Why should we care about food waste?

Welcome to The Food Waste Doctor! Thanks so much for coming over to see what it’s about!

There are so many things I wanted to cover in this first post that it was really hard to narrow it down. In the time that I’ve been researching and working with food waste the thing that has stood out to me the most is: it’s not that people don’t care about food waste, they’re just not sure why they should care THAT much. People believe that because it’s natural it doesn’t have an environmental impact. So that’s where we’re going to start. Why does food waste matter to the environment? Why should we care about food waste?

The first thing you need to know is that although, yes, food waste is natural and, yes, it does biodegrade and, yes, in the 50’s composting was pitched as THE way to save the planet: food causes harm as it breaks down. As food biodegrades it emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon and methane. Everyone talks about carbon emissions but did you know that methane is far more potent in terms of global warming potential? And food waste kicks that out in spades as it biodegrades.

In fact, research has found that 1 tonne of food waste in landfill emits approximately 1010kg of CO2 equivalent (CO2 equivalent is a measure of Greenhouse Gases including methane and nitrous oxide). This is the same amount of CO2e emitted from driving 2,434 miles! That’s almost THREE TIMES the length of the UK! And that’s just 1 tonne. As consumers we’re responsible for 7.3 MILLION tonnes of food waste in the UK. Here’s us taking buses and keeping the heating off to reduce our carbon footprint and we could make a huge dent in it by reducing our food waste!

Now, bear in mind not all food waste from consumer homes goes to landfill. According to DEFRA a large amount of waste collected from consumer homes is currently incinerated. So what’s the problem with this? There are a whole host of ethical and social issues to do with this but for now, sticking to the environmental, firstly, Greenhouse Gases are still emitted from the burning of food. The main environmental benefit to incinerating food waste is that it emits less methane than landfilling does, but it still produces large amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that disposing of food waste in this way doesn’t undo damage which is already done. In developed countries we’re incredibly lucky, we can just pop in to the supermarket and there are huge varieties of food available to us so we tend not to think much beyond that. But that food has gone through an incredible journey to get to us and each stage has environmental impacts.

Quick test. Think of the last food you ate. Got it in your mind? Ok, we’re going to having a go at figuring out how that food got to you and what it cost environmentally. To start at the beginning, all food is going to have been farmed…even the most ulta-processed un-food like item you can think of like…Gummy bears! They’re going to have taken products from sugar farming and cow farming (for the gelatin) at the least. So, farming, livestock farming in particular, uses massive amounts of water and energy and contributes to degrading the soil and nearby water, essentially making it harder and harder to grow food on that land. So when we think about this in terms of food waste, essentially what we’re saying is we’re damaging land we need to grow food, in order to grow food, which we then throw away…

Then we’ve got to think about how the food gets to us. In supermarkets were totally spoilt and we have so much variety all year round. But ponder this, have you ever seen a mango tree full of fruit in England at winter…or, you know…ever? Regardless of how these fruit and vegetables get to us, by plane or ship, there are huge environmental impacts associated with it which we have to count as part of that food items environmental footprint.

Then we get in to the environmental impact of manufacturing food products (energy use), of transporting them to retailers (oil consumption), of running fridges to keep them fresh (burning fossil fuels), of cooking them (GHG emissions)! There are so many different stages of that food items life and every single one of them has an impact on the environment. So when we throw away food we’re not just causing further environmental damage. We’re making all the damage already done pointless.

So a challenge to you guys, have a think about what goes in to your food, environmentally speaking, and post in the comments or on our Facebook or Instagram what food you’ve eaten recently which you think carries the largest environmental impact.

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