Could reducing food waste be the key to mitigating climate change?

This past weekend major cities around the world saw masses of people coming together to raise their voices in support of the #climatestrike. Ordinary people standing together to demand change from governments as well as private enterprises. It was all started in 2018 by a young Swedish girl standing up for what she believed in. Greta Thunberg didn’t care that she protested alone, because it was a start. And now a year later she has inspired a global movement and increased awareness of the climate crisis exponentially. Proof that one thing can make a massive impact when people realise they are part of the problem.  It’s sad, though, that in spite of all the evidence, Trump feels it necessary to mock her and China didn’t even turn up to the event. 

Just how bad is food waste?

Now we all know that food waste isn’t good for the planet. Waste in any form isn’t good for the planet, but most people aren’t aware of the far reaching environmental impacts of food waste. Growing up, most of us were probably told to eat what was on our plates and not to waste food. We think that the main culprits are the food producers, retailers, restaurants or the food supply chain. The statistics say otherwise.

1.3 billion tonnes of food produced globally goes to waste. That’s almost a third of global food production with a value of more than $1trillion (£804M). But the statistics get worse. It is estimated that just a quarter of the food waste produced by the UK, USA and Europe could feed the world’s poor and hungry. In developed countries, more than 50% of food waste occurs in the home. Not in restaurants, hotels or supermarkets, in people’s homes! That is a scary statistic and if more people are made aware of it, it might just have an impact. 

Even more concerning is the environmental impacts of food waste. Most people assume that because food waste is biodegradable it isn’t a problem, it can just be composted. The problem is that most food waste in urban settings is mixed in with paper, plastic and other waste. The rotting food causes contamination of materials that could otherwise be recycled and in the end it doesn’t end up as usable compost at all. It ends up in landfill where it emits methane and other greenhouse gasses. It is estimated that if the volume of global food waste was compiled into a geographical area of a country, it would be the third biggest producer of greenhouse gasses worldwide, after the USA and China. As opposed to what most people think, food waste is a direct contributor to climate change, and a rather large one at that.

The environmental cost of food waste

Many natural habitats around the world have been cleared in order to produce food for the ever increasing global population. This habitat loss has ecological impacts we haven’t begun to understand yet. It is estimated that an area larger than the whole of China is used to produce food that ends up as waste. And a quarter of the world’s fresh water supply is used to grow food that ends up in the trash can. Do you still believe that there’s nothing wrong with throwing away half of the pizza you didn’t feel like eating? Or letting food spoil in the refrigerator because you’re too tired to cook and would rather get takeaways? 

Does there need to be a movement to #stopfoodwaste? Most definitely! And some innovative people are already ahead of the game. Not only are they reducing food waste, they are taking food produce that would usually be termed as waste, and using it to create new and useful products. Now that’s the circular economy in action.

Now we all know that plastic cultlery used by takeaways is an environmental nightmare. At the same time, while avocados grow easily from seed, most people simply discard the seeds. A US based company, Transitions2earth saw a way to solve both of these waste problems by not only reducing the waste but using it to create new and useful products – like cutlery from avocado seeds.  Similarly, a juice bar has teamed up with an international design and innovation office to turn discarded orange peels into biodegradable cups. Once the juice is squeezed from the oranges the peels are dried, milled and turned into a filament. This filament is then used to 3D print cups. The project is called “Feel the Peel” and the prototype will be touring Italy to showcase the circular economy concept.

It is projects like these that make me think that the food waste problem, could in fact be an opportunity for innovation. There’s absolutely no doubt that we need to reduce food waste, but the realist in me says we’ll never achieve zero waste. However, if we could use what waste is left over effectively, either in biodigesters to generate energy, or as a material to create new useful products. Well then, we might just be able to make a real impact on the climate crisis.