Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Food Waste in Finland

This post started off with the simple observation that in the University of Turku cafeterias, it is extremely uncommon to see anyone with food left on their plate at the end of lunch.  Every time I do see someone scraping leftover food away, it is one of my non-Finnish friends.

Then I noticed this sign up in the cafeteria:
Text reads: In a single week 1634 kilos (3600 lbs) is produced in the Unica restaurants (the cafeterias), and the refuse is then transported to Forssa to be composted.  Unica pays 15 euros for every bin of waste shipped.
This is really interesting!
  • Not only is the cafeteria trying to discourage food waste, they are doing it from an economic rather than environmental standpoint, and all using an appeal to humor.
  • The sign references the fact that much of Finland's food, especially in the winter, must be imported from elsewhere because it cannot be grown here ("Did this orange travel all the way to Turku just to be discarded and composted in Forssa?").
  • Did you notice the part about "shipped to Forssa to be composted" (emphasis mine)?  Food waste in Turku University's cafeterias is (apparently) composted instead of piled up in a landfill as it is in the US.
  • All other signs in the cafeteria have Finnish and/or Swedish with English at the bottom, so this is likely directed at the foreign students, most of whom speak zero Finnish or Swedish.  Does this count as xenophobia or intelligent targeted advertising?
  • According to the poster, all the Unica cafeterias in Turku (which as far as I know are the cafeterias at all the universities) together make 3600 lbs of waste per week.  Assuming that only half of the students in Turku (total from the two major universities is 20,000 + 8,000) eat at the cafeteria 5 lunches per week gives 70,000 meals served per week.  (This is a really conservative estimate; the meals are so cheap that pretty much everyone eats there, and some cafeterias are even open on Saturday).  Using these estimates means each meal served generates 0.05 lbs (about 1 oz) of food waste.  This seems extremely low, so I wonder if some of these numbers are misleading/wrong, or if Finland is just really, really good at reducing waste.  I will get some more information and write a follow-up post.
Where do Finns learn "ÄLÄ JÄTÄ" ("Don't waste")?
In first grade (7 years old)!  Apparently, it is one of the things taught early in school here in Finland, ensuring that it is a common cultural value.  As an American, I learned this mentality from my grandfather who encouraged me to "join the clean plate club" at every meal, so I think this is a family rather than societal value in the US.  Does anyone else have a different experience?

What can the US do to encourage this mentality?
Apart from including such actions in the curriculum, there are few differences in cafeterias between Turku and my experience in the US (University of Michigan, several years back):

How it affects waste
All-you-can-eat buffet with many (mediocre) options
Select only one of three (delicious) entrées, take as much as you want unless it is something that comes in discrete pieces (e.g. pizza).  Bread/butter and salad are basically unlimited
Many options means you can discard what you do not like.  It also makes it easy to accidentally take more than you can eat.
Ask servers for food
If you take the exact amount you want, you are less likely to have too much (but I can just hear the US outrage over "health issues" of self-services...)
Pay to enter cafeteria
Pay once you have your food
You get charged extra if you take too much of something that has a portion size.  Also maybe scrutiny prevents people from taking too much
Costs >$10
Costs 2.60e (1.80e for soup)
At crazy US prices, you feel a sense of entitlement to take as much as you want

Stay tuned for a follow-up post with some numbers on food waste in Finland!


  1. Hi Alistair! I just found your blog and it is awesome! It's really impressing to see how dedicated and excited you are about pretty much everything happening in here :-) Reading your blog makes me appreciate the Finnish culture and way of life even more, thank you!

  2. Wow, thanks for the kind words, and I'm glad you find it interesting!