Author Interviews


Okay. So, San Francisco may be on the cutting edge of recycling food waste in this country. In Asia, there are countries where that's nothing new. But those efforts are a rare bright spot in a new book called "Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal." Author Tristram Stuart makes the case that much of the developed world is careless in the way it produces and consumes food, tossing vast quantities - from fields of imperfect produce to the lettuce you left in the fridge a little too long. Stuart argues that there is a more responsible approach.

Mr. TRISTRAM STUART (Author, "Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal"): In the United States, under three percent of municipal food waste - so that's the food scraps that go into people's garbage cans - actually gets recycled. If you go to a place like South Korea, the exact reverse is the case. It's about three percent that doesn't get recycled. The rest is recycled through composting and - very largely and very sensibly - through feeding that food waste to livestock.

And that's something that I found really interesting. In Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, the government has, in a matter of years, put a lot of energy behind recycling food waste as livestock feed. It's environmentally friendly, it provides cheap livestock feed for the farmers in those parts of the world, and it avoids sending food waste to landfill.

And that's one of the really key things. Because when food waste goes to landfill, it decomposes. In the absence of oxygen, that produces methane; and methane is more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

MONTAGNE: Methane, as we say it here, methane, in case somebody is not sort of picking up on that. But the reality, of course, is enormous waste. And the picture on the cover of your book, "Waste," is quite stunning. A sea of tomatoes. Tell us where that is and what that is.

Mr. STUART: Well, that's in Tenerife, but really what we're looking at is just one snapshot of an attitude to food which prevails in rich countries throughout the world. When I researched this book, I started on farms, I went down through manufacturers, through retailers, restaurants and into people's homes. And it's when you toss out the waste that happens in every level in the food supply chain that the really shocking figures come out.

I mean, retailers throw out food on a daily basis, and you open up the bins around the back of their stores and it looks like someone has tipped a supermarket shelf into the dumpster. And I, for the research in the book and also for the last several years, have been taking food out of those bins, not because I think it's wrong to buy food in supermarkets, but similarly to make the point that the food shouldn't be being put there in the first place.

There are lots of ways in which retailers can avoid wasting food. They can reduce the price of stock before it reaches its expiry date. They can avoid, most importantly, overstocking in the first place. And at the very least, they can donate surplus to charities before it passes its expiry date.

MONTAGNE: Well, you just said you take food that's been thrown away. And I gather that you actually live off of some of this food. It's freeganism, is what it is.

Mr. STUART: That's the term that people use, and I don't mind the label as long as it's made clear that I'm doing it for one reason and one reason only - to make a point that the food shouldn't be being put in the bin in the first place. These stores will actually save money by giving the food away 'cause they won't have to pay for the disposal costs. Instead, a charity will come and take it off their hands for free.

They also get tax breaks in the United States. That is the kind of very obvious, easy, implementable, realistic solution that I advocate in my book. We have the solutions, we know how to do it, we just need to do it more effectively and across the board.

MONTAGNE: Author Tristram Stuart - his new book is called "Waste."

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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