The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

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Food Waste and the Environment

When asked what the biggest contributor to climate change is, most people will conclude that the burning of fossils fuels is largely to blame. While some sectors are more responsible than others for the devastation caused to the environment, the usual candidates; energy generation, transport and international trade, aren’t always the biggest culprits. The world’s third largest emitter of pollutants, beaten only by the collective emissions of the US and China; is food waste.

In 2018, WRAP calculated that the UK wasted 9.5 million cubic tonnes of food that was valued at approximately £19 billion. To put this gargantuan sum into perspective; Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s 2021 Budget allocated a combined £19 billion for increasing core scientific funding, clearing NHS backlogs caused by Covid-19 and all transport projects across Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and South Yorkshire. Potentially, if that food had been better distributed, it would have provided over 15 billion meals; enough food to feed the whole UK population three meals a day, for 11 weeks. Alternatively; it would have fed the population for the entirety of the first national lockdown from March to May, with three weeks worth of food to spare.

Research conducted by WRAP into the levels of food waste in UK draws some alarming conclusions. That £19 billion worth of decomposing food in UK landfills is responsible for 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs), the equivalent of 10 million cars, through a process called anaerobic decomposition. This is when rotting food is piled up in landfills, layer upon layer, and breaks down without any access to oxygen. Anaerobic decomposition also produces large quantities of methane, which is twenty times more effective at trapping GHGs than carbon dioxide. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations puts the global amount of greenhouse gasses produced from decomposing food at 3.3 gigatons; a number that, to most at least, is completely unfathomable.

It’s important to remember that when food is wasted, the resources that were used to produce it, are also wasted. Currently, 1.4 billion hectares, or 28% of the planet’s available agricultural land, is used to grow or farm food that is ultimately lost or wasted. More worryingly, are projections suggesting that the land mass required for farming will need to be increased to 60% in response to an ever-growing population. At the present, just the water used in this endeavour is estimated to be 250km³; equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.

One of the biggest casualties of the endless demand for agricultural land, as well as the water required to irrigate it, is the catastrophic loss in biodiversity. The rate that species are currently lost globally, are far higher than they have been on average over the last 10 million years. This aggressive farming model has been driven by the requirement to feed more people at lower costs by utilising a combination of new political policies, streamlined economic structures and improved farming methods. But this intensified method of agriculture results in degraded soil which causes the ecosystems that rely on them to markedly struggle. This in turn, this decreases the productive ability of the land, necessitating even more intrusive farming methods to keep pace with demand.

Current food production techniques require the copious usage of environmentally damaging fertilizers and pesticides, as well as unsustainable practises such as monocropping and heavy tilling. All of the aforementioned factors collaborate to have a negative effect on biodiversity by reducing the numbers of birds, mammals, insects and microbial organisms, in addition to inhibiting the growth of native plant species.


Waste in the Food Industry

So how did we get to this point? A growing world population, that ultimately needs to be fed, is certainly a consideration. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, global poverty rates have risen for the first time since 1998 and income inequality has ballooned for 70% of the world’s population; which translates to food insecurity becoming a progressively serious issue for an increasing number of at risk populations. It seems baffling that we live in a world where more or less anything can be packaged and sent to almost anyone, anywhere; yet the food that’s needlessly wasted by the tonne can’t be redistributed to feed the world’s most vulnerable populations. The economic reality is that it’s still ultimately cheaper to throw away food than redistribute it to those facing starvation.

While this dilemma surfaces on the international stage, it also appears on the national one. In the UK, many supermarkets, until fairly recently, struggled to commit the resources required to get surplus food to those who need it the most. The practice of supermarkets being unable to cover the costs of redistributing otherwise edible food that they elected to throw away, was prevalent until not that long ago. Several years ago, news reports of supermarkets throwing away food that was fit for human consumption, began to surface. Worryingly, reports of supermarkets dousing the food they’d thrown away in bleach to prevent dumpster divers and the homeless from eating it began to appear more often.

Groups and individuals from the third sector involved in food redistribution, such as REfUSE and Mr. Junk Food Chef, gathered photographic evidence of these practices at a nearby supermarket and presented their findings while demanding action be taken. Initially, the supermarket denied the evidence, claiming what the groups had documented was “Not the norm” and insisted that the matter would be investigated internally. REfUSE challenged this assessment; proclaiming that not only had they seen consistent evidence of these wasteful practices conducted by the supermarket before, but that they’d also had some of the supermarket’s staff volunteer with them as they felt so guilty about having to throw out so much edible food.

One news report interviewed a skip diver had come across hundreds of pounds worth of bread, meat, cakes, vegetables and chocolate in one supermarket’s wheelie bin, thirty minutes after it’d closed on Christmas Eve.

Supermarkets were usually cagey about how much food they threw away, but following some notable public outcries, industry attitudes are shifting. There has been considerable effort made by supermarkets to take on more of the responsibility for distributing their unsold stock to vulnerable people. However, following the exposure of supermarket food waste, and the public outrage that followed, Morrisons started their ‘Wonky Veg’ initiative. This gave their customers the option of being able to buy a randomised selection of fruit and vegetables that didn’t meet the required aesthetic standards, but was still perfectly suitable for human consumption.

While it’s easy to place blame at the feet of the supermarkets, there are other factors surrounding the food industry that need to be considered. Firstly, we need to examine the pressures being put on producers themselves. Both wholesalers and the government insist on highly stringent aesthetic and marketing standards for their growers’ fruit and vegetables. While some produce can still be sold if it doesn’t meet these standards, it’s often done so at a heavily discounted price. This can result in growers being forced to over-produce to make up the difference financially, which further impacts the environment by creating even more waste by simply leaving what they can’t sell to rot in the fields that they were grown in.

With wholesalers forcing growers to overproduce, the supermarkets often over-order from their suppliers to ensure that their shelves always look full. This is to counteract the ‘last turkey in the shop’ mentality that persists among all consumers. It’s the belief that if we see the last of a particular food item on a shelf we automatically assume there’s something wrong with it, resulting in that item remaining unsold. While there’s little that can be done to reverse this long-held mentality among shoppers; the domino effect of strict aesthetic standards leading to the overproduction and widespread discarding of produce, coupled with the over-ordering from supermarkets, means that the environmental impact from food waste is made immeasurably worse.


Use-By or Best Before End?

It’s important to note that while at lot of attention has been drawn to the amount of food being needlessly thrown away by consumers due to confusion surrounding Use-By Dates and Best Before End dates; growers, manufacturers and supermarkets must be prepared to shoulder some of the blame due to the lack of clarity with their labelling. The aforementioned ‘last turkey in the shop’ mentality persists among shoppers; but this is in no small part due to food industry labelling its produce with overly short Use-By Dates and Best Before End dates in order to ensure that shelves always look full with constant re-stocking, regardless of the level of food waste generated in order to achieve this aesthetic.

In conjunction to this, confusion among shoppers concerning the difference between Use-By Dates and Best Before End dates is rife. The Use-By Date tells the consumer when the food they’ve purchased will no longer be safe to eat; you can eat the food on the date shown, but not afterwards. Use-By Dates feature most prevalently on food that spoils quickly, such as meat products and ready-to-eat salads. To ensure that the food you purchase will remain fresh for as long as the manufacturer proclaims, there are recommended storage instructions that need to be adhered to; such as keeping food chilled to 5°C or lower after opening. After the Use-By Date has expired, do not eat, cook or freeze the food because even if it looks edible and smells normal, it still might not be safe to eat.

The other date shown on food packaging is the Best Before End (BBE), which unlike the Use-By Date doesn’t concern safety, but quality. The Best Before End indicates to the consumer that the food will be safe to eat on the date shown, but it may not be at its best. Best before dates appear on a wide range of foodstuffs such as frozen foods, dried foods and tinned foods. However, as with use-by dates, the best before date will only be accurate if the food is stored correctly as per the instructions on the packaging.

While understanding the difference between Use-By Dates and Best Before End dates can seem trivial, not understanding them can result in shoppers inadvertently throwing out food that is still very much fit for human consumption; which further perpetuates the chronic environmental problems caused by global food waste.

The accuracy of Use-By Dates and Best Before End dates themselves is often brought into question because there are no means to make them exact. Fluctuations in the temperature during the storage and transportation of food can unintentionally increase or decrease the date given. Damage to the packing of some food, which may not be immediately noticeable, can cause food to start decomposing long before the Use-By and Best Before End Dates shown on the packaging.


Combatting Waste

While the environmental problems associated with food waste seem so enormous that they appear unsurmountable and trying to illustrate the level of food waste among individual shoppers can be challenging. Consumers, on average, waste between 15% to 25% of the food they purchase. You can characterise this monumental waste of food by imagining yourself leaving the supermarket with five bags of shopping and dropping one in the car park before you leave. However, there are various methods, both big and small, that individuals can adopt to limit their food waste and its impact on the environment.

One technique that be adopted on a small scale at home is vermicomposting; the practice of using insects, earthworms in this case, in a Wormery to break down food waste. This system is compact, clean, cheap and odourless; and produces two valuable by-products. The first is a rich compost generated from the worms’ excretions; as well as a liquid that drains to the bottom of the Wormery which, when diluted (1:10 water) can be made into liquid plant food.

Another method to try at home would be utilising a Bokashi Bin. This involves the anaerobic fermentation of food waste with the help of microorganisms. While Bokashi Bins are small and ideal for indoor use; the waste won’t fully decompose so it’ll need to either be buried, composted or placed in a Wormery. A Bokashi Bin is easy to use, and suitable for all kitchen waste including cooked food, dairy and meat. The resulting substance is Bokashi ‘tea’, a concentrated fertiliser.

A more expensive option would be to use either an In-Vessel Compost Tumbler, or a Maze Tumbler, both of which are excellent ways to quickly compost food waste. Tumblers have a handle that allow you to ‘turn’ the compost inside; which with the addition of high carbon materials like wood chippings or shredded paper in equal amounts to the waste inside, helps create air pockets which protects the waste inside from anaerobic decomposition. When turned once a day, over the course of 2-3 weeks, the waste will have gone under significant change. Although the material inside a Maze Tumbler will need to be placed in a palette bin or heap to cool off and mature, at the end of the process, the food waste will have been transformed into compost.

There’s no question that these methods are preferable in comparison to allowing food to decompose on a landfill, but there still needs to be more awareness of the problem in order to usher in further solutions. Particularly on a larger scale, where the current levels of waste appear evermore systemic.


The Food Recovery Hierarchy

Now that both the private and public sectors are playing a far more active role in the redistribution of food that would otherwise be wasted, there is greater emphasis being placed on the different industrialised methods that can be utilised to help kerb the environmental impact of food waste; both now, and in the future. Below we see a diagram produced by WRAP, which gives an indication of what the progress towards reducing food waste, and its associated environmental impact, could look like in the near future.

© WRAP, 2019.

Alternatively, another way to show the current preferred means of food redistribution is to display the food recovery hierarchy in the form of a pyramid; illustrated below by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

© US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2021.

Everyone who eats food, inevitably, wastes food. The first step to prevent such widespread food waste would to be not to manufacture excess food in the first place. Encouraging more of the food industry to take the aforementioned steps such as no longer requiring strict aesthetic standards for fruits and vegetables, creating a less confusing method to inform customers when their food may no longer be at its best, as well as having a more socially responsible process of throwing away food; would all have tangible impacts on the environmental impact of food waste.

Halting the excessive manufacturing of food by ensuring that the land and resources that went into producing aren’t also wasted, would have other clear benefits as well. One such benefit would be the marked decrease in the use of fertilizers and pesticides, both of which have been proven to do substantial damage to the environment. Growers and producers would also see a stark drop in the labour costs associated with handling, preparation and transportation of food, which ultimately, would serve no purpose.

If there’s surplus food among the supply chains, by far the most preferable option is to redistribute it to individuals and groups that are at risk of food insecurity. While there was some initial push back from the private sector in regards to the costs associated with redistribution, supermarkets in particular, are making a far more robust effort get surplus food to the people who need it the most.

If the surplus food cannot be transported to vulnerable populations for reasons such as the food being past its Use-By Date or because it’s foodstuffs that are unfit for human consumption, such as eggshells and bones; then it can be made into animal feed instead. In the UK alone, 660,000 tonnes of wasted food is processed into animal feed every year with a value of £110m. Besides the financial incentive for businesses, food and drink that’s converted to animal feed isn’t legally considered waste, as it’s considered a form of waste prevention due to it having a smaller impact on the environment that if it were allowed to break down through anaerobic decomposition.

However, there are some biproducts of surplus food which cannot be used to manufacture animal feed. Fats, oils and grease can clog sewer pipelines as well as the pumps at water treatment facilities; in order to prevent this, these kinds of waste biproducts are instead sent to an industrial rendering site. While there, they can be transformed into other products like soaps and cosmetics or rendered into Biodiesel. As well as creating less pollution, Biodiesel is both non-toxic and biodegradable.

The final tiers of the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy concern composting and landfill incineration. As mentioned, there are a number of composting methods people can employ at home to mitigate the environmental impact of their food waste, but similar techniques can also be used on a larger, industrial scale. Composting food waste while preventing anaerobic decomposition helps reduce methane gas emissions, lessens the need for chemical fertilizers, produces higher crop yields, help reduce deforestation, rejuvenate soils and can aid water retention.

The practice of incinerating food waste in landfills is far from an ideal solution, even if for some waste, it’s the only solution. While incinerators recover heat to produce energy through steam, incinerating food waste undermines global recycling efforts as there’s no opportunity to have waste material recycled or reused. Incinerating waste also creates massive amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases; which are all major contributors to climate change. With incineration offering little more than an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ solution, its popularity among developed countries is waning, with the EU taking the initial steps in 2018 to cease funding for waste incineration.


How Does SOFEA Help?

In 2014, SOFEA partnered with FareShare; the largest third sector organisation in the UK working to combat both food waste and food insecurity. Since then, SOFEA has supported in excess of 300 community groups and charities across Oxfordshire, the Thames Valley and Northamptonshire.

Utilising our Community Food Member (CFM) programme, organisations such as care homes, school cafes, community centre kitchens, religious groups, lunch groups and community fridges have access to food that they can then distribute to their beneficiaries. In return for a monthly subscription to cover sourcing and distribution costs, CFMs can order as much food as they require from our stock list.

Another key strategy for distributing surplus food to vulnerable people, is SOFEA’s Community Larder initiative. Community Larders are designed to support those experiencing hardship to live more independently by offering a ‘hand up’ rather than a hand out; and offers a long-term, sustainable solution to those experiencing food insecurity. In exchange for a weekly subscription, service users can choose the food they want, but also gain access any additional services that they may require. This can include services such as financial advice, or assistance on accessing relevant mental health care.

Ultimately, while the focus of SOFEA’s Community Larders is to help alleviate the suffering caused by food poverty, a systemic issue that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in national psyche; Community Larders also serve as social hubs for people to connect and catch up with friends.

In a microcosm, it’s indicative of the larger problems associated with food waste; while it’s important to keep the focus on food waste and its environmental impact, the human lives affected should never be understated.

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