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Food waste: Here’s how you can waste less and help save the planet

Food waste is linked to the climate crisis, poverty and the degradation of nature, but campaigners say the Government doesn't do enough to end it
A towering landfill site in Bangladesh, where almost 40 per cent of the population regularly go hungry. Image: Mumtahina Tanni/Pexels

With more of us trying to do our bit to stem the climate emergency, be it through carbon offsetting, reducing our carbon footprint or just talking about the issues that matter the most, there is one thing experts say we overlook: food waste.

Food is wasted both within households and across the retail, catering and manufacturing sectors in huge amounts. And it’s likely we don’t know the extent of the problem because there is no legal requirement for businesses to make their food waste record public.

But cutting food waste would mean less had to be produced and transported around the world, cutting emissions, freeing up space to plant greenhouse gas-absorbing trees and restoring the natural world.

So here’s what you need to know about the things we can all do to reduce waste and help halt global warming.

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How much of a problem is food waste?

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted around the world each year. That’s enough to feed 3 billion people.

What’s more, the carbon footprint of all this wasted food that is grown, harvested, then left to rot is more than 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2.

Huge numbers like this are rarely easy to process, so here’s another way of thinking about it.

The UN estimates 690 million people were undernourished in 2019. The wasted food each year would feed them more than four times over.

And that 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 produced in making that wasted food each year? That is the third biggest producer of greenhouse gases, behind only China and the United States.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called food waste an ethical outrage in September 2020.

“Food loss and waste also squanders natural resources – water, soil and energy, not to mention human labour and time. It worsens climate change, given the significant role of agriculture in generating greenhouse gas emissions,” added Mr. Guterres. 

How much food do UK households waste? 

According to the environmental charity WRAP, which works with ministers, local authorities and businesses to fight reduce waste and create a “circular economy”, households are responsible for around 70 per cent of the UK’s annual food waste.

In total, the charity claims, 6.6 million tonnes of waste comes from our homes each year, of which 4.5 million tonnes could have been eaten. That’s around eight meals per household each week.

“We are so used to wasting food that we’ve forgotten its value, and the cost that feeding our growing global population has on the natural world,” said Marcus Glover, chief executive of WRAP. 

“Like it or not, we in our homes are the most significant part of the problem.” 

What can I do to waste less food?

Food waste rarely comes to mind when we think about our impact on the environment. But according to campaigners, it’s one of the easiest ways individuals can make a difference and reduce their carbon footprint.

WRAP said that if every UK household stopped wasting food for one day, it would significantly decrease harmful levels of greenhouse emissions that are trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and cause global warming. 

And it’s not just the environmental impact, cutting down on waste could help you save money as you only buy what you need.

It helps to think about which items are most likely to be thrown away. According to WRAP, these are poultry, milk, potatoes and bread, so it’s worth considering how much you actually need when at the checkout during your weekly shop.

Another way to tackle waste is to reflect on how you can use leftover goods so less food is binned and bought next time. 

WRAP has rolled out some well-known names to help with Food Waste Action Week, with cook and TV presenter Nadiya Hussain giving waste cutting advice.

“Most of us don’t realise it, but wasting food is a major contributor to climate change,” Hussain said, in a press release introducing Food Waste Action Week.

“If we each make small changes we’d dramatically reduce the amount of food that ends up in the bin and really make a difference.” 

Hussein has shed light on how to avoid buying and preparing too much food, storing food correctly and sharing recipes to “bring new life” to leftovers. 

WRAP has also been offering meal plan masterclasses, fridge hacks to keep food fresh for longer, tips on how to store food and make the most of cupboard space and shedding light on the “art” of freezing and defrosting food. 

How much food do businesses waste?

Retail, manufacturing and catering businesses produced 2.9 million tonnes of food waste in 2018, a decrease from 3.1 million tonnes in 2011.

But this only amounts to a drop of one per cent per year, and was driven by voluntary action from a minority of businesses. The UK Government does not regulate food wasted by businesses.

However the real figures could be much higher. Only 60 businesses were making their food waste data public in 2020, with 138 logging figures privately and the rest not reporting their food waste records at all.

In recent years, food redistribution groups such as OLIO have been established to redirect surplus food from shops to people who need it. But many experts – including OLIO – have warned this is not a long-term solution to food poverty.

What else is being done to cut wasted food?

Not enough by the Government, some campaigners said. Ministers must “step up to the plate” and crackdown on the UK’s “shameful” wasted food and poverty problems, nearly 40 organisations said as they launched a manifesto for tackling both interlinked issues

Westminster must regulate the retail and catering industry and make it a legal requirement to publish food waste figures, according to the manifesto. Food waste should be “designed out of the system” the organisations – including Greenpeace and Feeding Britain – added.

And only by tackling the root causes of poverty will Brits stop having to rely on charities for food, they said, instead of redistributing surplus food to go to food banks as a “sticking plaster”.

That means increasing wages, strengthening the welfare system and reforming the rental housing sector to help people trapped in poverty, according to the manifesto.

The coalition rolled out a series of briefings to educate MPs on the link between food poverty and food waste, and why one can’t be used to fix the other.