From Plate to Planet: Food Waste’s Contribution to Climate Change

In our non-stop world where grocery aisles brim with hyper-appealing food and your next meal is just a card-tap away, it’s easy to overlook the hidden cost of our food choices. In fact, the leftovers on your plate and the wilting produce in your fridge may well be a silent accomplice to climate change.

wasted food and wilting produce

If food waste were a country

Food production, transportation, and the decay of wasted food all contribute to the release of greenhouse gases. When food ends up in landfill and rots, it produces methane, which is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. How much more potent? While methane has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere than CO2 methane traps 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide. With approximately 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions resulting from food waste, if food waste were a country, it would have the third-largest carbon footprint after the US and China.

Who’s responsible for food waste?

Everybody. Individually and as organisations we need to be better at keeping food waste away from landfill. Globally, approximately 17% of food production may go wasted, with households responsible for 61%. The food service industry takes 26% of the responsibility and retail 13%, according to a report by the UN. 17% of all food produced for consumers goes straight into the bin – shockingly, that’s more than 900 million tonnes of food discarded annually. But that’s globally – how do we do in the UK?
Daily the UK discards 20 million slices of bread, 280 tonnes of poultry, and 4.4 million potatoes. Enough food for thought?

Global food security

Climate change is a topic of immense significance for our planet and its inhabitants. As the Earth heats up, the economic consequences can be severe and far reaching. Crop failures and disrupted supply chains increase food prices which puts pressure on an already fragile economy, but it’s always the marginalised communities that will be the first and worst affected. 690 million people went hungry in 2019 according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. A number that is hard to swallow in the presence of the annual 900 million tonnes of food waste currently decomposing and contributing to worsening conditions.
Is this a slow-motion disaster?

What is being done about Food Waste?

Halving food waste globally by 2030

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is collaborating with NGOs to develop a comprehensive food loss and waste policy action plan. The goal is to half food waste by 2030 in the US while building a more resilient food system. While the UN’s sustainable development goal is to cut food waste in half globally in the same time.

Community initiatives in Geneva

A Geneva-based not-for-profit initiative has set up public refrigerators and food shelves on city streets. Anyone can stock these shelves and fridges with excess perishables for passersby to help themselves to before they go bad.

food waste reduce reuse recycle

Legislation changes in the UK

In the United Kingdom a pilot scheme was launched in 2019-2020 to reduce food waste from retailers and manufacturers. Supported by £15 million in additional funding, this scheme aims to address the approximately 100,000 tonnes of edible food that goes uneaten every year. The focus is on surplus food from retail and manufacturing, but further action to cut food waste from all sources is on the horizon as part of Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy.

New rules in the UK prohibit sending food waste to landfill or incineration alongside general waste. Recycling through anaerobic digestion or composting is the approved method for food waste management. Under the new measures, every business in England and Wales generating food waste is required to implement mandatory food waste segregation. This initiative stems from the Environment Act 2021, emphasising the importance of reducing waste in the food system and aligning with the Government Food Strategy 2022’s commitment to halve global food waste by 2030.

Wales headed the changes with enforcement commencing from April 6th 2024, and the rest of the UK is set to enforce the changes with weekly food waste collections by 2026.

Changing how we dispose of food waste

With a move toward zero food to landfill, the UK has approved two methods for organic waste disposal, Anaerobic digestion, and composting, both requiring separate food waste collection.

The Advantages of Anaerobic Digestion

Anaerobic digestion is the chemical process in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material without oxygen. It’s a similar process to that which occurs in landfills, but when controlled the process produces collectable biogases, mostly methane, which can be captured and used as a renewable energy source. Pathogens are destroyed in the process, and the resulting material has less odor and is less likely to cause environmental pollution. In fact, the resulting digestate material can be used as a liquid fertilizer.

The Advantages of Composting

Composting is a familiar process, but how is it different to landfill? When food waste breaks down in landfill it does so anaerobically – without oxygen. This produces a lot of uncaptured methane which eventually finds its way into the atmosphere. Composting breaks down food waste aerobically – in the presence of oxygen. This produces far less methane. In fact, composting produces 38-84% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to landfill disposal. Compost improves crop productivity and reduces the need for expensive synthetic fertilizers, helping to alleviate the cost of production and shortfalls in food security.

Taking Individual Responsibility for Food Waste

Every one of us can help reduce food waste, and ensure waste is properly managed.

At home

  • Separate your food waste for separate collection or composting.
  • Minimise spoiling by storing food correctly and only buying what you can use.
  • Love leftovers – make the most of leftover food to reduce scrapings into the bin.
  • Support initiatives that divert excess food to members of the community who need it.

Check out our guide to stackable recycling bins.

At work

Monday, May 13, 2024
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