How reducing your food waste can help fight climate change
27 April 2021 | Celia Topping
Did you know that food waste produces 6 times the amount of carbon emissions as global aviation1? Pretty shocking, huh? And perhaps even more shocking is that fewer than a third of us actually realise that wasting food contributes to climate change at all2. So before you chuck those sprouting spuds or lob your leftovers, just take a moment to consider...
Read on, to find out how food waste is damaging the environment and what we can do to stop it.
What is food waste?
By definition, food waste refers to the food that’s fit for us to eat, but is thrown away. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a whopping 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally every year3. That’s a third of all edible food!
What are examples of food waste?
We’ve all done it – bought a bunch of bananas, eaten a couple, and then let the rest slowly dissolve into the bottom of the fruit bowl. At some point down the line we scoop up the brown mush and just plop it in the bin. Yikes! That’s food waste.
Who hasn’t left a bag of spuds out a bit too long, and they’ve started to go soft and sprout? Not very appetising. But it’s no problem to just pop them in the bin and buy yourself a new bag, right? Well… it’s also food waste.
And what about cycling home from the farmer’s market, baguette in your bike basket, the picture of Gallic charm? By Tuesday it’s hard enough to break a window. No choice but to chuck it, right? Non! We know better than that – because that would also be food waste.
It’s these everyday small actions, performed billions of times, by billions of people, that are creating a worldwide problem.
Discover some tasty solutions to these 3 scenarios later on in this blog. But before we get there...
10 shocking food waste facts
- If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases4 (after China and the US).
- The 1.3 billion tonnes of food we waste every year could feed the 815 million food-poor people across the world, 4 times over5.
- 100 million pints of milk are tipped down the drain each year in the UK6.
- 50 million chickens are wasted in the UK each year7.
- Cutting just one day's worth of the greenhouse gases from the UK's food waste would be equal to planting half a million trees8.
- Potatoes are the most wasted food in the UK. 4.4 million of them are thrown away even before they leave the farm9.
- Domestic bread waste alone generates 318,000 tonnes of carbon each year – the same as 140,000 petrol cars10.
- Every year, the retail and food manufacturing sector wastes 100,000 tonnes of edible food – that’s the equivalent of 250 million meals11.
- We’d need an area the size of China to grow the amount of food that is wasted globally every year12.
- The average UK family throws away 22% of their weekly shop – costing them around £800 per year13!
Read more about the impact of water use on the environment – and find out how saving water at home can help in the fight against climate change.
How much food is wasted in the UK?
We Brits love our food – so why do we throw so much away? According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), around 9.5 million tonnes of food (worth over £19 billion) was wasted in 201814. It’s also the equivalent of over 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And a shocking 70% of that (in weight) is wasted just at the household level. This goes to show how all of us could help prevent food waste just by tweaking our daily habits. To find out how you could stop wasting food, read on.
Why is food wasted? Main causes of food waste in the world
In this globalized world – where it’s possible to get whatever we want, from wherever we choose – food is wasted at every stage on its journey. Millions of tonnes a year don’t even leave the farm. And from there, the problem just gathers pace...
Food waste at production level
In a study highlighting the extent of the food waste problem, WRAP found £1 billion worth of food doesn’t even leave the farm gate. Some food waste is unavoidable, because of severe weather and unpredictable conditions. Crops can also be damaged by farm equipment and machinery. Harvesting machines can ruin crops by harvesting too early, or by only picking half the crop, and some is also squashed or broken.
Culling also causes food waste – a diseased batch of crops is culled, or disposed of, in order to save the rest of the crop. And of course, pests are responsible for a large part of this.
But one of the biggest and most avoidable factors has a lot to do with our own perception of what our food should look like. Many of us don’t want ugly vegetables – so farms have introduced regulations about appearance, which get rid of perfectly edible food just because it’s not pretty enough. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Food waste at processing level
It’s difficult to measure exactly how much food is wasted after crops have been harvested – but it’s significant. Pests and microorganisms thrive in hotter climates, eating and spoiling a lot of stored food produce.
Hygiene is another issue, with incorrect handling processes making food inedible. Food safety is vital of course – so any food deemed not fit for human consumption is disposed of.
And fresh, perishable food like fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat is at particular risk when it’s being transported.
Food waste at retail level
Confusion over “sell by”, “best before” and “use by” dates plays a big role here. Labelling has a lot to answer for! Have you ever thrown out bread just because it’s past its “best before” date? This label is only a manufacturer’s guess at when they feel the product will be stale. Instead, just use your judgement. If it’s not off, you can eat it.
On the other hand, pay more attention to a “use by” label. This is more about food safety – so if the date’s passed, you shouldn’t eat it, even if it seems to be ok.
Supermarkets also stuff their shelves, because that’s what we expect to see when we go shopping. That results in a lot of stock reaching its “sell by” date while it’s still on the shelf – so it gets thrown away before it’s sold, and just ends up in landfill.
Restaurants also have their part to play in food waste – and one prime example is the “all-you-can-eat” food buffet. They should really be renamed “all-you-can’t-eat”, because so much is wasted. But the problem’s greater than that. It’s estimated that every year, the hospitality industry throws away around £2.5 billion-worth of wasted food15.
There’s also an issue with the contracts between farmers and the retailers. Competition is high for these contracts, so farmers consistently produce more food than they need, to make sure they keep their contract. This surplus, yet perfectly edible, food often just goes to waste.
Food waste at consumer level
As mentioned above, labelling is the reason so much food is wasted at home. We throw away vast amounts of edible food because we think it’s “past its sell by date”. Or, worse still, we buy too much, and have to throw it away because we just didn’t get around to using it.
We often also also store food incorrectly so it spoils, or we create a culinary disaster, and have to throw it away. And who hasn’t just cooked too much, then let the leftovers fester in the fridge until they get binned?
There’s a better way! Keep reading, to check out some tasty options for those leftovers, and cut down on waste...
What is wonky veg?
In 2013, “wonky veg” (the ugly veg that no one wants and gets rejected before leaving the farm) was the reason for up to 40% of wasted fruit and veg16. Thankfully, since then, there’s been a backlash, and previously rejected veggies have found homes through companies like Oddbox. They “rescue” surplus or misshapen produce from farms around the nation, before boxing it up and delivering it overnight, in weekly slots, to reduce emissions. Happy veggies. Happy customers.
What’s the impact of waste on the environment?
You’re sitting down to your Sunday roast. What’s on your plate? Maybe beef, roast potatoes, carrots, peas, yorkshire puddings and gravy. We don’t want to spoil your appetite, but let’s think about all the methods and resources used to get that meal on your plate:
First there’s the clearing of space for agriculture, before sowing, irrigating, making and applying fertiliser, ploughing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting and refrigerating. And that’s just the veg! What about the rearing of animals? Beef in particular has a huge carbon footprint, and is a major cause of deforestation.
And if you don’t manage to eat it all, it (probably) all just slides into the bin – so all those resources, as well as the food itself are essentially wasted. That includes everything from water to fuel – not to mention all the extra carbon emissions. According to the FAO:
- 250 km3 of water – 3 times the volume of Lake Geneva – is used each year to produce food that’s ultimately lost or wasted17
- 28% of the world's agricultural area is used to produce food that’s ultimately lost or wasted each year18
- 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide is produced by food waste19
And if that’s not enough, what happens once the food hits the bin? Rotting food in landfill emits methane, a nasty greenhouse gas. Methane is 25 times as efficient as carbon dioxide at trapping heat and contributing to global warming20. If that same food is composted properly, it creates 86% fewer emissions21.
As you can see, food waste is a huge environmental problem – but it’s not unsolvable. By adopting new procedures and processes, we can not only reduce our own food waste, and put pressure on governments and businesses to do the same.
Which country wasted the most food in 2020?
The USA, land of the “supersize-me” mega meal culture, throws away 30% of all food – worth a staggering $48.3 billion a year22. And it’s estimated that about half the water used to produce the food is wasted, too.
Which country is solving their food waste problem?
The Danes are leading the world in addressing the food waste problem. In 2014, a government study showed Danish households were throwing away 105kg of food a year. So over the last few years, this small Scandinavian nation introduced several social initiatives that have reduced its food waste by 25%23.
How can the UK government and businesses help cut food waste?
In January 2020, the UK government announced a landmark Environmental Bill, calling for a Food Waste Action Week, complete with a £1.5million funding grant. Due to world events, the first Food Waste Action Week didn’t happen until March 2021. But the event, organised by WRAP was a huge success. It brought together retailers, local authorities, restaurants, manufacturers and other businesses in a bid to wake the nation up to the environmental consequences of wasting food.
WRAP worked with various partners to illustrate how wasted food is an issue that affects us all, and the planet we live on. With around a third of food being wasted globally, causing 8-10% of man-made carbon emissions24, it’s time we got tough on food waste.
The UN’s sustainable development programme calls for food waste to be cut by 50% by 2030, with suggestions including:
- Reducing food waste at every point in the supply chain through regular reporting
- Offering all edible food surplus to people in need, and after that, to livestock
- Sending all inedible food waste to be composted, or to generate energy, rather than landfill
Also, businesses could:
- Educate consumers about food waste and how to avoid it
- Stop demanding “perfect”-looking food. Misshapen tastes just as good!
- Avoid unfair contracts on farmers which lead to food waste through overproduction
- Get all surplus food to the people who need it, by working with food distribution charities
How can I reduce food waste at home?
Of the 5 million tonnes of edible food thrown away every year in the UK, 70% across the food chain comes from our homes25. Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. We need to act, educate others, and lead by example.
"If we want to get serious about tackling climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste, businesses, governments and citizens around the world have to do their part to reduce food waste." Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
10 tips to help tackle food waste at home
- Make a food plan – only buy and cook what you need. If you write a clear list, you’ll know exactly what you need (and don't need) and avoid overbuying.
- Batch cook – this way you’re likely to throw less away, then be able to eat some, freeze the rest and have more meals ready when you need them.
- Know your portions – a mug holds just the right amount of uncooked rice for 4 adults. And 1 portion of spaghetti is the same diameter as a £1 coin. A handy fact!
- Pickling and preserving – they may be thought of as old-fashioned, but the oldies are certainly the goodies when it comes to lowering food waste.
- Get composting – the eco-friendly way to make best use of your scrapings, while creating a fantastic soil improver for your garden.
- Say yes to freezing – one of the oldest methods of food preservation known to man. You can freeze a lot more foods than you think.
- Understand date labels – a “use by” label alerts you to food safety. If the date’s passed, you shouldn’t eat it – even if it seems to be ok. On the other hand, “best before” is more about quality. If the date has passed, it’s still ok to eat, but use your judgement.
- Cool your fridge – the average UK fridge temperature is almost 7°C. But to keep food at its best, it should be below 5°C26.
- Know your options – Ann Storr of the Food Waste Project suggests learning some clever alternatives for things like leftover lemons, for example. So make ice cubes for your gin, or even use them as a household cleaner!
- Get inspired – BBC Earth host Max La Manna has plenty of tasty #moreplantslesswaste recipe ideas – like this no-waste broccoli stem pesto pasta.
Delicious ideas to reduce your food waste
The best way to reduce your food waste is using your leftovers to create something even better than the meal you just ate! Here’s how to turn 3 of the UK’s most leftover foods into a tasty treat!
The banana industry is worth £28.4bn a year. But every year, hundreds of thousands of tonnes are lost or wasted27. Don’t chuck it just because it’s gone a bit mushy and brown. There are so many recipes you can use overripe bananas for. Try these 10 ways to use up black bananas.
Just because they’ve gone a bit soft and sprouty, don't’ throw them out! Potatoes are one of the most versatile veggies around – and they’re still edible, even when they’re looking at you! There are literally dozens of recipes you can try using one of the UK’s favourite staple foods. Remember, keep your spuds in a dark, cool place, out of direct sunlight, and out of the fridge – they’ll last much longer.
A classic bread and butter pudding is actually best made with slightly stale bread – so don’t miss your opportunity if you have a few leftover slices at the bottom of your breadbin! And to revive a rock-hard baguette – wet a cloth and wrap up your bread. Then stick it in the oven on a low setting for 15 minutes. You could also cut it into chunks, drizzle with oil, paprika and salt and fry it, to make croutons.
For more great leftover recipe ideas, take a look at Love Food Hate Waste’s recipe-finder. Simply type in the food you have leftover, and the site will offer you ideas aplenty for what to make.
And if that's not enough, Swedish retail giant, Ikea, has come up with The ScrapsBook – a cookbook that helps you produce meals from whatever’s left over in your kitchen. And don’t miss their #Scrapbooking Sundays on Instagram, for live cooking tutorials.
5 apps to help you waste not, want not
Here are 5 useful apps that help us think that little bit more wisely about food waste – and what you could do not only with your own leftovers, but other peoples’ too:
- Originally from Denmark but launched in the UK in 2016, Too Good to Go connects consumers with restaurants that have surplus food, and then buy it for a discount.
- Going on holiday and have some fruit you can’t eat before you go? Olio can help. This handy app lets your neighbours know to just come and collect what you don’t need.
- Neighbourly links community projects with supermarkets and food producers. So unsold food goes to food banks and charities, instead of in the bin.
- Created for commercial kitchens, Winnow now also works on a domestic scale. The app allows users to weigh and calculate the value of their food waste.
- NoFoodWasted is a Dutch app which sends customers notifications about discounted food in their local shops that’s close to its “best before” date. It’s not available in the UK just yet, but watch this space!
Can I cut food packaging waste too?
You sure can. Plastic packaging plays a vital role in protecting food, but it creates 1.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions during production, and it also pollutes our oceans28. Much of what we find packaged in our supermarkets is unnecessary. Nowadays, more and more supermarkets are offering alternatives to plastic bags. And shops like Bulk Market, BYO and The Source encourage customers to bring their own reusable containers to fill up with, or give you paper bags to use instead.
Where to from here?
Although food waste is a global problem, the change has to start with us all, in our own homes – from what we do with those mushy bananas, to getting savvy with reading labels. It’s also good to think more carefully about our weekly shop, cut down on what we buy, and open our minds to how we can help reduce food waste.
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Sources and references
12 and 13. https://www.varsity.co.uk/science/17021
25. BBC Regeneration, WRAP
29. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.
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