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Environment

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

Food waste is often ignored in the fight against climate change – but it can be a huge driver of emissions. Here’s how to stop it.

While we all enjoy a few extra treats at Christmas, the abundance of food bought during the festive season often ends up going to waste. 

More people than ever understand the nature of the climate emergency, but food waste is often ignored as a source of carbon emissions

Whether it’s in the home or by large businesses, tonnes of food goes to waste every single day in the UK.

According to the most recent report by charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the UK produced around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in 2018.

This figure is only an estimate, however, as there’s 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.

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So here’s what you need to know about all the ways you can reduce food waste and help save the planet. 

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.

In the UK alone, an estimated 9.5 million tonnes of food were wasted in 2018.

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WRAP estimated that this waste had a value of over £19 billion a year and would be associated with more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. 

The carbon footprint of all the wasted food that is grown, harvested, then left to rot worldwide amounts to 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.

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Why is food waste bad for the environment? 

Every time you waste food, you’re wasting all the resources it took to grow, harvest, transport and package that food.

That includes energy and water – with some foods requiring enormous amounts of water to produce, putting pressure on a scarce resource. 

If your food is transported from a country a long distance away, the carbon footprint tends to be higher than food sourced in the UK.

Beyond this, when food goes to landfill it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. 

About 6%-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stop wasting food. In the US alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

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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. 

One of the best ways to reduce your personal food wastage is to shop more efficiently.

This can involve considering carefully whether you need certain items at the supermarket, or whether you’re likely to forget about them in the fridge.

This includes items which are quick to perish like milk, potatoes and bread. Some, like bread, can be frozen to make them last longer. 

Getting creative with leftovers is another great way to avoid food waste.

A number of websites, including Tesco, have tools you can use to input leftover ingredients for recipe inspiration, ensuring no food goes to waste.

There are also an abundance of apps which you can use to collect food which was otherwise going to waste, or donate your own food. 

Toogoodtogo lists food which businesses in your area are selling off for cheap – getting you an inexpensive meal and stopping food being wasted. 

OLIO allows you to swap and share food with your neighbours as well as from local businesses. 

How much food do businesses waste?

Though food waste from businesses has dropped in recent years, most of this has been driven by voluntary action from companies. 

The UK government doesn’t currently regulate food waste produced by businesses.

In 2020, only 60 businesses were making their food waste data public, 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?

Many campaigners say that the government isn’t doing enough to stop the scourge of food waste. 

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.

They also said that redistribution of surplus food to charity is only a “sticking plaster” for those in need, with the root causes of poverty requiring tackling head on. 

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.

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