit the amount the store has to pay for disposing of this waste—grocery stores offer marked down sections with products nearing their expiration dates. There is often an entire discounted section dedicated to produce. Mass amounts of expiring produce in grocery stores is a problem that the United States handles very poorly.
I love having the option to pay less for food that is going bad soon for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, I am paying less for food. Because I typically stop at the store every few days, the food I buy is probably going to be eaten that night, regardless of it expires tomorrow or next week. I also feel good about making a conscious decision as a consumer to salvage some food that might otherwise be tossed. I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a hit of endorphins from the combined frugality and eco-friendliness. Shopping from this section also mixes up what I buy, challenging me to prepare and eat something different every now and then. This was one of my favorite unexpected perks of getting an Imperfect Foods box each month when we lived in Portland.
In the typical American food system, grocery stores do not acknowledge the demand for less than perfect produce, and instead toss the questionable products under the outdated assumption that it’s not what the consumer wants. I can draw to mind a few examples of discount sections in American grocery stores, mostly for damaged goods, always residing in the back of the store by the bathrooms and always containing only non-perishables. It is the unfortunate truth of our food system that it is often cheaper for stores to toss food than salvage it. In my opinion, this practice deserves being totally reexamined.
Honestly, cleaning my plate was not a big ask while traveling in Japan the latter half of this month: Japanese food is some of my favorite cuisine, and, generally speaking, portion sizes are small. In many traditional Japanese bars—called izakayas—food is served tapas style, with guests continually ordering and sharing small plates. This method seems like more sensical way to eat compared to the American way of ordering (large) individual plates that few people finish, both from an environmental—less waste!—and food lover’s—more things to try!—standpoint. In my case, it also helps that Joey is always willing to finish what I cannot.
Ultimately though, in my month of consciously consuming and learning more about the problem, I feel like the biggest takeaway for wasting less food on an individual level is to slow down and be deliberate in our consumption habits. We have all experienced that my eyes are bigger than my stomach feeling when we are full and staring down at our barely touched main course after five shared appetizers and a bread refill that we could have, in retrospect, foregone. Wasting less means anticipating this scenario, and at least being prepared to eat your leftovers for lunch tomorrow. The same applies at the grocery store. Are you buying aspirationally (read: are you really going to prepare four from-scratch dinners and drink 8 smoothies with all those fresh fruits this week?) or realistically?
Buying less is a key tenant of living simply. When you buy fewer groceries, you do not need to think about what’s for dinner. Having exactly what you need in the refrigerator, but no more, serves the same purpose as having a small but functional wardrobe in your closet: it saves you time and mental space.
In the spirit of slowing down and being deliberate, I want to close this section by sharing a favorite tip I have heard—from where I have since forgotten—to reduce personal food waste: eat the whole broccoli. There is no reason that you need to cut off the stem of your broccoli before cooking; that part is perfectly edible and tastes (shockingly) like broccoli. Apply this lesson to all of the food you prepare and consume, and you start to realize that you waste a lot of edible food—crusts, skins—simply because that’s how you have always done it.
When you are more aware of what you are eating, you enjoy it that much more. So, while I did ultimately finish my giant bowl of noodles in the school cafeteria, my goal in continuing to minimize my own food waste is not to routinely stuff myself. Instead, I aspire to take it slow, eat more foods in smaller portions, and be aware of where my food is coming from and where it goes when I can’t finish it. Food waste is a systemic issue, but, like everything, no change will come from waiting for change if we aren’t willing to change ourselves.
There are so many aspects of Japanese design that I admire and seek to emulate in my own home one day—natural, simple, clean, imperfect. This style sits well with my orientation towards simple living. However, after spending close to three weeks in the country, I feel gross about the incredible amount of trash—namely: single-use plastic waste—that I produced while there. Trash is burned in Japan (listen to this podcast to understand why that actually might not be as bad as it sounds), which may contribute to a surprising lack of attention paid to the disgusting amount of plastic used to support the convenience store culture.
Plastic is everywhere in Korea, which is why I am not setting some ambitious goal of eliminating my use of plastic entirely. All fruits and vegetables at my local supermarkets are prepackaged on Styrofoam trays, wrapped in plastic wrap. Super not ideal, but that is my reality for the next three months if I want to continue eating produce. However, there are many many times I could opt not to purchase or consume treats hidden beneath multiple layers of plastic.
February’s simple living focus will be on limiting my use of single-use plastics. I am already a loyal Hydroflask and reusable shopping bag user, but my hope is that an intentional focus on reducing the amount of waste I am producing, specifically when it comes to something used once, will inspire me to get creative and learn more about what other countries are doing to combat the plastic problem.
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If you are interested in adopting the simple-living habit of reducing your own food waste, a few resources I would recommend are:
- American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom, for a comprehensive look at food waste within all aspects of the American food system;
- If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to Jonathan Bloom’s interview on Unwasted: The Podcast here;
- Check out Imperfect Food’s list of 20 Ways to Reduce Food Waste in 2020;
- Use this link when you sign up for Imperfect Foods, and get $10 off your first box!
I cannot give full endorsements yet, but this month I plan to expand my knowledge about the plastic problem and solutions by reading:
- The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard;
- Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry
- If all that talk about Japan piqued your interest, Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things: The New Japanese Minimalism is a great book about the Japanese method of living with less.