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World Changing Ideas

Italy's Plan To Destigmatize Doggy Bags And End Food Waste

Taking leftover food home from a restaurant isn't as common in Europe as it is in the U.S.

[Photos: rimglow/iStockPhoto/Flickr user taz]

Even in the fanciest pizza restaurant, you never feel weird if you ask for a box to take your leftovers home. In Italy, that will soon apply everywhere, with a new law that encourages restaurants to give people doggy bags, although in Italy it's called a "family bag."

The new law is designed to stop food waste and does so mostly by removing legal hurdles for companies wishing to donate wasted food. Foods may now be donated after their expiration date, or if they are mislabeled, and the costs have been removed for farmers who want to give food directly to charities. There will also be tax breaks for donors.

But this relies on altruism. There is no legal pressure to donate food. The pressure instead will be social, and that part is being provided by the family bag, which will hopefully raise awareness of food waste.

[Photo: Flickr user Steven Depolo]

Family bag, introduced last year, is a "semantic upgrade" to the term "doggy bag," and was made to avoid embarrassment at asking for leftovers, turning it from begging into a "virtuous behavior." It might be a hard sell. In the U.S., taking uneaten food home is normal. In the U.K. it is fairly common, depending on the kind of cuisine, but is usually done with a good dose of British embarrassment.

To the south, though, this practice is rare. In Spain and Italy, people might take the bones from their meat to give to their dog (a real doggy bag), but culturally, it's not the done thing. Also, there aren't often many leftovers, as restaurant portions are sized to what people will actually eat and are rarely too big to finish unless you over-order.

In France, the laws are tougher. Last year, the French banned supermarkets from throwing away food. They must either give it away to charity, or—if it's no longer edible for humans—to make it available for animal feed, compost, and bioenergy. If they fail to comply, there are stiff fines.

Over in Italy, the effort is a little more half-baked. The launch of the campaign is getting $11 million in promotion, but the annual budget to fund innovation in using food waste is just $1.1 million. It remains to be seen whether Italy can manage a cultural shift in something as important to Italians as food and also whether simple encouragements are enough to make industry waste less. Current estimates put the cost of food waste in Italy at around $13 billion per year, which is both economically terrible and environmentally disastrous.

Perhaps Italy's approach is the right one, though. Food waste is now on the international agenda, but the only way it will really stop is if individuals change their ways. If it becomes socially unacceptable to waste food, or to serve huge portions in restaurants, then we have a chance.

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