Food waste in developed countries – it is an outrage!
At this very moment of writing, on the 10th of October 2020, the global amount of food wasted this year only is 1,009,485,417 tons.
Today, we’ve already wasted 1,543,444 tons of food, and it is not yet even time for lunch.
How do we know this? Check out this excellent website:
(‘The World Counts’ is a Denmark-based website that uses reputable data from news services, research institutes, and other organizations to help inspire change – from all of us.)
Can you even pronounce this number? 1,009,485,417 tons. It is a mind-boggling amount.
But what is food waste? Why do we do it? What do we waste, and where does it go? What can we do about it? Let's delve a bit deeper.
What is food waste?
There are two concepts to 'food waste.'
First, there is food that is not getting eaten. It is estimated that about 100kg of food per person per year is wasted between our fridges and our tables in developed countries.
Then, there is also the concept of food loss (initially intended for human consumption) during production, processing, and retail operations. It might be caused because of inefficient food supply chains, poor logistics, insufficient management skills, and more.
Globally, food waste amounts to about one-third to one-half of all food produced.
Are you feeling sad yet? Let’s zoom in a bit more.
Some random food waste statistics
The UN estimates that half of all fruit and vegetables that are produced worldwide goes to waste.
Food waste means water waste. Water is needed to farm. Therefore by wasting food, we are also wasting water.
What about land, energy, labor, and capital? All of this is also wasted because we waste food.
Greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming are a well-known problem. If we waste food, these gasses were needlessly produced.
Consumers in developed countries waste almost as much as the entire net food production in Sub-Saharan African.
The top three food-wasting countries are North America, Europe, and industrialized Asia.
Americans are the greatest culprits when it comes to food waste. 40% of their food supply is sent to landfills each year. In fact, food is estimated to take up the most space in municipal landfills – up to 22%.
In the UK, statistics are not far behind. United Kingdom households waste about 32% of all food purchased. Sadly, most of this wastage (about 61%) could have been avoided, had it been better managed.
Why do we waste food?
There’s quite a lot of reasons, but here are a few.
We are just not that self-aware.
In once study, researchers found that more than 70% of Americans say they don't waste that much. The statistics, however, show us that they do! Similar results had been found elsewhere. People don't want to admit that they might be the problem.
We put leftovers in the fridge or freezer, fully aware of the fact that we are not going to eat it. One researcher called this ‘delayed disposal.’
This happens partly because we all have the acquired habit of preparing and over-serving large portions of food to show our friends and family just how much we love them. The food, in the end, goes uneaten.
Packaging usually has a dual function. It must protect foods from damage during its long journey from the farm or factory to the retail outlet, but it must also ensure freshness. If packaging fails in one of these two ways, food is wasted.
‘When does this food expire?’
A 2013 research study suggested that a leading cause of food waste is because people in developed countries are uncertain about food expiry dates. There's confusion about what 'best-before,' 'sell-by,' or 'use-by' dates mean. People misunderstand labeling and therefore throw food away because they think it might be unsafe.
Additionally, consumers these days are spoilt. They want only the freshest and most delicate of foods. If it is not fresh, it has become ‘ok’ to waste it.
Often food is wasted because of its appearance. In the US, the USDA publishes ‘guidelines’ to rate the quality of food. It is because of these guidelines that produce are often discarded.
For example, some apples are perfectly acceptable to eat but are not purchased by retail outlets because it showed superficial defects and were graded as 'utility' or 'number one,' instead of 'fancy.'
It even happens in the fishing industry. Nearly as much as 60% of the fish caught in European waters are discarded as 'the wrong size' or even the wrong species. This can come to more than 2 million tonnes of wastage per year.
What food is wasted, and where does it go?
The most wasted foods in developed countries are bread, bagged salads, vegetables, leftovers, fruit, milk, eggs, cheese, milk, and fish. Most of this will end up in landfills.
It is estimated that there are about 500,000 landfills in the European Union. They are running out of space! In Australia, 5 million tonnes of food ends up in landfills every year. This is enough to fill about 9,000 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Landfills cause short- and long-term health problems. Allergies, headaches, and cancer are all health conditions that can be caused by neighboring landfills. Rain in landfills can cause toxic groundwater, which can be harmful to people. Damaging greenhouse gasses harm the environment.
Some food will get wasted.
It is inevitable that some foodstuffs will get ‘wasted.’ After all, who eats banana skins or tea bags?
Home composting is a way to stop these foods from ending up in landfills. Some cities offer food waste recycling services, and they use wasted food to improve soil or generate electricity through methane, which converts to biogas.
What can we do about food waste?
If we could save just a fourth of the food currently being wasted globally, it could feed about 870 million people per year.
It is not just the ‘work’ of environmental watchdogs or food manufacturers, but it is instead a matter of all of the actors in the food chain having a responsibility to try and prevent (and reduce) the wasting of food. The chain stretches from the farmers, food processors, the hospitality sector, retail outlets, and ultimately, the consumers themselves.
Let’s look at some general ideas before we focus on consumers and households.
Two words – buy locally.
Shorter food supply chains are the key to creating a more social and environmentally sustainable system. If we could do this, the energy required for processing is reduced.
Food does not need to be transported over long distances or stored in warehouses along the way. (An additional benefit would be that farmers can also supply directly to consumers, and be paid more.)
Regulate food labels
Better regulation on food labeling may result in less food being removed from retail shelves prematurely or tossed by consumers because they don’t understand the labels.
The retail handling of excess food
Food can’t read and is not automatically ‘bad’ or inedible after a ‘best before’ or sell by’ date that expired. Unfortunately, due to retail policies of handling excess food, perfectly good food is thrown away daily. It requires an effort to organize an alternative way.
In the US, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, together with Harvard University and the Food Marketing Institute, made suggestions to streamline expiration labels.
They suggested using ‘Best if used by’ so that the focus is on quality. The product is still safe to consume, although the product's taste and superficial look may not be 100% anymore.
If the labeling just says 'Use by’ it is for highly perishable products that may not be safe to use after that particular date. There might still be some work to do in this regard.
Another possible solution can be packaging that can ‘think’ and indicate more precisely to consumers that food is spoiled. It can be done with temperature-sensitive ink or plastic that changes color when it comes to oxygen contact.
Until that era dawns, stores can explore alternative ways to get rid of excess food. They can give away the food to the poor – or homeless, give it to charitable organizations, or in the worst-case scenarios, to farmers to feed pigs or other livestock.
Some retail stores worldwide have now also started making plans with fruit that did not 'make the cut' and were previously deemed unsellable. They place them in ugly 'baskets' for a discounted price, and this way, some waste is prevented.
In developed countries, research has shown that food is mostly wasted late in the supply chain. Customer behavior can be influenced by trying to make them aware of the problem of food waste. Farmers and buyers also need to sign agreements so that their total level of coordination can be better.
Consumers must learn that it is part of their responsibility too to try and reduce food spoilage. Plan your food shopping and buy just what you need. Spontaneous purchases are often wasteful. Store your food correctly. All of this can add up to waste less.
In Britain, a campaign called 'Love Food, Hate Waste' has been so successful in educating consumers (in-store, but also on the packaging and by using advertisements) that a decrease of more than 20% in food waste has been reported over five years. It can be done!
One of the aims of E-minet.com is to educate and make people aware of social- and environmental issues. Research has shown that making more people aware of the problem of food waste
can help them waste less.
Become more connected to your food! Make the choice today to waste less and do your part.