Back in the day when they were able to have visitors over, Íde Mhic Gabhann and her husband enjoyed surprising the guest sitting on the wooden box by telling them what was inside. Thousands of wriggling workers were happily munching on the couple’s food waste, they’d say, and watch the reaction to the news that their guest was sitting on a wormery.
"I actually inherited it," Mhic Gabhann says. The people who lived in their Dublin city centre apartment before them left their Austrian Wurmkiste wormery as a gift. Mhic Gabhann has used it as a coffee table and a stool. It needs to be emptied about once a month and produces what she calls "worm juice" along with a monthly supply of compost "which is too much for just ourselves". They are always looking for takers for what she calls "the worm love".
If worms aren’t your thing (and she’s happy to admit they’re not hers) her advice is to delegate the monthly harvesting job to someone else. Her husband lifts the inner container on to a sheet of newspaper and scrapes down the rich, brown compost to be bagged up and given to friends.
We generated a million tonnes of food waste in 2018, according to the latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. Just under a third of that came from the food service sector: hotels, restaurants and canteens.
An EPA survey in September found that 29 per cent of people said they had wasted less food during lockdown. Bread was still the most wasted item, closely followed by vegetables, fruit and salad. In 2020 it seemed our food waste habit improved across the world. Lunch was more likely to be reheated leftovers from the night before rather than a takeaway from a sandwich bar. A European survey of 7,000 people in Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain found that the number of people who said they were throwing away almost no food doubled to 70 per cent during lockdown.
Less than half of Irish households have access to a brown bin. But by the end of 2023 it will be mandatory to separate food waste under EU law. The apartment-friendly wormery model begins to look like a solution to take the pressure off municipal systems that may struggle to cope with a doubling in household food waste in the next two years.
But before we dive into that particular heap of warm steaming compost maybe it’s worth wondering whether coronavirus and attendant restrictions will permanently change our attitudes to slinging an average of €700 worth of food per household into the bin. We are more involved with our food now, whether it’s queuing outside a supermarket, making an effort to buy from a local farm or producer or going full prepper and donning a head torch to battle slugs on the salad crops in our back gardens.
Permaculture designer Hannah Mole has more of a connection to her food than most people, as she grows much of it. She has virtually eliminated food waste in her Roscommon home. One of the ways she does that is by not owning a fridge. In winter they use a cold box to store perishable food but the absence of a fridge means that things don't go there to dry and die on the back of the shelf.
She believes not wasting food starts with figuring out meals with what’s available. “What I tend to do most weeks is make a big pot of something and then have that a few times a week. It’s amazing how much cheaper it is.”
Soup is the easiest big pot food. “You can put anything in and it’s great for leftovers. My general approach to food is to go to the garden and see what’s there, then either make soup or google my ingredients.”
On the day we talk by phone beets and cabbage are going into a borscht. It’s worth putting some effort and flavourful treatments into the one big pot. Make it tasty, she advises, so it’s not a hardship to eat it for more than one meal.
As a food grower it goes against her grain to throw anything out. Even when she hasn’t grown it herself she buys it from a newly established local food network in Roscommon. “It’s a mind shift. For me I’m really aware of how much effort you’ve put into growing everything.” The food is “top-level stuff ... so much effort went into preparing the ground, looking after it, weeding it and harvesting it.”
Mole's fellow teacher and pemaculture expert Suzie Cahn sent her youngest son, Finn, off to his first home away from home in Kinsale with a spreadsheet. "He asked me for food advice and meal plans so I made him an Excel sheet." The first page was a list of what's in season in Ireland for every month, because those foods would be available in abundance.
Cahn believes this year has given us the time to have a rethink about where our food comes from. And we’re reconnecting with it, if only physically, by choosing the right amount of certain vegetables rather than grabbing the pre-packed amount. “If I can buy a loose product then I don’t have to come home with too many of them.”
'Ask what is your current relationship to your food and its value. Think about it in terms of a relationship. Does it have zing and life energy? '
She's a firm believer in the idea that guilt and shame are not the way to persuade people to reduce their food waste. They have to come at it from a positive position, and that may be the shift that the pandemic has forced into our thinking: "It's about what Mick Kelly from GIY describes as 'food empathy'," she says. Growing your own herbs and salads, even on a balcony, gives you that and also reduces one of the foods most frequently wasted – as she puts it, "the bag of salad you let go to mush in the drawer".
This month she’ll be eating the last of her fresh tomatoes, and then she won’t eat them again until the end of June. “It’s exactly like you get at Christmas, the excitement about food that you only cook that one time and you look forward to it. I get like that about strawberries, raspberries, apples and tomatoes. That is a missing ingredient in food: excitement. Otherwise it can rot in the back of the fridge because the attitude is, ‘I don’t really care. I can get another pepper tomorrow.’ ”
“Fear or shame will work in a very short term but won’t bring about a lasting change.” Feelings of love make a habit stick. “You get to love such benefits that you would be bereft if it changed back.”
She has “never not composted. My father composted, my grandmother composted ... I behave peculiarly in people’s houses. I can’t put perfectly good compost material in a bin.” She has been known to take food scraps home in a kind of doggy bag (or wormy bag).
Her top tip? “Ask what is your current relationship to your food and its value. Think about it in terms of a relationship. Does it have zing and life energy? If we’re trying to regenerate depleted soil – the wilderness we have encroached on – we have to regenerate our own lost connections.” That could make us happier and less likely to trash it all.
Catherine Cleary’s composting learning curve
I became a neighbourhood WhatsApp group’s rag-and-bone man last month, posting a message looking for any old kitchen scraps. The reason? The delivery of a fridge-sized Hotbin composter. If I could get it to heat up to 40-60 degrees it would turn all our food waste (raw and cooked) into lovely compost in a month. But the magic number could only be reached with more waste than we could produce. And fast.
'I am doing honours-level composting and it is deeply satisfying in a smugly steaming kind of way'
Cue lots of Gwyneth Paltrow jokes about steaming boxes and one friend who suggested taking the pears that had fallen from street trees and were carpeting a nearby road.
A month later I am obsessed, monitoring the temperature of my compost daily, opening the lid to a cloud of steam generated only by the bacteria that are digesting the mix of food waste, paper (I will be tearing this magazine into loose strips when we’re done with it) and a bit of woodchip.
I fished out a whole carrot recently and delivered a stern lecture about the necessity of chopping compost material before adding it to the box. I followed this with a new rule: I am the only one allowed to put things in the Hotbox. I am doing honours-level composting and it is deeply satisfying in a smugly steaming kind of way.
Top tips to avoid or reduce food waste
1 Don't buy it in the first place. Avoid bagged fruits and vegetables. That bag of carrots will end up costing you more money to dispose of its blackened mulchy leftovers.
2 Batch-cook. Plug into a podcast and make stews, curries and soups to freeze in lunchboxes for an answer to the soul-sapping daily question of "What's for dinner?"
3 Make your batches delicious. There's no point in having a freezer full of brown food if the thought of eating it makes you reach for the takeaway menu.
4 Become a Community Supported Agriculture member or buy what's in season from a local grower. CSA is the shining light of the future for healthier food, seasonal excitement, healthy incomes for farmers and a generation able to make a living from regenerative agriculture.
5 Use your WhatsApp groups to source and give away ingredients. Someone will have that onion you need or need one themselves. Deliver or collect in socially distanced fashion. It's the "borrow a cup of sugar" culture for our time.
6 Grow your own salads. They're easy, take up just a windowsill and if you're working from home, you can keep on top of the maintenance.
7 Spend more on your food. If you can afford to do this, you'll enjoy it too much to throw it away.
8 Dry out your egg shells and blitz them in a grinder to make calcium powder to add to your ...
9 Compost. If you can't eat it, there's a worm/bacterium/fungus that will put it to good use. Hotbin composters that can take all food waste are available from mrmiddleton.com and quickcrop.ie. Find an apartment wormery at wurmkiste.at.
10 Check out the brilliant Pashon Murray for inspiration on the value of using food waste to grow healthy soil, sequester carbon and make community detroitdirt.org.