How much food did you leave on your plate the last time you ate? Maybe it was just a rogue potato, or some stray salad leaves, but did you consider the consequence? Each time we throw leftovers in the bin we’re contributing to one of the biggest challenges our society faces today: climate change.
There’s the humanitarian concern to consider too – since lockdown, 1.5 million Britons have gone without food for a whole day due to lack of money or access to food. But when we throw away food, few of us consider the wasted energy and water taken to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. In 2019, only 55% of food consumed was produced in the UK, and 26% imported from the EU.
Once in landfill, food decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas which is about 80 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the Earth over a 20-year timescale. In fact, food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gases.
Overall, about one-third of all the food produced in the world goes to waste. If we look at figures on an individual level in the UK, it’s equally shocking: in 2015 studies found that each person wastes about 108kg of food every year, 77kg of which is edible. Unlike other environmental concerns, such as single-use plastic, which we can easily cast-off as a problem for governments and corporations to address with policy, food waste isn’t so easy to distance from our own conscience. The government-funded charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) released a report this year that household food waste makes up 70% of UK post-farm-gate food waste. This incorporates all food waste production – from manufacture and wholesale, to the retail and hospitality sector – minus that arising in primary production.
So whilst it may not feel harmful to throw out the odd bread crust, food waste is an environmental (and humanitarian) concern that we have significant influence over. Fortunately there are plenty of easy ways we can adapt our behaviour in order to minimise this global issue.
1. Buy less
How many times have you heard that prevention is better than cure? When it comes to food waste, it’s better to not produce the waste in the first place than to find ways to dispose it. Consumerism drives waste, and if there was a reduction in demand then the system would stop producing more food than individuals need.
A good way to avoid buying more food than you can eat before it spoils is to check your fridge and cupboards. People have habitual shopping habits, buying the same products each week as well as buying on impulse, but you might already have food that needs finishing first. And be realistic – do you really need a 2 litre carton of milk (no-one needs that much coffee to get through an all-night essay crisis) or an entire loaf of bread if it’s just for you? Shop smart and the environment, and your bank account, will thank you for it.
We’ve all done it: opened a tin of tuna or jar of tomato sauce when there’s already one open in the fridge. One study showed that for nearly a quarter of people in Britain, the main reason they discard food is because they forgot what they had in the fridge. Try to organise your fridge using the FIFO method, ‘First In, First Out’, by placing the oldest food and opened cans at the front. This way you can avoid opening the fridge to the not-so-pleasant smell of sour cream, or discovering a mouldy can of chickpeas hiding at the back.
3. Consider what you waste
Here I would like to take the opportunity to praise any vegans reading this list. Food waste is not equal in its carbon emissions. Most of us are aware that meat and dairy products have much higher carbon emissions than fruit and vegetables, and it follows that reducing the amount of meat you bin will have a greater impact than how many carrots you waste. For example, producing beef uses 20 times the land and emits 20 times the emissions as growing beans, per gram of protein. And although fresh vegetables and salad make up a quarter of edible household food waste in the UK, they only account for 12% of the greenhouses gas emissions from food waste, compared to meat and fish which make up 19% of the emissions despite only making up 8% of wasted food. Far better to make the extra effort to save meat from being binned than a few petit pois.
As mentioned previously, food releases methane when it decomposes in landfill, and this powerful greenhouse gas is considerably more effective at trapping infrared radiation in the atmosphere than CO2.
Composting is an extremely effective way to reduce methane emissions, with one study estimating that greenhouse gas emissions from composting are just 14% of the same food dumped into landfill. Another study suggests that, for foods like bread, this figure drops to just 2.2%. Moreover, composting foods like coffee grounds make excellent fertiliser for plants, adding nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil. It’s a win-win situation!
On a separate (but very important) note, most tea bags are not compostable because of their plastic seals. Although brands like Clipper claim to be ‘plastic-free’, they simply use PLA, a bio-plastic derived from plants rather than fossil fuels. PLA requires heat over 60°C, water, and specific enzymes (not available in normal environments) in order to biodegrade, making it unlikely these tea bags will decompose in home compost. Don’t contaminate your compost with these plastic tea bags – instead, buy tea leaves or Pukka tea bags, as these are sealed using a simple stitch of organic cotton.
You’ve boiled the kettle, opened a tin of baked beans and headed to the toaster when – disaster! The bread is mouldy! With the help of modern technology, this can easily be avoided. Simply freeze a sliced loaf and defrost a slice as and when you need it. Alternatively, freeze half a fresh loaf so that your current loaf won’t be blue around the edges by the weekend.
The freezer is your best friend when it comes to saving food and money. Freezing fruit, which spoils quickly, makes for a delicious smoothie or batch of jam. Frozen vegetable scraps e.g onions, garlic, celery ends, mushroom stems and leftover herbs, can be stored in a bag in the freezer, and made into brilliant vegetable broths, packed with nutrients. Even foods like milk, pasta, cake (although let’s be honest, who actually has left over cake?) and cheese can be frozen! Which brings us to the next tip…
6. Buy reduced food
It may just be a habit I’ve acquired over the years from my mum, but the first things I look for in a supermarket are the orange ‘reduced’ price labels. Besides saving yourself money, buying reduced food prevents supermarkets from throwing edible produce into landfill. If you don’t eat it before the ‘use-by’ date, just freeze it when you get home and it will stay fresh until you defrost it.
7. Read the label
People often get confused about labelling on products. “Sell by” is used by retailers to decide when the product should be sold or removed from the shelves. “Best by” is a suggested date that consumers should use their products by. Neither of these terms tells you when the food is unsafe to eat. Follow the ‘use-by’ date instead, although even this is just an indication of when the food will pass its best quality, and food is sometimes still edible sometime afterwards.
8. Eating out
This next one is a little less conventional – again, I have my mum to thank. Next time you go out to eat, take containers with you so you can bring the leftovers home. Before you start thinking about what the staff will think, consider the fact that a) you paid for the food b) the food tastes good and c) it will go straight in the bin if you leave it there on the plate.
Also, don’t feel afraid to ask for an ingredient to be left out if you know you won’t eat it. For example, if you’re eating out for brunch and you order an option that has a side of mushrooms which you know you hate, then ask for it to be left off. That way, you avoid it being cooked and immediately wasted.
9. Get creative!
There are plenty of recipes online for using up leftovers. Trusty BBC Good Food has its very own ‘Leftover Recipes’ section, including stir-fries, bread and butter pudding, and traybakes. Using up leftovers doesn’t have to mean baking yet another banana bread (although this is, by no means, a negative). It can be as inventive as using sour cream to make chocolate cake or scones, to simply frying mash potato or re-cooking soft cereals to make them crunchy again.
Food waste emits about three times the global emission from aviation, and each one of us has a responsibility to reduce it. Sending food into landfill is the least preferable option when dealing with food waste, and as more and more systems use food waste, for example, in anaerobic digestion, to make into animal feed, or to redistribute to people going hungry, we need to embrace our own responsibility in the wider food waste network and make individual changes to our lifestyles. None of these suggestions are particularly radical or difficult to do, but all of them require the right mind-set and attitude towards food waste. Next time you go to bin ‘just’ a few chips, or ‘only’ a bread crust, consider the wider impact of your actions, and how you could help change the figures above so they tell a more positive narrative.