Preventing food waste was historically a way to make ends meet. Already from 1861, the cookbooks of the famous English Mrs. Beeton mentioned food waste, such as in her 1899 cookbook, which already cautioned: “Never waste or throw away anything that can be turned to account!”.
Quantities of food waste
In 2018, prevention of food waste is high on the agenda of the European Commission. Not only because CO2-emissions precede food waste, but equally to meet UN sustainable development goal 12 (responsible consumption and production). To reach the goal, European Commission supports various initiatives, e.g. the establishment of a common methodology to measure food waste in the Member States. This is especially necessary, because data is currently collected in divergent ways by the Member States, which makes data often incomplete and not fit for comparisons. Also in Poland the topic food waste has gained an attention.
Most recent extensive data on food waste (which still should be interpreted with caution) is from 2006 and covered in the 2010 BIOIS report. This report estimates that Europeans waste 89.3 million tonnes of food annually. Poles contribute 9 million tonnes to this total. Polish households waste 2 million tonnes of food per year, meaning an estimated 54 kg per Polish citizen per year (the European average is estimated at 76 kg per person per year). Because of this, an average Polish family of four loses 2500 Polish złoty annually according to the Polish Ministry of Environment.
Poland scores relatively high on total food waste. Poland ranks 5th among European Member States (figure underneath). The large food production industry in Poland might also contribute to this ranking.
Total food waste arising per Member State based on best available data (tonnes per year)
Image: ©BIOIS / BIOIS, European Commission (DG ENV). Preparatory Study on Food Waste Across EU 27. October 2010
Cause & behaviour towards food waste in Poland
Food waste is thought to be caused by multiple factors. Emphasized is lack of understanding of date markings. According to Eurobarometer 2015, the “best before date” (daty minimalnej trwałości) is understood by 24% of Polish people (European average being 47%). The “use by date” (przydatności do spożycia) is said to be understood by 57% of Polish people (European average being 40%). However, this might also suggest that Polish people interpret any date printed on food packaging as ultimate consumption date. When asked who is responsible to prevent food waste, the most elected answer was consumers (65% of Polish respondents, as opposed to 76% as European average).
Other causes of food waste include poor planning of shopping, standardized portion sizes in dining places, stock management operation, overproduction of food, packaging damage at production level and inadequate storing conditions in the food chain.
Polish consumer behaviour towards wasting food was tested in a 2018 survey commissioned by Tesco. Self-reported food waste happened for 62.7% of people at least once a month. The intervals of throwing out food was for 20% (of the respondents) monthly, for 32.1% weekly and for 10.4% daily. Tesco also published its own annual food waste numbers. In 2017-2018, the company did not sell 1.12% tonnes of its food. Of this food, 36% still was fit for human consumption. Of this surplus, 51% was donated or ended up as animal feed.
Responses to food waste
The attention for the topic food waste is growing in Poland. The 2018 Economic Forum in Krynica saw a panel discussion on food waste. From this discussion, it emerged that Polish industry cares about food waste, but mostly still from economic perspective. In addition, it is also signalled that sometimes produce is not harvested so as not to negatively affect market prices. Also in 2018, the third Central Europe Food Waste Conference was organized in Warsaw by Tesco.
In addition, there are various local initiatives in Poland that combat food waste. Most known are perhaps the 32 Polish food banks (Banki Żywności) which reach out to 2 million people per year. Other small initiatives are Outlet Spożywczy, an online platform selling foods near the end of their shelf life, Café Kryzys in Warsaw and others. The topic of food waste is being taken up faster by non-governmental organizations and private sector which results in launching promotion campaigns and events for society, like this year zero waste fair 2018 (first time in Warsaw), public event on how to reduce food waste while cooking (during circular economy week 2018 in Warsaw), food sharing (societal campaign), save the last banana campaign (campaign of food banks and Lidl supermarket chain).
Political and legal responses
There are a few legislative initiatives aimed at food waste. First being a 2011 amendment of article 43 of the Act of 11 March 2011. This had the effect that donated food became exempt from VAT.
A few years later in 2016, a Polish law proposal on food waste was presented to Sejm (lower house of Polish Parliament). Larger retailers (>250 m2) (adhering to a few other requirements) would face new obligations under the new law. The retailers would need to conclude contracts with NGO’s or food organizations to donate food. They should also organize an annual educational campaign on food waste in collaboration with the NGO. If found non-compliant, a fine per non-donated kg of food waste is stipulated as well as a fine for the lack of contract with an NGO. The explanatory memorandum mentions the law is initiated since retail is accountable for approximately 5-10% of Polish food waste. This also shows the weaker point of the proposal, as it focuses too much on preventing food waste at the level of retailers whereas most of the food waste occurs at consumer level. As of 2018 the law is still awaiting action by Sejm.
Other legislative instruments that are of influence for food waste are the Polish National Waste Management Plan 2022, the National Programme for the Prevention of Waste 2014 (both a.o. aimed at the reduction of (food) waste). Furthermore, food waste of households is mentioned in the city of Warsaw’s Environmental Sustainability Programme 2017-202, and the city of Wrocław promotes composters to households.
More data about the scope of the problem might become available soon. In March 2018, the Polish Ministry of Environment announced a 3-year project to research food waste in Poland and organize consumer information campaigns, financed with 11 million Polish złoty. Investigated will be where waste occurs in the food chain and how to deal with it. The project is led by the federation of Polish food Banks, the Institute of Environmental Protection (PIB), the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW), the National Center for Agricultural Support and the Polish Society of Food Technologists.
All goes to show that Mrs. Beeton’s advice still holds true, perhaps even more so in 2018. In Poland this becomes even more apparent from Polish cookbooks with names like “Cook, don’t waste!”- the advice even makes it to the front cover nowadays.