From the Shelf to the Bin: The Food Waste and the Culture of Rush


I´m sure you have already heard about the great amount of food waste in supermarkets. But, have you ever wondered how is it possible that most of the foodstuff that is thrown away is in a good condition? Also, if it´s something that we just cannot help? If you are living in this planet, where one in nine people are hungry, you should.
I had plenty of time to do that during the time that I worked in a popular supermarket in the city of Brighton. Shortly after signing my contract as a store assistant for this well known low-cost German company, I came across a nasty reality all my colleagues seemed to be immunized to. Every day, at a sleepy four o´clock in the morning, a random employee has to do an awful task: the “waste inventory”. It consists of scanning one by one all products that cannot be sold anymore and throwing them out into a blue container (one and a half metres in length, one and a half high and two metres wide) which every day ends up full. Sometimes I´ve seen fill it up twice or –more rarely- even three times. The picture of the mountain of food is impressive. A few times, out of curiosity, I number the items as I´m throwing them away. Around seventy bakery items, a hundred pieces of fruit, fifteen trays of meat… The recount tells me that over two hundred food items starts the day at the bottom of the garbage container, every single day.

The most surprising thing? There are very few things that really need to be thrown out. If you imagine that what we bin is a mountain of rotten food, you are getting the wrong picture. Obviously security is an important issue in a food company, and the expiry date, for example, is obeyed scrupulously: according to this company´s policy, the food products are discarded –after reduction- the expiry day before the customers arrive (taking away from them a day of useful life). However I could say that all the food that is unfit for consumption accounts just for less than half of what is thrown away. The rest is in perfect condition but it ends up at the bottom of the blue container, anyway.

In my shop over 200 items are thrown every day, and just half of them are in bad conditions

This data is, obviously, just rough calculations: there is no law that obliges the supermarkets to publish the amount of food they throw out. And this waste is quite strict. We, the workers, can´t keep anything. Some of us does it on the sly and this “rebelliousness” of stealing leftovers from the garbage under risk just confirms even more the ludicrous nature of these regulations, that leads to extreme situations: cases such as the dismissal of a worker in a Spanish supermarket for giving a customer a fish that was about to be thrown away, or the case of one of my colleages who, after being caugh eating a croassan which was about to be thrown to the bin, was given a disciplinary complaint. Among my colleages, one of them used to work in Mercadona in Spain and remembers that, after the complains of the neighbours because some people were searching for food on the containers, the company hired a trash pick-up to prevent them from doing that. “They prefered to spend money rather than giving away the food for free”, he says, and remembers the bosses saying: “We are not a NGO; if we give the food to the people, they won´t buy it”. That line sums up this kind of companies´ mindset. On the other hand, the idea of food banks is not too widespread either. One of my colleagues tells me that he once suggested the boss donate the waste to a food bank and the boss just said no. “He told me that in this company things are not done that way.”
Then, what it is done with all this food once it is in the container? Do they leave it, at least, in a place where the people have access to it? None of my managers seem to know for sure; none of them appears to have bothered to ask. One of them tells me that food is “recycled”, but that’s difficult to believe since we don’t separate the garbage. I decide to ask the delivery man, who picks up the container, where do they take it.
-To the incinerator –he replies-. Why, are you hungry?
None of my colleagues seems to be really worried; just one of them on one occasion refused to do the waste inventory claiming that this is a “shame” and got himself a disciplinary complaint. The rest seem more focused on doing what they are told, on the compliments they will get by finding out-of-date products that others have overlooked. They all echo that attitude of “unfortunately, that’s the way it is”. Someone said to me that eventually I will get used to that and I will see it “normal”.

There are several reasons that lead edible food to be discarded in a supermarket. One of them, pretty common -and absurd-, is broken packaging. Sometimes the plastic suppose an unnecesary protection to unnecesary concerns. In a shop where apples are sold per weight you can just get a bunch of them and pay for the pack; however, when five apples are wrapped in a plastic bag, things change. If the plastic is broken, all apples must be thrown; if one apple is rotten, all five apples must end up in the bin. There are companies which wrap their products in such breakable packaging that we frequently have to throw them away (I see skimping on package quality from companies with names such as  ‘2GO!’ Or ‘Let´s Eat’… names that can give us an idea of the amount of time they consider neccessary to consume their products).

On the other hand, it’s very common that a healthy product “gets ill” because it has been some time out of the fridge and its cold change is broken: we must throw it away. In the frenzy of a regular day of work workers don’t have too much time to scrutinize every corner searching for items that a neglectful costumer left out of its place, or that they themselves forgot somewhere. Rushing also means that things get dropped, glasses are broken, yogurt is scattered, an egg from the dozen box is broken when we’re trying to stack it up in the crammer stand (that means us throwing away the whole box). And, when the day is close to an end, tiredness sinks in. The more tired we are, the less we care. At the end of the day you’re already too exhausted to do things properly. Pressured to finish at certain time, you stop worrying about the cold chain, the rotations, the items’ dates… etc. I’ve seen things in good condition being thrown for many silly reasons; here are some real examples: for being stained, dented, because the label was lost, because in a pack of three bowls or four cans one of them was loose, because a chocolate bar was broken, because a loaf bread was smashed during the delivery, because a cereal box was ripped, because the bakery item has been already put into a plastic bag by a costumer who changed their mind and left it… or simply because the worker couldn’t find the place to put the item back and the manager hurried and finishing time was getting close. In all the cases, edible things.
The greed for benefits leads to produce more than what is going to be sold. In te bakery we make bread and sweets all day long, restlessly, and at the end of it we throw what we don´t sell without a shadow of mercy. And it´s a lot: a whole bag with an average of 50 items without any fault. They are counted, noted down and thrown. Why do we produce that much, then? “I was told [by the managers] to bake as much as I could”, a colleage tells me. “I was always worried of not baking enough”. Indeed, when the shelfs are not full, we get a telling off. A bread that has been sold counts double than one that has been thrown, aparently.
And, of course, many times it is a matter of human mistakes, of lack of conscience from customers, workers and bosses. One day one of my colleagues is told off for leaving the fridge door open all night -we had to throw away all the stock the next day-; however, a few days later I found out that a lot of products have been thrown away aswell just because of an ordering mistake. An error that doesn’t come to light in this case. It is, as I say, large-scale total chaos that degenerates, without exception, into unreasonable food wastage. However, there is no real intention of finding out the causes of this, of fixing them. During a general meeting with the workers, the boss made it clear that the company cares about “the issue of waste” and, as the only measure, he urged us to do the rotations properly: an elegant way to put all the blame on his workers with what is a much wider problem.
For any of these reasons, the container ends up full every day. Sometimes two or three containers. The delivery man tells me that every day he sees two tracks full of waste containers just from our supermarket. One of my managers admits that all this waste is “absurd” and that in this company they don’t care about it because food “is so cheap” for them. We are talking about a company that makes, according to my bosses, 35.000 pounds per day - which last September´s sales, for instance, reached 1.150.784 pounds. How much money goes to the bin? While doing the inventory, I can see it: “waste” costs an average daily ammount of around 300 pounds. It´s just 0.85% of the daily income. Something is quite obvious: when you allow that kind of wastage it is because you earn many times what you’re wasting. But I tell you that 300 pounds in a low-cost shop where a bottle of milk costs 89 pence and a kg. of potatoes is one pound equals to a massive ammount of food.

“Wastage” costs an average daily ammount of around 300 pounds: just 0.85% of the daily income

If you’re able to imagine a ton and, after that, multiply it by 89 million (something a little bit more difficult), you’ll get the exorbitant ammount of wasted food in Europe per year, acording to a report from the European Parliament. In the world, FAO calculates that the amount comes to 1.300 millions of tons. Waste that a common citizen can hardly imagine and that is spread all along the food chain: from producers to the food industry, the unreasonable “beauty contests” the foodstuff is subjected to, the restaurants that order more than what they need, the bufféts where customers serve themselves more than what they eat, and finishing in our table, the victim of neuromarketing who buys more that what they want, etc. Of course, in that chain some actors has more capacity of wasting than others… but all of them have something in common: none has ever been starving.
In that scenario of consumption and rush in which we are submerged, all this horror becomes naturalized. There comes a time when I start saying “unfortunately, it is the way it is” and, as my colleages warned, there comes a terrible point in which the image of the food waste is not shocking anymore.

Has all this waste anything to do with the business itself, with the way all business like this one work? Is it related in some way with the madness of consumerism, the low prices, the growing earnings… the pressure applied on the workers?
“Busy” is a non easily translatable word which suggests rushing and speed. It suggests loads of people, scanner sounds, the noise of coins and trolleys… everything in a hurry. In shops like this, everything is meant to be that way. The –many- hours spent on the till are more than enough to notice that even the design of the spaces is conceived for a speedy, restless purchase. For instance, at the end of the belt there is a small platform for the cashier to put the items after scanning them. It is a space not enough for a big shopping: the costumer is supposed to pack everything as the cashier scans it, without a second to lose, or go to the “packing area”, a few metres further. In other words, the tills are designed for the costumers to be there as less time as possible so more people can be served in the same amount of time. More in less time: that´s efficiency, I guess.  
Operating this way all day long makes the rush pass on to the worker and, out of inertia, he reproduces it during a whole shift. Greetings and goodbyes are identical, mechanical, pronounced a hundred times per day; the same jockes, the same comments. Customers can pay with a new system called “contactless” that basically works by simply touching the credit card to the machine (“they do that so we can spend quickly… and more”, an old woman says to me, wisely). No time for breaks, for conversations. I serve twenty people every ten minutes; that means 60 every half an hour, 120 per hour, around 500 during a standard shift. That gives every customer a half a minute chat. It feels kind of disturbing to have been interacting with 500 different people during six hours without ever having a whole conversation.
Interiorizing that rush makes everybody feel annoyed when something doesn´t work; for instance, when the items pile up, when the plastic bags are difficult to open or the barcodes that are difficult to scan, when the cashier forgets a code or the customer takes too much time packing everything, exasperating the rest of the queue… I´ve adopted a way of serving, a kind of a choreography in which I start with the next costumer before I say goodbye to the previous one. When did I adopt that habit? I don´t know. Once I pressured a woman who took too much time packing and when she left, I realize suddenly that she has a crutch, that´s why she has been so “slow”. How was I able to do that? It is maybe that repetitive speed, this contagious rush… or maybe that I am slowly turning into a serving machine?
Not only do I ask to myself why I have interiorized this rush (that, no doubt, doesn´t benefit me, precisely), but also to my colleagues. One of them hasn´t even thought about it and simply complains that some costumers are “too slow”. Another colleague does admit that at the beginning he used to serve “as fast as he could”, but when I ask him why he´s not able to explain it. Some mention the “pressure” of the long queue. The customer´s comments, encouraging you to be quicker. The manager´s instructions, that incite you to speed up if there is a long line, or to close the till and do something else if it is not busy to avoid a single minute of inactivity. In our contract, where it is written that we should be “fast and efficient”, that “merchandise must be moved as quickly as possible from the belt to the trolley with sufficient care taken not to damage the merchandise”, they explain to us the “six steps of speed”; among them, for instance, to “check queue length and start scanning the next customer´s shopping to encourage customer to move to the packing bench”. When you apply online for the job, you are explained that a cashier´s goal is to scan “1000 items an hour” (and they add that at the end of each month the manager will put a list of all Store Assistants´ till speeds “which generates some healthy competition amongst you and your colleages”). Bosses also encourage us to speed by giving a prize to the fastest cashier every month such as a bottle of champaign. As an experiment, I reduce my speed and I am pressured to scan faster to “hit the store´s target”. In any case, at the end of the shift, rush has already get into your bones.

Cashiers are tought to scan faster and the quickest one of the month gets a prize

Workers outside the till are, of course, not free of that: they are also under constant pressure to work as fast as possible. We are supposed to have a stipulated time –between twenty and 45 minutes- to work a pallet of stock of around fifty different boxes of items. Managers can punish you with written complaints (we have all gotten one) if you spend more than this time. “Sometimes the manager has been right at my side making sure that I finished the pallet in 30 minutes”, recalled a colleague. If we are short of staff, what a surprise, pressure gets higher. And we are always short of staff (or, more precisely, tight of staff, that is to say, getting on with as less workers as possible). Why having three workers if you can have two and pressure them to do the job of three? That technique is one of the ways to keep the prices exceptionally low, and the perfect excuse in many places to force the workers to do extra hours –in the worst-case scenario, unpaid. However, and more terrible, pressure does not always comes from the bosses: sometimes are my own colleages who urge on me to be faster, who accuse me of not being a worker good and quick enough, who raise complains against me, who take the lack of staff out on me by saying “please, scan faster!”. And still, some colleages think, for instance, that the problem of the shop is that a few people “doesn´t like to work”. Sad as it seems, it looks like many workers interiorize not only the rush but also bosses´s way of sharing of faults and blames and, in general, the company´s interest as the supreme one, even beyond themselves or their work colleages.

The till is the perfect symbol of modern slavery

Occupational stress, typical of industrialized societies, is basically a pressure exerted on a worker creating physical and mental consequences. It´s not only common with jobs with a high level of responsibility: although it may sound less glamorous, it is also pretty usual in the customer service sector, these kind of jobs where the worker has the endless client´s satisfaction as his only mission. Such a constant pressure gives bitter results, especially if the work is repetitive and ungrateful. Irritable mood, lack of motivation and energy and, related, a wide range of physical pains increased by bad posture or physical exertion. The till is, doubtless, the perfect symbol of modern slavery: the immersion in this small metal cage implies an average of six hours sitting and doing a mechanical and monotonous scanning-and-packing work. Just a 30 minute break. I haven’t yet heard any specialist on physiotherapy recommending six hours per day in the very same posture to anyone. I can see the negative effects first-hand: muscle contractions on my upper and lower back, neck, arms and hands. But in the case that physical pain and stress makes you become bitter, you are still forced to smile: at any point a hidden “mystery shopper” will pop up without you being able to diference him from any other costumer to write a repport evaluating your cordiality, your friendliness, your eye contact and your efficiency.

Can things, in general, be done any other way? I want to believe so.
Barely two hundred metters further from mine there is another smaller shop, called hisbe. It is an “ethical supermarket” with a organic local environment friendly aura; unlike my supermarket, that one is sponsored by some institutions, like Triodos Bank.
I come inside to have a look.
It looks less busy, less crowded with people and items. There are four employees with smiles that don’t look forced for the mystery shopper; it has items which price and quality are not as reduced as the crowded low-cost shelfs that I am used to seeing. Its brags about being a company which puts “workers and suppliers before benefits” are not a pose after all. One of it’s commitments is “refusing to throw any food that can be eaten”. I look into it to find out how do they do it, and here are their “techniques”: to reduce scrupulously any surplus’ price before the new delivery; to minimize the package and sell stuff per weight; to give for free items like eggs about to expire; to not to discriminate the “ugly vegetables”… Are the bananas too ripe? They sell them reduced with a view to make smoothies for the summer. Their local character allows them to “advertise” their offers on local social networks and so on. But, above all, things are well done, without rushing: it is a small shop with not too many clients, with time for chatting. It seems impossible that rushing can make things be dropped or forgotten somewhere out of the fridge. “We barely throw any food at the end of the day”, a worker confirms to me. It’s, as simple as that, a nearby shop but incredibly different.
Like hisbe, believe it or not, there are a lot of businesses that forget about the gold rush and give more importance to ethics. And that should matter to us in a world in which the overspending of the First World reaches levels that are as outrageous as the impunity of the companies (Facua tried already to raise awareness to the problem asking 28 well-known supermarket chains in Spain what they did with the food they didn’t sell – just nine of them replied). From above they show some worry about that serious problem with initiatives like the law in France that forbids supermarkets from throwing out food. But for obvious reasons the matter worries more at the bottom, to the common people, and there are many citizen initiatives which fight against unjustified wastage, like dumpster diving, the Real Junk Food Project in Brighton (a social bankfood with food discarded by supermarkets), the Frutafeia one in Lisbon, the social fridges that offer free food in Berlin…

By all means, we need to go further. We need to put our shopping into question: in this system of consumption and rush, a daily mountain of food thrown into a bin is not a failure but, unfortunately, one of its many consecuences

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