Food Waste: the problem and the solutions

Right at this moment, cockroaches are doing more to save the environment than you are. A big exaggeration? Not if you’ve ever thrown away leftovers from your plate or bought more food than you could manage to cook in a week. You’re part of the food waste problem. But just like cockroaches, you can also be part of the solution.

Before we get to how, let’s have a look at the current state of food waste.

How serious is the food waste problem?

In a world of 7.7 billion people – the same world where we can create embryos from stem cells and 3D print a human ear – 1 in 10 people is chronically undernourished. And it’s not because there isn’t enough food on the planet to feed everyone. We make enough food to feed all the 7.7 billion and 2 billion more. But one-third of what we make doesn’t get consumed. This doesn’t mean that if we weren’t wasting any food, there wouldn’t be any hunger in the world -there are factors such as poverty, wars and climate change that also play a big part in world famine. But food waste is a missed opportunity to alleviate the problem.Apart from its relation to world hunger, food waste is impacting us at another level as well. Food production takes a serious toll on the environment – not only in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but also by consuming land, water and energy resources. When food goes uneaten, not only are these resources already wasted once, but the environmental impact of food continues. When it ends up in a landfill to rot, food emits harmful gases, including methane, which contributes to food waste’s total carbon footprint of 3.3 billion tonnes per year. That’s almost as much as the carbon emissions of the whole EU for 2015. And, if food waste were a country, it would take 3rd place in the list of global polluters, right after China and the US.

Last but not least, food waste also comes at a monetary price. The latest comprehensive EU-wide report on food waste, from 2012, suggests that the total costs of food waste are about 143 billion euros per year across the EU. Out of this amount, the cost for households is 98 billion. Let’s break this down. The population of the EU is about 512.6 million people and the average household consists of 2.3 people. That’s about 222.9 million households. And it means that food waste costs every single household about 440 EUR per year.

How is food wasted?

It’s not just you and your lunch leftovers. Food gets wasted to a different extent at every step of the supply chain.

30-40% of food waste happens during production and processing. In developing countries, most of the losses at this stage have to do with economic conditions and poor facilities. For example, poor farmers may choose to harvest their crops prematurely for quick cash. As a result, the nutritional and economic value of the food drops and its likelihood to be wasted increases. In other cases, the lack of proper storage or processing facilities may lead to unnecessary loss of food before it reaches the consumer.Once food gets to a retail or food service facility, further losses occur. A lot of waste at this point happens purely because of aesthetics. Next time you go to the supermarket, notice how perfectly shaped the fruits and vegetables are. Behind those pretty faces is a huge amount of perfectly good produce which doesn’t reach consumers. Why? Often, supermarkets make the assumption that consumers wouldn’t buy fruits or vegetables that aren’t of a certain appearance, although consumer surveys don’t seem to support this. Unfortunately, the selection happens before you get to have a say about it.And this leads us to where the greatest portion of food waste in the West happens – the consumer and household stage. Here’s where your lunch leftovers come in. And here’s where you actually have a say. In Europe, 53% of food is wasted at the hand of the consumer. To help you visualise, that’s 95-115 kg of food per person every year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the respective amount is under 11 kg per person/year.

There are several factors contributing to this difference. A key one is attitude towards food. As people living in the West, we have a higher purchasing power, so we can buy more. And, because we can buy more, we can demand more – including more choice variety, which increases the risk that products don’t get sold before their expiry date and go to waste. But in contrast to the great appreciation we show for eating food and for photographing it, we don’t seem to have enough respect for it. Do you think you’re different? If you’re in denial about your exact contribution to the food waste problem, or you’re just curious, you can use this template to track how much food you actually waste and how it impacts the environment.

Food waste: some of the solutions

Food waste is a serious problem, but instead of crying over spoiled milk, it’s much better not to let it spoil in the first place. Here are a couple of ways food waste can be curbed.

  • Facility modernisation

Especially in developing countries, where the biggest chunk of food is wasted at the production stage, small improvements can make a big difference. For example, some farmers in Asia and Africa collect tomatoes in big sacks, which means that many of them get squished and spoil before they can be sold or eaten. Switching the sacks for crates already lowers the amount of food lost. Similar successes can and have been achieved in various regions with weather-protected storage facilities or by making grain silos from a fungus-resistant material.

  • Government initiatives

You probably already think of France in relation to food. Now you can think about it in relation to food waste as well. In 2016, France became the first country in the world to prohibit supermarkets from throwing away food that can still be consumed. Instead, unsold food is now redirected to charities and food banks. As a result, less is wasted and people who depend on food banks have access to better-quality food than ever before. Although not at the governmental level, similar initiatives at the retail and community level are emerging in other countries across Europe – e.g. in Denmark.

  • Out-of-the-box solutions

For a good example of this, let’s focus on China for a second. On the one hand, it’s the biggest pollutant in the world and hardly an example of environmental protection. On the other hand, it’s one of the few countries with an innovative approach to minimising the environmental impact of food waste. How does it do it? Cockroaches. Millions of the tiny creatures are bred in farms on the outskirts of big cities. Every morning, household food waste is delivered by the tonnes and fed to the cockroaches. Just like tiny pigs, they’re not picky and devour everything quickly. After they die, they’re processed into protein-rich livestock feed or used for cosmetic products and Chinese medicine. It’s an efficient and environmentally-friendly alternative to dumping leftover food in a landfill.
Cockroaches aren’t going to solve the problem with food waste, but they can serve as a very graphic inspiration for finding other similar solutions on a wider scale.

The ultimate solution: You.

To eliminate food waste completely, improvements are needed at every step of the food supply chain, from production to retail. These take time and are often out of your hands as a consumer. But a meaningful reduction of food waste is definitely in your hands.

Here’s what you can do.

  • Shop more often. Buy less.

You want to be efficient and do groceries as rarely as possible, but there’s a risk in buying food for a long period of time. Even if you’ve planned every meal and ingredient down to the last detail, it’s enough for a business dinner to pop up here and a spontaneous social event there, and before you know it all your good intentions have turned into a mouldy smell coming out of your fridge. A much better food strategy, for your wallet and the planet alike, would be to buy groceries for shorter periods of time, so even if you don’t end up using all of them as planned, you minimise the waste.
If you do prefer to shop for a whole week or longer at once, make it a habit to keep track of the expiration dates of products in your fridge. Use the products that are about to expire first. And keep in mind that you can freeze some products, such as vegetables, to prevent them from going bad or losing nutritional value.

  • Know what food labels mean

Once you’re at the supermarket, stop ignoring products that are approaching their ‘best before’ or ‘use by’ date. As long as the ‘use by’ date hasn’t passed, food is safe to eat. And when it comes to ‘best before’ dates, they are determined on the basis of optimal flavour and texture, rather than safety. Food is perfectly safe to eat after the ‘best before’ date, just store it correctly and use your common sense – if it looks or smells like you shouldn’t be eating it, you probably shouldn’t.

In many countries, supermarkets offer discounts on products that are approaching their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates. There’s a growing number of apps you can use to keep track of such deals. This way, you’re helping reduce food waste while also saving money. And, if you know you’ve just bought food that expires tomorrow, you’ll be more motivated to do something with it. It’s easier to justify eating out or getting take-away if you know your fridge contents still have a few days to go.

  • Cut down on animal products

Next to tweaking your grocery shopping habits, you can also contribute to offsetting the environmental impact of food waste by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet. On a large scale, the 30% decrease of greenhouse gas emissions that is associated with this dietary switch is comparable to eliminating all food loss at the retail and consumer level.
Not ready to say goodbye to meat and dairy completely? You can still minimise the environmental impact of your meals by skipping or cutting down on the most environmentally harmful animal products – like beef and lamb. Even if you just replace half your beef consumption with plant-based alternatives, you’d still contribute to achieving two-thirds of the environmental benefits of a fully vegan diet.

Final thoughts

Two generations from now, people are going to look back and wonder how we allowed for food waste to become such a big problem. After all, it’s not like finding a cure for cancer – you don’t need special expertise to contribute to a solution. Every time you do your groceries or consider throwing away food that can still be used, you get an opportunity to make those future generations happy. Use it.

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