Everything You Need to Know About Food Waste
How big of a problem is food waste? | RF._.studio / Pexels

Food Waste Is Everyone’s Problem. Here’s How to Reduce It

How can we reduce food waste? Here's why it's a problem, how it contributes to climate change, and steps we can take to minimize it.

The amount of food wasted around the world is predicted to rise by a third before the year 2030.

A report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) anticipates that, if left unchecked, 2030 will see a total of 2.1 billion tons of food wasted—in stark contrast with the UN’s goals of cutting food waste in half by the same year.

According to the USDA, between 30 and 40 percent of the national food supply is wasted every year. In 2010, this corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food.

In the UK, the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates annual waste to be around 9.5 million tonnes. Globally, approximately 1.6 billion tons of food—one-third of all produced food, worth around $1.2 trillion—goes to waste every single year.

Reducing food waste will help to mitigate climate change. It will also improve the efficiency of global food production and could help to feed hungry people. Unless governments, producers, distributors, and consumers all take urgent action, food waste will continue to increase.

Why Is Food Waste Important?

The impact of excessive food waste is far-reaching but most striking is perhaps its conjunction with food insecurity. Despite one-third of produced food going to waste, people around the world do not have access to adequate healthy food.

According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), approximately 815 million people—10.7 percent of the global population—experienced chronic undernourishment in 2016.

In 2017, experts estimated that around 821 million people around the world were living with food insecurity. That’s approximately one out of every nine people on the planet. Every year, around nine million people die of hunger. In March of this year, the U.N. warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could double the number of people starving.

According to data reported by OLIO—a platform that aims to reduce food waste by facilitating the sharing of surplus produce—world hunger could be ended with less than a quarter of the total food wasted in the U.S., UK, and Europe.

Unused food also wastes the land, water, energy, and other resources required for production. Approximately 25 percent of all freshwater is used to grow food that is produced then discarded. In the U.S., growing food that goes to waste uses up to 19 percent of fertilizer, 18 percent of cropland, and 21 percent of landfill volume.

Food that ends up in landfills is a significant source of carbon emissions via methane. While the combination of growing and transporting the enormous quantity of food that remains uneaten emits equivalent pollution to 39 million passenger vehicles.

The cost of food waste is both economical and environmental, impacting operational costs and prices within the agriculture sector as well as placing unnecessary stress on the planet. The FAO estimates that food waste and loss is responsible for around 8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The global food system—and the production of animal-derived foods, in particular—is a leading contributor to climate change. This means that cutting out avoidable food waste could be a significant and relatively actionable way of slowing climate change.

As the food demands of a growing world population increase, the ongoing and predicted effects of climate change will further endanger global food security. So what can we do about it?

What can we do about food waste? | Anna Shvets/Pexels

How Can We Reduce Food Waste?

The most effective way to reduce food waste is to reduce production to the level of global demand. The food industry currently produces more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet. But too much ends up in landfills rather than with the people who need it most. Once produced, there are several ways to reduce the waste of excess food.

The expectation of uniform, picture-perfect produce is a modern one, and the increasing popularity of imperfect fruit and veg options is helping to reduce waste. Supermarkets such as Lidl, Aldi, and Morrisons all offer smaller or unusually shaped produce, while websites including Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market also offer “ugly” produce. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs also offer not only local crops, but also unique-looking fruits and vegetables. Many farmers markets have weekly CSA programs.

Platforms and apps like OLIO also make a difference, enabling effective food sharing before produce becomes unusable.

Improving packaging is a key way for manufacturing and processing facilities to mitigate food waste. Companies such as California’s Apeel Sciences have set their sights on both food waste and unnecessary plastic packaging—another significant contributor to environmental damage.

Apeel produces a thin, natural, water-soluble coating for application to fresh fruit and vegetables. The edible preservative can double—and even quadruple—the shelf life of certain varieties of produce while removing the need for plastic wrapping.

“Food preservation technology is important for a number of reasons,” Apeel told LIVEKINDLY in a statement. “At the top of the list, it enables us to fight the global food waste crisis, which in turn helps reduce the impact on climate change, as well as provide more food for those in need.”

“With Apeel, less food is wasted and more resources are saved,” explained the company. “Such as the need for single-use plastic packaging on fresh fruits and vegetables, or the need for refrigeration during transport from grower to retailer in order to maintain freshness.”

Since 2018, Apeel has prevented more than 2 million avocados at grocery stores from going to waste. That has saved enough water to fill 427 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The company just announced that Walmart is replacing all of its plastic-wrapped English cucumbers with Apeel, cutting plastic waste equivalent by about 60,000 pounds per year

“Our partnerships with retailers will continue to prevent millions of pieces of produce from ending up in landfills every year,” Apeel said. “Resulting in more farmland preserved, emission reductions of thousands of metric tons in greenhouse gases, and billions of gallons of water saved.”

What Are the 5 Key Steps to Reduce Food Waste?

In the U.S. and around the world, the vast majority of food waste occurs at home. According to nonprofit ReFED, 43 percent of all food waste—27 million tons—is discarded household waste.

Approximately two-thirds of food waste at home is due to food spoilage through improper storage, misjudged food needs, and lack of visibility in refrigerators. Over-preparation, overbuying, and date label confusion also contribute. Poor planning, in general, can lead to misjudged needs, storage, and so on. So how do we effectively reduce food waste in the home?

Everything You Need to Know About Food Waste

Try to prepare a few days’ worth of meals once a week. | Ella Olsson/Pexels

1. Effective Meal Planning

Planning meals enables you to use up short-dated ingredients and pick days to eat leftovers in advance. This also means food can be cooked in advance, making nutritious and economical meals more accessible, even on busy days.

2. Improved Food Storage

Effective storage makes a significant difference in household food waste. Keeping track of use-by and best-before dates and taking action before produce becomes unusable keeps it out of your trash. Along with refrigeration, freezing, dehydrating, and pickling can all be used to effectively extend the shelf life of short-dated foods such as bread, milk, and fresh produce.

3. Don’t Overestimate

Advance planning is also useful in estimating your food needs for the week. While keeping inventory and writing shopping lists can help you accurately predict your needs for the week.

Ensuring you don’t purchase ingredients twice or unnecessarily also significantly impacts your grocery bill. In the UK, consumers discard up to 25 percent of all avoidable food waste unopened.

For a family of four spending about $110 per week, around $25 worth of food could be going to waste. Use-by date confusion and excessive shopping both contribute to this.

4. Organize Your Kitchen With FIFO

First-in-first-out, or FIFO, can be effectively used along with advance planning and effective storage. By ensuring you eat short-lived or pre-purchased food before making a trip to the supermarket, you can again reduce both your food waste and your overall grocery bill.

It’s also worth noting that while use-by dates are important, many products remain safe well beyond these recommendations; so use your best judgment.

5. Throw Out As Little Food As Possible

Ultimately, throwing out as little food as possible is the target. Ensuring leftovers get eaten, cooking meals around what is available—and what is going out of date—will reduce both overall waste and food costs. If you do need to discard food, keeping it out of landfills will reduce its impact on the environment. Home composting is one such alternative. It reduces overall methane emissions and lowers your individual carbon footprint significantly.