Does the type of food we waste matter?

By Molly Todd
Posted on September 28th 2022
Climate Environment

When it comes to food sustainability, food waste is often a central focus of campaigns and change, and rightly so. Producing food requires a great deal of energy and inputs, which are needlessly wasted if the food is never consumed. In fact, the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, refrigerating, packaging and cooking food that ends up being wasted accounts for roughly 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Organisations such as WRAP have been campaigning and informing policy for many years to encourage measures to address this area, working with both the food industry and on a household level. An important focus to tackling food waste is shifting consumer behaviours, and many businesses are running great awareness campaigns, addressing unnecessary best-before labelling and offering tips and recipes to help combat some of these high wastage items. Yet each year within the UK, food that could have been eaten makes up the equivalent of 15 billion plates of food.

Households are responsible for the largest total food waste stream within the UK, where some of the most wasted foods include:

  • Potatoes
  • Bread
  • Dairy (including Milk, cream and cheese)
  • Salad
  • Carrots
  • Apples

Although these foods have the greatest impact in terms of kilograms of food waste, is weight the metric by which we should be measuring the impact of food waste? Certainly any reduction in food waste is a positive step, but understanding the impacts that different foods have on the environment can perhaps help guide food waste reduction strategies to most effectively mitigate the environmental impacts.

A study assessing the average carbon footprints of 40 different items of produce mapped the carbon footprints of different foods by measuring greenhouse gas emissions across each products’ entire supply chain.

The results show significant differences in the greenhouse gas emissions of different foods, with ruminant animals and their products producing some of the largest footprints.

Yet when we compare the results from this study against the list of most wasted foods, there isn’t a lot of similarity. While dairy products, particularly cheese, can have reasonably large impacts, the other most wasted food items, including root vegetables and fruit have comparatively small footprints.

If we look at 1kg of apples for example, results indicate this would produce around 0.4kg of GHG emissions, whereas the same weight of beef would produce 60kg. When we look at this in terms of food waste, 150kg of apples would have to be wasted to have the same carbon impact as wasting 1kg of beef. Do the conversations around food waste therefore need to shift? At the moment the focus is on how much food waste is generated, but should we also be asking; what type of food waste?

Environmental action groups are increasingly calling for low-meat and vegan diets, in part due to the environmental impacts and high GHG emissions of animal products. Meanwhile, over 240,000 tonnes of meat is thrown away in the UK each year, accounting for around 10% of meat sales. By focusing food waste messaging around high impact foods, there is a potential for multiple benefits:

Reductions in food waste that have the greatest reductions on GHG emissions from food waste.
By encouraging consumption rather than wastage, individuals opting for omnivorous diets could still consume meat, while overall there is a reduction in animal production – in keeping with the aims of environmental action groups.

Food waste in businesses

For any organisations involved in the production, transport or sale of foods, this topic will have specific relevance as businesses increasingly move to report on their scope 3 emissions. By taking actions to reduce food waste, particularly focusing on high impact foods, businesses will be able to work towards emissions reduction targets with minimal impact on operations.

Setting targets for measuring, understanding and reducing food waste can be a really key first step in developing food waste reduction strategies. We can help! If you would like to discuss how FuturePlus can help your business to create an effective and quantifiable sustainability strategy, including tackling your food waste, we’d love to hear from you: [email protected]