ABU DHABI // Two thirds of UAE residents believe they can waste food without worrying about the environmental consequences.
And more than three quarters (78 per cent) admit that they do throw food away every week, according to a new survey.
Officials fear the situation can only get worse. "This type of waste is usually the one that goes to landfills, so it produces all the smells," said Naji Mohammed Saeed Al Radhi, the head of waste treatment at Dubai Municipality. "This is the main item that is hard to recycle."
The survey, conducted for Al Aan TV's Nabd Al Arab (Arabs' Pulse) by YouGov, found that a third (29 per cent) of the 757 respondents said they only sometimes checked for expiry dates on products while shopping.
"Food wastage is far higher here than the average in Europe and the United States," said Bjorn Ostbye, the project development manager at Emke, which owns LuLu hypermarkets.
"This is because of the climate, we have a lot of spoiled food in terms of meat, and also due to cultural differences. If [Westerners] buy a piece of meat, it will be a slice of tenderloin, while Asians and Arabs mostly buy in bulk and they don't eat it all."
One in six respondents (15 per cent) said they deliberately cooked too much to make sure there was always enough food, and a third (34 per cent) said they only sometimes tried to use up the food that was nearest to the expiry date first.
With the UAE importing almost 90 per cent of its food, expiry dates are an important issue in terms of food wastage. Two fifths of respondents (40 per cent) said that the most common reason for throwing food away was that it had expired. The same number (41 per cent) said home-cooked food and bread were the items most often thrown away.
And although three quarters (76 per cent) said they thought their household wasted less food than others, almost all (92 per cent) said they felt guilty when food was thrown away.
"It's a big problem," said Mr Al Radhi. "Organic waste in Duabi varies from 30 to 35 per cent of the total waste, which is a lot."
Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that about 1.3 billion tonnes of food a year were lost or wasted, based on findings of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology.
That waste has a severe environmental impact. "If food waste goes along with other waste such as paper and carton, it will contaminate it because it cannot be recycled anymore so, unlike clean material, it's ruined," said Mr Al Radhi.
But most people are blissfully unaware. Two thirds (65 per cent) believed their food waste had no or little consequence on the environment.
"People aren't aware of it," said Mr Ostbye. "I work with a lot of Asians who joke about Europeans buying about three tomatoes and half a cucumber but it's because they don't want it to go to waste."
But getting people to change their habits is no small task. "The biggest challenge is getting into the habit of portion control," said Dana Hadid, the project manager at Al Aan TV.
"People are not accustomed to these habits so a high percentage of food is going to waste. It all comes down to small changes in our shopping and eating habits."
The experts agree that consumers need to be more aware of the consequences of food wastage.
"We are encouraging the sorting [of waste] at [its] source," said Mr Al Radhi. "We are taking the necessary steps to apply the 'My city, My environment' programme in malls and shopping centres to separate the organic waste from other recyclables.
"That way we can minimise the quantities [of waste] sent to landfills and increase the amount that we can recycle."