Globally, food waste and loss are a massive problem and food waste solutions are desperately needed. In 2020, approximately 17% of global food production went to waste without being eaten, while 12% of the global population experienced food insecurity and hunger.
The environmental impact of food waste is also massive. In addition to the natural resources used and the environmental impacts associated with the production, processing, and distribution of food there are major problems with how food waste is handled and disposed of.
The greenhouse gas emissions from food waste at the end of the supply chain account for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This places food waste as one of the biggest contributors to climate change.
So, what do we do? How can we, as individual consumers, do our part to combat food waste? What are the food waste solutions we can use?
In this guide, we’re looking at the problem of food waste, how food waste impacts the environment and what food waste solutions we can use to combat the problem.
We also look at some of the best organizations and companies providing food waste solutions and making a difference.
Let’s dive right in!
- 1 Food Waste: The Problem
- 2 How Does Food Waste Impact the Environment?
- 3 7 Simple Food Waste Solutions You Can Do Right Now
- 3.1 Shop Intentionally
- 3.2 Organize Your Fridge and Pantry to Minimize Food Waste
- 3.3 Learn How Long Foods Keep and How to Preserve Food Properly
- 3.4 Use It All: Zero Waste Cooking
- 3.5 Take Your Leftovers Home (and actually eat them!)
- 3.6 Donate/Swap Usable Food
- 3.7 Compost Your Unavoidable, Unusable Food Scraps
- 4 5 Companies Providing Food Waste Solutions
- 5 Final Thoughts
- 6 References and Useful Resources
- 7 Frequently Asked Questions
Food Waste: The Problem
Food waste is a global problem that hasn’t always been recognized as the major problem it is. The 2021 Food Waste Index by the United Nations Environment Programme was published in March 2021.
This report is the most accurate and comprehensive report on the food waste problem and is based on extensive data, analysis, and modeling that allows countries to accurately measure food loss and wastage.
The report shows that the magnitude and scale of the food waste problem is much worse than was previously thought, as much as two times higher than older global projections.
Some of the key findings and food waste statistics from the report include:
- Approximately 931 million tonnes of food goes to waste each year, which is around 17% of annual global food production
- The majority, 61%, of wasted food is wasted by households
- 26% is wasted by the foodservice industry
- 13% is wasted by the retail food industry
- Unconsumed food waste is responsible for between 8% and 10% of global carbon emissions
- Almost 12% of the global population (about 928 million people) is severely food insecure, which is defined as ‘having run out of food and gone more than a day without eating’
These statistics illustrate just how severe the food waste crisis is. The impacts of food waste at this scale are far-reaching and touch on almost every aspect of our lives.
Food insecurity and malnutrition were at their highest in over a decade in 2020. This is a major social and economic problem, in both developed and developing countries.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that food loss and waste costs the global economy $936 billion a year and, globally, almost one in three people (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020.
Have a look at this video by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for a brief overview of the issue:
Aside from the fact that some people are quite literally starving, while others throw out tonnes of perfectly good food every day, and the economic impacts associated with that, there are some major environmental impacts associated with food waste:
How Does Food Waste Impact the Environment?
Above, we have looked briefly at the social and economic impacts of food waste. Here are some of the devastating environmental impacts of food waste and how it contributes to climate change and global heating:
Food Waste – Environmental Impacts and Climate Change
When it comes to food waste and the environment, there are multiple aspects to consider, on both sides of consumption.
Pre-consumer, food production, processing, and distribution have profound impacts on the environment. These include intensive resource use, greenhouse gas, and carbon emissions, land and water pollution, loss of habitat, and loss of biodiversity.
When food is wasted, all the resources that went into producing it are wasted too. When we don’t use what we have produced, all the negative environmental impacts that came from producing it were for nothing and could have been avoided.
Post-consumer food waste, and food wasted at the retail and commercial stage of the supply chain, lead to further negative environmental impacts. These are mainly associated with the disposal of food waste.
When food waste, and other organic waste, go to landfills they are dumped with other waste types – becoming a hot, compressed, airless mass.
In these conditions, the food waste and organic matter in landfills cannot break down properly and turn to compost as nature intended. Instead, they rot rapidly and produce both methane and toxic liquid leachate.
Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, produced from post-consumer food waste accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In terms of global warming, methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to heating potential.
Leachate, the toxic liquid that seeps from rotting waste, leaks from landfills, and impacts the surrounding environment when it reaches the water table and surface water resources.
Leachate contains high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic compounds that pollute the environment.
Right, so we know that food waste is a massive problem, with massive social, economic, and environmental impacts. We also know that 61% of all food waste occurs post-consumer or post-purchase.
That means that the solution to the food waste problem is largely in our hands and we, as individual consumers, can make a huge impact if we manage our own food waste properly.
7 Simple Food Waste Solutions You Can Do Right Now
Here are seven things you can do today to improve your food waste impact at home, and five of the best organizations and food waste companies to support in 2021:
The most effective way to reduce food waste is to shop intentionally. Here’s how:
- Make a list! And include the size or weight you need for each item on the list. When you’re making your list, check what items you have that need to be used to avoid wasting them and plan around using those first – get what you need to accompany those items and plan ahead so you don’t double up on meals you have everything for already.
- Buy only as much as you will use for perishable items. It’s easy to throw in a bit more ‘just in case’ but those are often the items that end up spoiling in your fridge.
- Don’t buy food items you don’t have a clear use for. Often, we buy something because it looks so good/fresh/well-priced but we don’t have a specific need for it and it ends up spoiling before we have a chance to look for a recipe or buy the other ingredients, we need to go with it.
- Shop on a full stomach! Shopping when you’re hungry is a sure-fire way to buy too much and buy things that appeal in the moment, rather than the items that are needed!
- Don’t buy everything in bulk just because it’s cheaper. The wastage from buying in bulk and not using it all because you bought too many offsets any savings you made and adds to your wastage. Bulk buying can be great for cost savings and reducing plastic packaging but only do it where it makes sense and you will really use the full volume in time to avoid it spoiling.
- Buy appropriately for how much you will use in relation to how long something will keep. It’s easy to buy a few extra for convenience’s sake but only works for items that you will definitely use in the future and that will keep long enough for you to use them.
- Choose items with an expiration date closest to the date you know you will use them. We often instinctually reach for the items with the longest window until expiry but this leads to usable food items being discarded when everyone reaches for the items with a longer period until expiration. Choose the items with a date closest to the date you know you will use them.
Organize Your Fridge and Pantry to Minimize Food Waste
A little bit of thought and some reorganization can go a long way to ensuring that your food items keep longer, are used up before they expire, and are easy to take stock of. Here are some simple ways to organize your kitchen and pantry.
Storage Containers and Where to Keep Them
Food keeps longer when it is stored properly, so check that your containers still seal tightly and place items where they out to be in the pantry. Generally, cool, dry, and dark spaces are good for most foods. Rather use warmer spaces, like the cupboard next to the oven, for non-food items.
In the fridge, use the crisper draws for fruit and vegetables and keep items that are less temperature-sensitive, like condiments, in the door. Items like milk and leftovers will do best in the main section of the fridge.
Packing and Organizing Your Cupboards and Fridge to Minimize Food Waste
Place new groceries at the back or at the bottom. This way, older items are in front of you so you don’t forget to use them and they’re easier to grab without thinking about it.
You can also have a highly visible spot for ‘odds and ends’ that need to be used. It’s easy for that third-of-a-bag-of-something to get pushed to the back and forgotten about. Having those items at the front reminds you to use them and allows you to take stock at a glance when you’re planning your meals and making a shopping list.
Labeling Your Decanted Food Items, Perishables, and Leftovers
If you like to decant your groceries into storage containers, labeling them with the date you put them into the container and the expiration date that was on the original packaging will help you keep tabs on exactly old things are and how soon you need to use them.
The same goes for leftovers and perishables in the fridge and freezer. Having a date helps you organize them and know at a glance what to use first.
Learn How Long Foods Keep and How to Preserve Food Properly
Knowing how long you can keep things in the fridge or freezer, how long the shelf life is and how to properly preserve different types of food will help you avoid wasting any foods that you could have kept for longer.
Here are some useful resources:
- Foodsafety.gov: Cold Food Storage Chart
- My Fearless Kitchen: Food Storage Guidelines – How Long to Keep Foods in the Refrigerator
- Save the Student: How to Store Food snd Keep It Fresh for Longer
- Taste of Home: 32 Long Shelf-Life Foods to Keep In Your Pantry
- Masterclass: A Guide to Home Food Preservation: How to Pickle, Can, Ferment, Dry, and Preserve at Home
So far, we have looked at ways to minimize buying excess food and how to keep your food for longer so that you have time to use it before it spoils. Now, let’s look at how to use all the food you have and what to do with the unavoidable scraps that you’re left with.
Use It All: Zero Waste Cooking
Now that you have only what you need in your kitchen and have it properly stored to keep as long as possible, let’s look at how to use it in the most economical and least wasteful way.
Here are some tips and resources to help you make the most and waste the least in your kitchen:
- Freeze your leftovers to have as a quick meal in the future. It helps to portion and separate what you will freeze before you eat so you don’t end up with a weirdly proportioned meal to freeze (three servings of pasta topped with half a serving of sauce anyone?).
- Plan ahead for your meals and choose meals that will use the leftover ingredients from the previous meals.
- Use all your offcuts, excess, scraps, and leftover ingredients to make stews, soups, salads, and sides. There are some great ideas and zero-waste recipes here: Zero-Waste Cooking.
Take Your Leftovers Home (and actually eat them!)
Leftovers from a diner’s plate almost always end up in the trash. Unless a restaurant participates in a food recovery or composting program, the food you leave behind
So, next time you go out to eat and can’t finish your meal – take the rest home to eat later. If you know you won’t eat it, give it away (more on that below!) to someone who wants it or needs it more than you do.
Donate/Swap Usable Food
If you end up with perfectly good food that you can’t possibly use in time (or something you just don’t want to use again, we have all tried and hating something at some point), try donating it or swapping it.
Apps like Goodr and Food Rescue US connect people with food to donate to people and organizations that need food. They’re easy to use and allow you to find your location and share your food with local people.
Food swapping is also a great way to pass food you won’t use and get food that you will use. Look for Facebook groups like Food Swap Network and apps like OLIO to connect with people in your area and share with your neighbors and local food banks.
Inevitably, even after avoiding, reducing, reusing, donating, and swapping your excess food… You will still be left with some food items that have spoiled and some pieces that can’t be eaten or used.
Rather than popping them in the bin and sending them off to rot in a landfill (where they will produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and contribute to global heating), choose to compost them.
Composting uses natural decomposition processes to turn organic matter into nutrient-rich soil that can be used safely in your garden or given away to those who need it for theirs. It does not produce any methane – only natural, nutrient-rich, compost!
The best part is that you can also compost your paper, cardboard, coffee grounds, and other organic waste from your home.
Use this simple guide to get started: US Environmental Protection Agency: Composting at Home
5 Companies Providing Food Waste Solutions
Tackling food waste is an issue that relates to the whole supply chain. Wastage happens at every step of the process and there are many great companies providing food waste solutions for each phase of food production.
Here are five of the best food waste companies and start-ups that are taking a hands-on approach to providing food waste solutions at the retail, commercial, and consumer stage of the process:
Too Good to Go
Established: 2016 – Copenhagen, Denmark
Too Good to Go developed a mobile app that connects restaurants and food retailers with customers in the area who can buy their surplus at a reduced price. This is a win-win for everyone, including the planet!
The sellers can sell stock that would otherwise go to waste and buyers can buy perfectly good food at a massively reduced price. Too Good to Go is now available in 15 countries and saves over 100 000 meals from going in the bin, every single day!
Established: 2015 – New York, United States
ReFED is a national non-profit organization in the US, which was established in 2015 as a “collaboration between industry, non-profit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States”.
ReFED works in every aspect of the food industry, from production to food rescue. They provide data sets and analysis to inform policies and drive change throughout the food supply chain in the US. Their end goal is to reduce the impacts of food waste from start to finish and drive the adoption of methods and eliminate food loss and food waste.
Established: 2017 – Tel Aviv, Israel
Wasteless developed a dynamic pricing system that adjusts and discounts prices based on several factors, including the expiration date of the food item. Items closer to expiration are cheaper and the price for both expiration dates is displayed, allowing customers to choose which one they want to take.
This dynamic pricing system benefits businesses by allowing them to maximize their profits by adjusting their pricing appropriately and incrementally as a product ages on the shelf. It benefits consumers by allowing them to choose if they want a discounted item that will expire soon or pay full price for one with a longer shelf life.
Having both prices displayed is also a great way to increase awareness in consumers and encourage conscious shopping.
Established: 2012 – Dublin, Ireland
Based in Ireland, FoodCloud is a social enterprise that connects businesses, at every point in the food supply chain, to charities that need food. They collect, manage, and deliver donated food to organizations and charities.
FoodCloud developed a system that allows businesses with surplus food to upload a description of the food they want to donate onto the FoodCloud system, which then books a time slot for the food to be collected so it can be redistributed.
Their model works well and they’re now partnering with other food banks around the world to share their system and expertise.
Established: 2014 – Paris, France
Phenix is a food waste start-up that tackles the food waste issue from every angle. Their food waste solutions include a mobile app to buy soon-to-expire, surplus and other foods that are perfectly good but would not otherwise be sold at a discounted rate, a dynamic pricing system for retailers to reduce waste, a waste management system that takes care of all things food waste and redistributes the food to where it can be used best.
Redistributed food goes to charitable organizations like food banks and shelters. The food that isn’t suitable for human consumption but can still be used as animal feed goes to farms and zoos. Whatever is leftover and cant be used, is responsibly composted and methanated for bio-gas.
Food waste is a complex issue that requires structural and legislative changes, as well as changes in consumer behavior.
Solving the food waste problem is essential for social, economic, and environmental sustainability and growth. We must all do our part to push awareness of food waste solutions, take action, and support action at a policy level.
With what we have covered today, how will you combat your food waste?
References and Useful Resources
Deloitte: Food – Climate Change Impact and Actions
Science Direct: Environmental Impacts of Food Waste
United Nations Environment Programme: 2021 Food Waste Index
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization: The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World in 2021 (Report)
World Wildlife Fund: Fight Climate Change by Preventing Food Waste
Frequently Asked Questions
How does food waste impact the environment?
Food waste impacts the environment in many ways. When we waste food, the resources that were used to produce that food are also wasted and the negative impacts of production are for nothing and could have been avoided. The impacts of food disposal in landfills are also severe - resulting in 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Read the full article to find out more.
What are the best food waste solutions?
Food waste solutions focus on changing the way we produce, process and distribute food to eliminate loss and wastage through the supply chain, as well as ways to ensure that all food produced is used before it spoils. This means consumers changing their behavior and retailers and commercial food outlets finding ways to redistribute waste food that is still edible to organizations that can distribute it to those in need. Read the full article for more info.
What are the best wood waste companies and startups in 2021?
There are many great orgaizations, companies and startups that are fighting food waste at all stages of the supply chain. Five of the best are:
1. Too Good to Go
Read the full guide for more info on how each of these companies is providing food waste solutions.