No Space for Food Waste

By Toryn Whitehead

We’ve all been guilty of it. Brown bananas in the fruit bowl. The potatoes hiding at the back of the cupboard are starting to sprout shoots. The cream sits in the fridge with blue and yellow dots of mould. The most likely outcome for these forgotten items is the one that requires the least effort: they all end up in the bin.

According to a University of Oxford Study, food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is a consequence of the significant amount of land and water used across all stages of food production (including processing, packaging and transportation). For example, if I ate two tomatoes every week for a whole year, this would contribute 13kg to my annual carbon footprint. This would be the same as driving a regular petrol car 33 miles. These tomatoes also use 2,300 litres of water, enough for 35 showers lasting 8 minutes. Therefore, when you consider that in the UK alone 10 million tonnes of food is thrown away annually, it is apparent why it is a global environmental and social crisis. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of GHG behind the USA and China.

How is Food Wasted?

In developing countries, the majority of food waste can be attributed to a lack of adequate infrastructure and refrigeration. In Kenya, 300,000 tonnes of mangoes, 64 % of produce never make it to market. Kenyan mango farmers overcame some of these issues by drying and selling mangoes, but due to the strict hygiene requirements and a lack of technology this idea never took off. Innovative solutions such as these are important, however, they are not always possible. In southern Africa alone, approximately 50% of the fruit and veg grown spoils on its way from field to fork. This is even excluding the fruit that spoils on trees since farmers lack the resources to harvest it on time. Despite all of this, HICs typically produce five times more food waste than LICs. This extra food waste is primarily a result of leftovers which end up in the bin, and produce rejected by supermarkets because they don’t meet strict cosmetic criteria.

Figure 1. 64% of Kenya’s mangoes are wasted.

In the UK, it is estimated that a third of fruit and veg is rejected by supermarkets for being the wrong size or shape. Socially it is an outrage people are going hungry and using food banks when so much produce is wasted. It is no surprise that levels of food insecurity in the UK are the highest among Europe. This is also a disaster environmentally because GHG emissions are wasted only for food to end up rotting in landfill. Here it breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen) and releases methane, a GHG 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

However, not all food waste is equal when it comes to carbon emissions. A recent 2018 study found that vegetables and salads make up 25% of household waste and account for only 12% of GHG emissions of household waste. Whereas meat and dairy products account for just 8% of household waste, but 19% of GHG emissions. Therefore, there is a much higher carbon cost to wasting meat and dairy products than there are vegetables.

Tackling the Issue

Love Food Hate Waste aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste and has lots of top tips of how we can all take action. On their website there is a leftover recipe section where you can enter your leftover ingredients and they create a meal plan for you. It’s never been so easy! LFHW brand is owned by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). WRAP is a British Charity that works to reduce waste, develop sustainable products and use resources in an efficient way. Over recent years they have helped to broker a number of voluntary agreements such as The Courtauld Commitment 2025. This brought together multiple businesses across the food system to make food & drink production and consumption more sustainable. As a result, between 2015-2018 they helped to achieve a 7% reduction in household food waste. The aim is to reach a 20% reduction by 2025.

As a part of this Commitment, supermarkets signed a government pledge to half food waste across society by 2030. Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand, said “Food waste is one of the biggest challenges currently facing today’s society and an intrinsic part of our combined response to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”

UK companies such as ODDBOX rescue fruit and veg that do not meet strict cosmetic and quantity requirements, delivering the produce straight to our doorstep. Their work cuts the amount of produce wasted and encourages people to buy seasonally. Seasonal food is produced locally and saves countless air miles transporting food from abroad, promoting a more sustainable food system. As well as this, having vegetables delivered straight to your door is convenient, healthy and supports small producers rather than large supermarkets. Just make sure you check if they deliver to you! ODDBOX do not deliver to me in Manchester for example, but there are several other veg box companies that do.

Waste at Home

Shop smart, and plan what meals you are going to have. Though buying in bulk may be convenient, research shows that it leads to more food waste. Popping to the shops every few days means you will be eating fresher produce which is tastier and healthier. If you do buy in bulk, make a point of using up all the food from your last trip before your next. See if you can use leftover ingredients to make a new dish, or alternatively freeze produce before it spoils. Frozen bread is a personal favourite as you can just pop it straight into the toaster. They key is to get creative! Use those brown bananas to make banana bread or a smoothie. Throw any leftover vegetables together to make a soup (it’s easy I promise). Save the scraps from dinner for lunch the next day. As well as helping the planet, you will also save yourself money. The 10 million tons of food thrown away in UK annually is worth approximately £20 billion, which works out to £500 per household!

Inevitably there will always be household food waste in some shape or form, but the key is to limit it as much as we can. Another easy way to reduce our carbon footprint is to compost our leftovers. This prevents food waste ending up in landfill where it breaks down and releases methane, a potent GHG. One study estimated that the GHG emissions from composting are just 14% of the same food dumped into landfill. Therefore, you can reap the rewards of quality soil for your garden and help the planet at the same time. If you don’t have a garden like me, you can collect your food waste in a caddy with a biodegradable bin liner. Many local authorities offer weekly food waste collections, simply search online how best to dispose of your food waste in your local area.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves