Someone living in Chicago throws out around two and a half times more food—around 273 pounds a year—than someone in Copenhagen. What makes Danes so much better than Americans at actually eating the food they buy?
A recent report from the Danish government found that food waste has dropped 25% in Denmark over the last five years. At least part of the reason is crusaders like Selina Juul, who launched the country's Stop Wasting Food movement in 2008 when she got fed up with how much people were throwing out.
"We target consumers," says Juul. "If we need to end the global food waste scandal, we need to start with ourselves. Stopping the food waste is a very positive scenario—you can save your time, your money, and at the same time help the environment. And you can even affect the industry to sell 'ugly' produce such as wonky fruits and vegetables. Because we the consumers can make this demand—we have an incredible power."
Though the organization focuses on consumers, they also look at every other part of the value chain for food. "Our motto is to be united against food waste," she says. "While other NGOs blame the industry and supermarkets . . . we are all in this together—the farmers, the supermarkets, the food service, the consumers."
Now, all Danish supermarket chains have strategies to reduce food waste. Dansk Supermarked and Coop, the country's biggest retailers, have started to more heavily market food that's about to expire, and consumers are buying it. Dansk Supermarked is using new tech to better monitor which foods they're wasting most, and ordering less of it. A new store called WeFood will soon open, run by volunteers, to sell cheap food that supermarkets can't, whether due to labeling errors, damaged packaging, or an expiration date. The proceeds will go to support nonprofit food distribution in Africa.
Even at restaurants, the doggy bag is making a comeback. It used to be a little taboo in Denmark, but over 300 restaurants now have Refood labels in their windows, a signal that they're trying to reduce waste by suggesting customers take food home. Stop Food Waste worked with Unilever to give restaurants free doggy bags as part of the campaign.
It's possible there are some cultural reasons Denmark has been so successful at cutting food waste (the U.K. came closest, with a 21% reduction between 2007 and 2012). "Denmark is a 'food land,' which means Denmark takes pride in production of food," says Juul. "That is why Danish people agree, perhaps more easily, to not wasting food—because it is not only about cutting the food waste. It is about the respect for food. Respect for farmers. Respect for animals. Respect for people's work. Respect for the resources."
Still, she believes that the same progress can happen elsewhere, and she's working to set up the world's first international think tank focused on food waste, which has already drawn interest from the UN. "If it is possible here in Denmark—it is also possible all around the world," she says.