February 27, 2019

Wastetarianism: An Alternative to Veganism?


"Something died for those steaks!" Our friend swiped the three abandoned plates of tough meat and began working on them. He cut and chewed each piece resolutely. 

He was normally vegetarian, but this was an exception: meat would've been wasted otherwise. I was impressed.

I first heard about "wastetarianism" about a year ago (coined by a mutual friend), but I'd encountered the philosophy well before, at this formal dinner in Oxford. 

The premise is simple: you follow a plant-based diet, unless food is about to be thrown out. The term has yet to become common usage, but I'm hoping the concept will spread. Here's why I'm excited about wastetarianism:


What is wastetarianism? How is it different from other diets?

Wastetarianism is basically a subset of flexitarianism (yay, more crazy food terminology haha); flexitarians eat mostly a plant-based diet, but do occasionally consume animal products. The motivation is often to live a environmentally-conscious and healthy lifestyle, without being overly restrictive.

The philosophy behind wastetarianism focuses more on minimizing food waste. Flexitarians might eat meat just because they feel like it, but wastetarians will only eat animal products if they would've otherwise been thrown out. 

That's not to say that wastetarians will only consume discarded food (that would be more freeganism). They follow a normal vegan/plant-based diet, which can involve cooking meals and going out to eat. The "waste" part comes in as they strive to prevent food from being needlessly tossed out.


Why should we care about wastetarianism?

Around one-third of the world's food is wasted (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN), and a significant portion of that food waste occurs at the consumer level. In North America, consumers are the cause for 40% of food waste, while the other 31% happens at the commercial/industrial level, and the last 29% at pre-production (Institute of Food Technologists). Since nearly half of food waste is negligence on our part, we can actually do something about it (rather than pin total responsibility on corporations, grocery stores, etc). 

The plant-based component of wastetarianism also has a positive environmental impact. The Guardian reports that limiting animal products is the most significant way we can reduce our footprint. If everyone were vegan, we could reduce farmland by 75%. This would not only lead to a decrease in land use, but also water consumption and greenhouse gases. Certain threatened species might also be able to reclaim their homes. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that we should totally eliminate meat and dairy consumption as a society. Produce farming comes with its own baggage, as ploughing leads to increased carbon emissions from the soil. Pasture-fed animals can also be essential to maintaining a natural equilibrium in the food chain (Isabella Tree).

That being said, it's clear that reducing consumption of conventional meat helps counter inefficient and cruel food production, and limits our environmental impact. The plant-based diet of a wastetarian does just this, and their efforts to reduce food waste also ensure that no step of the complex food production process--raising livestock, ploughing fields, transporting goods--was for naught.


What being wastetarian looks like (examples):
  • Taking home your own leftovers when eating out, and maybe even the leftovers of those you're eating with. Don't be shy in asking--most people don't care; I've taken home leftovers from work lunches. Bonus if you bring your own container to prevent plastic/paper waste :)
  • Ordering less at a restaurant, especially if you know that the people you came with won't finish their food (which you can then snag for yourself).
  • Eating parts of produce that normally get thrown out (i.e. broccoli stems--they're actually quite tender when cooked, cauliflower leaves--you can bake them, the deep green section of leeks--great for soups, etc.)
  • Rinsing out your smoothie blender with water, and drinking the water + smoothie residue mix.
  • Asking what happens to leftover food at events (and salvaging it if it would otherwise get tossed out).
  • Reusing oil used for frying food to cook new dishes.
  • Sometimes having food that isn't super fresh or particularly tasty (i.e. the tough steaks), but having the satisfaction that nothing got wasted.

Why I love wastetarianism:

While I don't consider myself a true wastetarian, I'm enthusiastic about the concept (I'm more of a flexitarian who's conscious about food waste--I'm not as zealous as some "real" wastetarians). 

For one, I like how wastetarianism allows the flexibility to still consume animal products. A lot of people say that they couldn't go vegan because they love meat or dairy too much; since we're constantly surrounded by animal products, you're sure to encounter (good) meat or dairy that someone wants to discard, which you can then claim for yourself. 

I also appreciate how wastetarianism isn't pretentious--on the contrary, it's humbling to eat what someone else wanted to throw out. While I love vegan food, the movement of veganism has an undeniable tinge of elitism, and there seems to be a certain pressure to eat specific trendy foods, or to have picture-perfect meals.

Finally, wastetarianism seems more environmentally-conscious than veganism or vegetarianism, and is more concerned about the value of food. By refusing to let that leftover chicken or those broccoli stems go to waste, you're recognizing the effort put into producing that food. Like my friend said: "Something died for those steaks!" Likewise: something died for that chicken; someone cultivated that broccoli; water, sunshine, and soil nourished that produce; someone transported those products; someone prepared that dish.

The other popular diets might seem complex or restrictive (whole 30, keto, raw veganism, etc.), but wastetarianism is definitely accessible and straightforward. You don't have to become a strict wastetarian--simply reducing animal products in your regular diet and adopting a friend's tough steak every now and then is progress. It pays just to be more purposeful about our food consumption. Maybe people will even find your wastetarian gestures amusing and think a little harder about the value of food.


Eat well and be well,
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P.S. Check out my friend Nicky's post that reflects on her walk with sustainable eating and her first wastetarian experience.

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