Food waste: why it’s bad and what you can do about it

Heather Lynch
Feb 21 · 7 min read

Food waste. It’s a big problem.

Roughly one-third of all food produced for people to eat globally gets lost or wasted, and if we took all of the food that was wasted in the US, UK and Europe, we could feed nearly all the one billion hungry people in the world, four times over! The amount of perfectly good food we waste not only feels morally wrong, but also has a significant negative impact on the planet.

Having spent the last few months working at Oddbox, a fruit and veg subscription box that rescues odd and surplus food that was at risk of going to waste, I’ve learned a lot about the scale and impact of food waste and how we can all do our bit to help reduce food waste.

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

Why is food waste bad?

When food is wasted, not only the food is wasted but all the resources that have gone into producing it are also wasted. All the land that has been used to produce the food, all the water for irrigation, all the fuel for transport, all the energy to run the processing and packaging facilities, is also lost.

It’s estimated that a quarter of the world’s freshwater supply is used to grow food that is never eaten. If food waste was a country, it’d be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the US and China, as it accounts for around 8% of all annual greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK, around 10 million tonnes of food is wasted every year and we use an area the size of Wales to produce food that ultimately never gets eaten. If we look just at potatoes, around 50 litres of water is used to produce just one potato, yet around 5.8 million potatoes are thrown away in the UK every day, that’s a lot of water going to waste.

WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that if food were not discarded to landfill in the UK, the level of greenhouse gas reduced would be equivalent to removing 1 in 4 cars from the road.

Why does food waste happen?

Food can be wasted at any point across its life, from being thrown away at the farm because of cosmetic imperfections, to being chucked in the bin at home because we left that loaf of bread just a bit too long, and anywhere in between.

It is estimated that over a third of total farm production is lost for aesthetic reasons. We have got so used to seeing perfectly straight cucumbers, blemish free bananas, perfectly round tomatoes, we’ve lost our connection to nature.

This need for cosmetic perfection for fruits and veg is an unfortunate hangover of 1980’s EU legislation (see Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 of 15 June 1988 which says cucumbers must “be reasonably well shaped and practically straight”) which retailers and customers alike still seem to still hold onto.

There is an overwhelming concentration of power at the buyer end of our food system, leaving farmers having to meet their buyer’s stringent cosmetic specifications and carrying all the risk associated with food waste. If we all started to care more about what’s on the inside (and have a ‘looks don’t matter’ attitude) things might start to change. Some supermarkets have started to sell ‘wonky’ fruit and veg for a discounted price and companies like Oddbox exist to take the excess or imperfect fruit and veg, which suppliers can’t sell to other retailers, and deliver it to people.

Photo by David Fartek on Unsplash

In some cases, wasted food can still go to somewhat productive uses, such as animal feed, or turned into energy through anaerobic digestion but in the worst case it can end up in landfill and rot. This produces methane — a greenhouse gas even worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Using food for any means other than what it was grown for — human consumption — is not a good alternative and has avoidable carbon emissions embedded within it.

There needs to be changes to the way the food industry works, but actually 70% of all food waste in the UK comes from our homes. This gives us as individuals an opportunity to be part of the solution to food waste, so what can we do?

Image from Olio

What can you do to help?

  1. Reduce your own household waste:

Plan your meals

Decide what you want to make, check what food you’ve already got and what needs using up and then write a shopping list and stick to it. If you can, make trips to the grocery store every few days, rather than bulk buy every week, as bulk buying often leads to more waste (unless you are a super efficient meal planner).

Know the difference between ‘Use by’ and ‘best before’

Use by dates tell you the last day a product is safe to eat and should generally be stuck to. Best before dates though are about quality and tells you that the food is no longer in its perfect shape from that date.

Use leftovers

If you’ve cooked too much, save the leftovers and take them in for lunch or label them and pop them in the freezer. If you are looking for more creative ways to use up your potato peels or stale bread, read Field and Flower’s top tips.

Share food

Olio is a food-sharing app looking to tackle food waste. If you’ve got food you won’t use, you can upload pictures of what you want to pass on, or use it to find food to pick up in your local area free of charge.

Buy leftovers

Try apps like Too Good To Go, which allows restaurants and cafés to bundle up their leftovers into mystery meals you can buy at a discount, and Karma, which works with restaurants (mostly in central London at present) and enables them to sell off any unsold food just before closing time.

2. Buy from companies tackling food waste

There are more and more companies looking to tackle food waste and offering you simple solutions. Oddbox works with growers across the UK to rescue fruit and veg that were at risk of going to waste. They never dictate what should be grown by farmers and when farmers have too much produce or it does not meet retailers’ cosmetic specifications, they take it off their hands and make up fruit and veg boxes that are delivered to homes and businesses in London.

Delicious fruit and veg from my recent Oddbox

Other organisations use food that would have gone to waste and turn it into delicious condiments and beers like Rubies in the Rubble and Toast Ale.

3. Buy more seasonal and local food

Get more familiar with what foods are in season where you live, this BBC Good Food guide shows which foods are in season in the UK every month. By shopping more seasonally you are likely to be able to buy more local food, this saves “air mile” costs of importing produce from overseas and also supports local businesses.

However, don’t feel the need to exclusively buy local — if you see tomatoes produced in the UK in January, they’ve probably been grown in a greenhouse as they are out of season. This has a worse impact on the environment than shipping them over from Spain.

4. Donate food, money or time to tackle food poverty

If you are able to, you could also look at donating food to your local food banks to help people in need, you can find a directory of food banks by Trussel Trust here. You can also volunteer for charities and help them to redistribute food to those who need it most like Felix Project, City Harvest and FareShare or donate to these charities.

5. Ask for change

Write a letter to your local council asking them to address food waste or ask for food waste bins if these aren’t available in your area (you can check if there are food waste bins already available on the Recycle Now website). Sign petitions you see that are asking for change, for example this one from Feedback who want it to be mandatory for some businesses to publicly report on food waste.

As with any change you might be making to try and be more sustainable, start small and pick a few things that work for you. No one needs to be perfect, but together we can make a big difference by taking our own actions to tackle food waste.

Heather is an On Purpose Associate currently working with Oddbox as part of the On Purpose Associate Programme. Sign up to our newsletter (by the end of Feb 2020) to receive a discount code so you can try Oddbox for yourself

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