Find out why we need to act to reduce food waste and what some of the solutions are in this post from EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative. Written by Laura Elphick, EIT Food.
We are in a food waste crisis where 1/3 of all food is lost or wasted. As such, reducing the amount of food we waste has never been more important. We have worked with EIT Food, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative, to put together a guide on how to reduce your food waste footprint.
What is food loss and waste?
These terms refer to food intended for human consumption that is eventually lost or wasted along the food supply chain. Specifically, food loss occurs during food production, for example during harvest and manufacturing, whereas food waste occurs at the retail and consumption level. It’s important to make this distinction as it helps to understand the root cause of the problem, as it’s a problem that all of us need to help to solve.
So, why exactly do we waste food?
Food is wasted for many reasons. For example, often we buy more food than we need or cook meals that create unwanted leftovers, and then we throw the uneaten food away. Sometimes, we forget about the food in our fridge and cupboards, so it goes past its use-by date and we dispose of it.
At retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. For example, you may have noticed supermarkets selling imperfect or ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables, to reject fewer food supplies, while encouraging us to be more accepting of our food’s so-called cosmetic standards.
What foods are wasted?
All foods are wasted but some more than others. Globally, food loss and waste per year is approximately 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 20% for oilseeds, meat and dairy and 30% for fish.
One of the biggest food waste culprits in the UK is the humble loaf of bread, where 44% of bread is wasted each year! This is because often people do not finish a whole loaf in time and worry it’s stale, so they throw it away. The crusts, in particular, are often disposed of, as many do not like the end slice of the loaf. However, while this can seem harmless, this amounts to 1.2 billion edible bread crusts binned each year.
Yet bread is just one food type that we waste. Every day in the UK, many other foods are wasted, including 3.1 million glasses’ worth of milk, 2.2 million slices’ worth of ham and 920,000 bananas! When we think about how much we waste, it soon becomes clear that we are throwing away vast amounts of food across all food groups. Whether it’s cheese that’s gone mouldy, bruised apples or a yoghurt passed its use-by date, it all adds up.
Learn more about why bread is wasted on our From Waste to Value: How to Tackle Food Waste course.
Food Waste Facts: Why should we care about food waste?
1. Wasted resources
Using up finite natural resources such as land and water to produce food that then goes uneaten just doesn’t make sense. Currently, food that is harvested but ultimately lost or wasted requires a land area greater than the size of China and requires about one-quarter of all water used by agriculture each year.
When we think about how food production itself causes 25% of global emissions that contribute to climate change, coupled with the fact that we need to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050, wasting food seems just that, a waste.
2. Economic consequences
Wasting food also costs the economy a lot of money. Food loss and waste results in roughly €870 billion in economic losses globally per year. For each UK household, that equates to £810 of food thrown away. Unfortunately, large amounts of food that is wasted could be avoided and used for alternative purposes. In the UK, 4.5 million tonnes of “avoidable” food waste is disposed of every year, which includes perfectly edible food that could have been distributed elsewhere, like to food banks or homeless shelters.
In fact, it’s shocking to think that while 800 million people across the globe are under-nourished, vast amounts of food ends up rotting away in landfill. It has been estimated that the food currently wasted in Europe could feed 200 million people.
To avoid this, we should be encouraged to upcycle and repurpose food waste where possible. For example, there are many recipes for using up food waste in the home, such as soups from leftover vegetables or banana bread from slightly-stale bread slices.
Food producers are seeing the value in food waste too. Beer producers Toast Ale use surplus bread to make their beer, saving over 2 million slices of bread from disposal, all while reducing carbon emissions and land and water use.
Learn more about the cost of food waste in an article by FoodUnfolded.
3. Environmental impact
Ultimately, food waste has drastic effects on the environment, particularly in relation to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When thrown away, food scraps are broken down by bacteria to produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas that has a warming potential of 21 times that of carbon dioxide.
On a global scale, food waste is responsible for 6% of GHG emissions, which compares to billions of tonnes of methane, carbon dioxide and other GHGs being released into the atmosphere each year. In the UK alone, this equates to 25 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Each year that is 68kg of food wasted at home per person.
4. Promoting a better world
The negative consequences of food waste have not gone unnoticed. Both the Paris Agreement and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have committed to reducing food waste in the years to come. Food waste is related to 3 of the United Nation’s SDGs – zero hunger, climate action and responsible production and consumption whereby:
- Distributing uneaten food to those who need it can help us to achieve zero hunger
- Reducing food waste is vital in our fight against climate change, by reducing GHG emissions
- The United Nations have set a target to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses during food production.
What food waste solutions already exist?
Thankfully, there are some innovative solutions to food waste already on the market, with many others in development. Here are some examples below:
Innovative food labelling
Confusion over ‘best before’ and ‘use-by’ dates on food labels contributes to food waste. UK-based startup Mimica Lab has developed a responsive label and bottle cap that turns bumpy when food or drinks spoil. If, when running a finger over the surface, it feels smooth, it means that the food is still fresh, while when it feels bumpy, the food is no longer fit for consumption.
Using Mimica Touch enables us to understand the true shelf-life of our food. It provides an accurate, real-time indication of the product’s freshness and could replace traditional food labels in years to come. Learn more about Mimica Touch with our article on monitoring food expiry dates.
3D printing to reduce food waste
Often we discard food scraps that could be repurposed into new dishes. Spanish-based startup Natural Machines has created the world’s first 3D food printer ‘Foodini’, which can make savoury and sweet foods, using fresh ingredients.
For example, it can use scraps from meat or fish to produce new and exciting foods. Chef Viktor Örn Andrésson uses the Foodini to create a culinary seafood dish while minimizing fish waste.
Trading food surpluses
Food production often creates side-streams – anything that is not the main product, such as orange peels from an orange juice factory or coffee grounds from brewing coffee. Swiss company RethinkResource is transforming industrial side-streams into sustainable new products and business opportunities.
They have created a cross-industrial trading platform, ‘Circado’, where companies can trade their side-streams, as one company’s waste is another company’s primary resource.
Food sharing apps
Food sharing apps like Olio, Karma and Too Good To Go are reducing food waste by empowering consumers to take action. With Olio, consumers can share the food they no longer want with their local community. With Karma, consumers can rescue unsold meals at a discounted price. Similarly, Too Good To Go enables consumers to rescue food that would otherwise be thrown away in cafes, restaurants or shops, so it gets eaten instead of wasted.
Learn more about Too Good To Go in EIT Food’s interview with CEO Mette Likke.
Reducing food waste during Covid-19
During Covid-19, food waste levels have been catastrophic. Many food producers lost their buyers, as pubs, restaurants and hotels were forced to close their doors, so vast amounts of produce were thrown away.
EIT Food took action during this difficult time by launching activities to rescue food for alternative uses. They worked with farmers who had surplus vegetables to create a soup called ‘Robin Food’ at the social enterprise enVie. As you can see in our video, the soup was then distributed to vulnerable families through food banks and social grocers.
Tips for reducing household food waste
Feeling inspired? To reduce your own food waste footprint, you can do the following:
- Plan meals ahead of time – This means you are more likely to only buy what you need. Also, be wary of promotional offers in supermarkets, as they can encourage you to buy extras!
- Buy ‘imperfect’ fruit and veg – It doesn’t really matter if your carrots are wonky; they will still taste just as good!
- Use food storage – Make use of your fridge and freezer, such as keeping fresh fruit in the fridge to last longer and freezing food that you know you won’t eat straight away. Be wary of where to store food in your fridge as the temperature can vary from top to bottom!
- Be inventive with leftovers – There are products that can help you make the best use of leftovers. For example, Preservation Culture’s DIY Spice Kits can help you to make pickles, jams and chutneys.
- Limit fast-food and takeaways – This helps to ensure that you use up the food that’s already in your cupboards.
- Use food-sharing apps – These can help you give away your unwanted foods and find fresh and tasty alternatives – it’s also cheaper than going to the supermarket.
- Donate to food banks and shelters – Social enterprises and charities are always in need of food to giveaway. Make someone’s day by donating some food to those in need. You can also support those campaigning for food waste, such as the campaign group Feedback.
- Spread awareness, not waste – Promote the importance of reducing food waste to your friends, family and neighbours to encourage them to reduce their food waste footprint too!
Learn more about food waste
EIT Food’s ‘How to tackle food waste’ course will help you to discover the causes and impact of food waste and learn how you can tackle it on a personal, community, and national level.
Learn more about food waste with the Food Fight Podcast. This podcast series is examining the biggest challenges facing the food system, and the innovations and entrepreneurs looking to solve them. You might find the following episodes of interest:
- Listen to the ‘Is there value in food waste?’ episode
- Listen to the ‘How do we clean up all the food waste?’ episode
More EIT Food courses
About the author: Laura Elphick is a Communications and Engagement Officer at EIT Food. She holds a First-Class Bachelor’s Degree in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing and is passionate about promoting a sustainable food environment to consumers.