Global food waste is a cross-cutting issue that starts during agricultural production and continues all of the way to the landfill. Over 30% of food is lost or wasted each year. This number is even more striking, given the large number of hungry people in the world. Wasted food is not only inefficient, it’s a social justice issue. Global food waste has an enormous environmental impact, too. Food waste is a huge source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and wasted natural resources. However, this is not to say people are ignoring the problem. Many large businesses, startups, and nonprofits see the issue of food waste as an opportunity. Billions of dollars and calories of food are wasted each year, and the benefits of this value can be recovered. Read on to learn how.
🍔 Food waste: what are we talking about?
When we talk about food waste, we may think of the food we throw away after cooking meals, or the uneaten food from our tables at fine dining establishments.
However, the sources of food waste are far more varied than this. Food waste includes lost or discarded food at all stages of the food system. Here are some important definitions related to food waste.
Food waste: definition 📖
The term “wasted food” refers to any food that is not used for its intended use and must be “managed.”
“Wasted food” is the term used by the US EPA instead of “food waste” to express the value that can be recovered through alternative uses.
Wasted food comes from a wide variety of sources:
- unsold food from markets or other retail outlets,
- plate waste from restaurants,
- prepared food that has not been eaten,
- trimmings from food preparation in restaurants, cafeterias, or homes; and
- by-products of food and beverage processing.
To avoid this loss of food, alternative uses for the food must be identified.
Food waste and food loss: what is the difference between them? ❓
There are a few different categories under the umbrella of wasted food.
“Food loss” refers to uneaten agricultural, forestry, and fishery products. It occurs during the food production and distribution stage. It is also caused by either a reduction in the quantity or quality of food.
This may occur due to various reasons. For instance, there may be disruptions in the supply chain due to fluctuating supply and demand or spoilage due to adverse weather conditions.
“Food waste,” on the other hand, refers to edible food that is intended for human consumption, but instead gets discarded or expires. This can occur in many different situations during preparation, sales, or food service. It includes plate waste, spoiled food, and discarded peels and rinds.
“Food loss and waste” is a term used to define the sum of both types of inefficiencies from unused food in the food system. This term helps researchers clearly explain the scope of their studies.
Is there inedible or unavoidable food waste? 💭
Some food byproducts are inedible such as bones, egg shells, or rough fruit and vegetable peels. However the conventions for using these different parts of food vary culture to culture. This makes it hard to quantify how much wasted food is indeed unavoidable.
Researchers tend to include all types of food waste in their estimations, as it is better to find ways to prevent these materials from reaching the landfill. Sometimes the inedible byproducts of food can become feedstock for other products.
Global waste: what is the share of food waste? 📊
Over a third of all food produced (~2.5 billion tons) is lost or wasted each year. One third of this occurs in the food production stage. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) estimates this wasted food is worth $230 billion.
Researchers estimate the lost food calories from food waste amount to roughly 24% of the total available food calories. To put this in perspective, the UN reports that about a third of people around the world didn’t have enough access to food in 2020–an increase of 320 million people from the previous year.
The trend is increasing, too. The level of food waste is expected to rise by another third by 2030.
🌎 What about the United-States' food waste?
Similar to the global figures, USDA research from 2010 showed that a third of food produced was left uneaten.
US EPA estimates suggest that food waste makes up the largest single category of waste reaching landfills in the US. It accounted for 24 percent of all landfilled and 22 percent of incinerated solid waste in 2018.
In total, the US wasted 63 million tons of food in 2018. On the upside, about a third of this was managed using various strategies: animal feed, biobased material, anaerobic digestion, composting, donation, fertilizer, and wastewater treatment.
Could the remaining two-thirds be transformed into profitable or less damaging activities?
❌ Food waste: what is the problem?
Food waste may seem harmless as a biodegradable substance. Yet, when it rots, it releases methane into the atmosphere without proper management. Understanding the consequences of food waste can help us better address the problem.
The carbon footprint of food waste 🔍
In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that 1.3 gigatons of edible food is wasted each year, and this releases 3.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent. This estimate doesn’t include land use change, either, which would put the figure even higher.
Research compiled by Our World In Data estimates that food waste accounts for about 6% of the world’s total emissions comes from food waste. Of this, about 2/3s is from food losses, while the remaining 1/3 is from food waste.
The main causes of food waste ⚡
There are some unexpected causes for the food that gets wasted. It’s understandable that people don’t finish large portions of food at restaurants, but some of the less obvious reasons for food waste relate to agricultural processes, food safety standards, and consumer preferences.
Perhaps you recall the reports of Kenyan farmers losing their crops to locusts in 2020. The last time they swarmed at such a level in 2003-2005, it resulted in crop damage of $2.5 billion. Locusts are mainly killed by pesticides, so improving access to pesticides is one way to reduce food loss.
Apart from natural causes, personal preferences also contribute to wasted food. Research shows that produce buyers avoid “ugly produce.” A fifth of edible produce that has surface blemishes, grows in unfamiliar shapes, or has unique coloration gets discarded from grocery stores.
Climate change also contributes to food losses. It makes growing and harvesting cycles less predictable. Unseasonal frost, early spring, and a range of other climatic shifts are significantly impacting both the prices farmers set for their crops as well as their ability to predict the right time to plant and harvest.
These issues have a domino effect as they interact with supply and demand issues. Product may prematurely spoil due to delayed transport, orders, or storage availability.
Finally, sometimes well-intended regulations to protect people from food safety risks have the unintended consequence of taking edible food off the shelves too soon.
These are just a few of many wide-ranging reasons food loss and waste occurs.
✅ Sustainable management of food: what is it?
Sustainable food management reduces the unfortunate waste and losses in the food system. Careful planning and coordination between governments, food producers, sellers, and consumers can reduce the food waste dilemma.
The sustainable management of food takes a bird’s eye view to avoid the knock on effects of waste in the food system.
Sustainable management of food: definition 🍰
Sustainable management of food considers the food waste problem from the systemic perspective. Think of the many steps when waste can occur in the life cycle of food: agriculture, harvesting, food production, sales, food preparation, consumption, and finally disposal.
By managing each of these steps and considering how they interconnect, the sustainable management of food reduces inefficiencies.
Food waste can occur at each stage, whether it’s from the overuse of natural resources or unsold produce. The sustainable management of food can reduce costs for food purchasers and consumers, while bridging the needs of food-poor communities and unused food resources.
Even though governments are often key players in the sustainable management of food, businesses and consumers have an important role to play as well.
Why is it important? 👈
Sustainable food management traces where discarded food goes and why it is discarded in the first place. It is important to recover the untapped value of wasted food. This preserves natural resources, prevents food access inefficiencies, and even provides businesses cost-savings advantages.
To save money
Here are some ways businesses can benefit from addressing the problem of food waste in their organizations.
Buy less food. By minimizing unnecessary food expenditures, you can reduce your overall food budget. Accurately tracking and monitoring the amount of food wasted each month is critical for trimming away excess spending and food inventory.
Reduce waste collection fees. Sometimes waste management services charge more for food waste. By lowering the amount of food waste heading to the landfill, you can save on your overall landfill expense. Contact your waste management to see if this applies in your area.
Contribute tax-deductible donations. Donating food to non-profit charities that benefit people with food insecurity can help reduce food waste, feed the poor, and lower your tax payment.
All of these actions can be tracked and recorded in your corporate social responsibility (CSR) report each year, which communicates the non-financial value of your business.
To help people
It’s a bitter irony that so much food is wasted in spite of a serious need for access to fresh food in vulnerable communities. Numerous organizations are working to solve this issue. By partnering with nonprofits, your organization can reduce the level of edible food that goes to landfills.
Who are these people? They are children that can’t afford school lunches. Programs collecting donated food sometimes provide school lunches from donated food.
They are people in need of employment who could serve the community by composting, sorting salvageable food, and distributing excess food. Over 36,000 people work in the food recycling industry in the US.
They are under-employed veterans, elderly, sick, disabled, mentally ill, and other disadvantaged people who cannot afford to buy food and depend on donations.
To preserve resources
Rotting food in landfills is a huge source of methane pollution. Rather than cycle nutrients into the soil, as in the case of compost, landfills simply trap and contain waste. On the one hand, this prevents contamination of the water supply, but on the other, it creates potent GHG emissions.
Some landfills are designed to trap methane and recycle it as biogas. However, not all are technically equipped to do so. In this case, the methane is released into the atmosphere.
This is a serious problem for climate change, because methane is a greenhouse gas that heats the atmosphere up to 80 times faster than carbon dioxide.
Compost facilities and operations can effectively avoid this issue and effectively transform food waste into nutrient-rich soil useful for top soil in gardening or landscaping. Some areas like San Francisco even have compost collection systems offered as part of their waste management system.
By eliminating unnecessary food consumption, companies preserve natural resources used in food production, as well. This includes the water, gas, fertilizer, pesticides, and any other inputs used in food production.
💚 What can you do as a company to fight against food waste?
Creative solutions to food waste await your business. But first, it takes some planning. Businesses hoping to reduce food waste should make it a commitment. This means identifying the ways people waste food at your workplace and then setting goals to reduce the impact.
After that, consider ways you can close the food waste loop and create value. Here are a few strategies:
- Composting food waste into valuable topsoil.
- Donating to local food banks may benefit from food donations.
- Collecting the food waste and transforming it into biogas.
Partnering with a food waste start-up as a supplier is another great approach. The company Fruitleather in Rotterdam, for instance, makes vegan leather from unsold fruit.
Rather than only troubleshooting the excess food in your wastestream, consider this problem from the demand side. Maximizing food purchasing by only ordering what will get consumed is another way to cut back on food waste.
😍 What about Greenly?
Greenly helps companies analyze the impacts of their decision-making for issues like food waste. Greenly supports businesses by giving them strategies for implementing efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable systems.
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