UK household food waste has fallen but it continues to feed climate change

ONS report shows 11-year decline in UK household food waste, but greenhouse gas emissions are still considerable
10 November 2021 , By Sterling Crew

The latest ONS report into UK household behaviour shows a reduction of nearly two million tonnes of food waste between 2007 and 2018, but resulting greenhouse gas emissions still equalled 8% of the UK's territorial emissions. It is a grave challenge, highlighted at COP26, and individuals are under pressure to act now.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) ‘Review of household behaviour in relation to food waste, recycling, energy use and air travel’, released on November 1, 2021, has revealed that the UK produced around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in 2018, down from 11.2 million tonnes in 2007. Households produced 70% of the 2018 total. 

Yet the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the 9.5 million tonnes of food waste was around 36 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to some 8% of the UK's territorial emissions in 2018.

At this month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, a huge art installation sponsored by Hellmans features 403 plastic replicas of food items inside a greenhouse, representing 117kg of food waste. This is the amount produced by the average UK family every six months. An LED ticker shows the corresponding amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  

The message? Food waste is a catastrophe for the environment.

It takes a land mass larger than China to grow the food each year that is, ultimately, never eaten. This is land that has often been deforested, resulting in reduced biodiversity and soil degradation. Food is wasted, and resources spent on growing and distributing the uneaten food are also squandered.

When food waste goes to landfill, it decomposes without access to oxygen and creates methane. This is 23 times more deadly as a climate change gas than carbon dioxide. Food waste is a major culprit in destroying our planet.

Yet while a third of all food produced globally is wasted, 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. That is one in nine people who are starving or malnourished. Each one could be sufficiently fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the UK, Europe and the USA each year.

“Four in five people in the UK are concerned about climate change, but only 32% see a clear link between the climate crisis and food going to waste.”

ONS figures show that four in five people in the UK are concerned about climate change, but only 32% see a clear link between the climate crisis and food going to waste. Numerous companies are working to change this.

For example, OLIO is one of a number of apps harnessing the power of mobile technology and the sharing economy to link manufacturers, supermarkets, cafés, restaurants and individual households to local communities. It is intended to encourage businesses and individuals to give away, rather than throw away, surplus food. The aim is to rescue surplus safe, nutritious food from food outlets and neighbours that might otherwise be destined for the landfill.

Everyone can make a difference. We need to waste less food and eat less meat to stop feeding climate change. If we all do a little, we can achieve a lot.

Sterling Crew is a Chartered Environmental Health Practitioner, chair of the Food Authenticity Network, and an Independent Scientific Advisor and Public Health commentator. He is also a Scientific Advisor to OLIO. Sterling was elected a trustee of CIEH in 2021 and co-hosts the CIEH COVID Conversations.

He is speaking at the CIEH Safe Food Conference on November 11th, 2021

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