food waste

by Hannah Johnson, Resource Futures

I remember as a child being told by my mum not to leave any spaghetti on my plate because there are starving children in Africa. I didn’t understand how I could help, because at that age I didn’t understand that food is a global commodity. If we waste food, there is less in the market for other people to buy and it becomes more expensive, too expensive for some people. Global undernutrition is on the increase but so is overnutrition, and for the first time there are now more people suffering from overnutrition than undernutrition. As this article is in Bristol’s Local Food update, I’m inviting you to ‘think globally and act locally’.

Recently there has been a lot of interest around the publication of the Foresight report into Global Food and Farming Futures (to which Resource Futures contributed as the lead author on the global food waste driver and science reviews). This forward look to the year 2050, when the world population is likely to be 9 billion, has put forward proposals for how we can feed ourselves sustainably whilst recognising the likely impacts of climate change and increased resource scarcity.

As the world population rises, food production is putting an increasing strain on resources. It takes up land that could otherwise be forested; and it uses water, oil, energy, and minerals. The WWF says that around a third of carbon emissions in the UK are related to food production.

Food waste is a global issue, and occurs at all stages of the supply chain from field to fork. In developing countries most food waste occurs as losses due to poor infrastructure. In affluent countries such as the UK more waste occurs as a result of consumer behaviour. It is thought that the average household wastes £480 worth of food each year, or a sixth of what is bought. This food waste is what we term ‘avoidable’ food waste, in that it had been edible and fit for consumption, rather than items such as used tea bags and banana peel which we generally consider ‘unavoidable’. The amount we waste has been increasing: before the Second World War we only wasted 3% of food.

It appears that we might all waste more food than we think we do. Those people who say they waste ‘none or hardly any food’ have been shown to produce more than their own body weight in food waste each year. Research has shown that more than half of food is wasted because it is not used in time, with the remainder because too much was cooked, prepared or served. Your household will benefit from reducing food waste. You will be better off. You may be healthier. You will have more food confidence in buying, preparing and eating food. Changes that you can make in your household include:

  • Checking what you’ve already got in the store cupboard and fridge, and checking what needs eating up first
  • Planning meals
  • Learning new recipes that use up common leftovers
  • Writing a shopping list
  • Storing food appropriately, for example bread and apples last longer if stored in the fridge
  • Cooking the right amounts of what people like to eat
  • Eating an appropriate amount of food – over eating is a form of food waste in itself
  • Sharing food with friends and family if you have too much
  • Asking for a ‘doggy bag’ for restaurant leftovers
  • Learning what the dates on food packaging mean
  • Learning to use your senses to tell when food has gone off
  • Buying knobbly/small/blemished fruit and veg – this helps reduce waste further up the supply chain. It shows suppliers they don’t need to out-grade and therefore waste food because it has cosmetic blemishes
  • Logging on to the Love Food Hate Waste website:
  • Volunteering or fundraising for Fareshare who do a great job of redistributing food in the Bristol area:

The global environment will benefit from reducing food waste. If we can cut out needlessly wasting that sixth of the food we buy, then we could reduce our carbon emissions. Reducing food waste will also help to keep food prices down in the future (although food prices are also dependent on oil prices and weather conditions).

All of our ‘unavoidable’ food wastes should be home composted or put out for collection in a brown bin. In Bristol, the food waste that we put into brown bins gets collected and composted. This is preferable to it going to landfill (food waste composted rather than landfilled saves <1 tonne of CO2 per tonne). However, the prevention of food waste in the first place is far more beneficial: a tonne of food waste prevented saves 4.3 tonnes CO2. We can apply the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra to food waste too: reduce all we can avoid, reuse and pass on to others, and finally recycle all that is unavoidable.

In all our discourse around sustainable food supply, we cannot ignore food waste. A sustainable food supply chain would have reduced losses and reduced consumer demand. In order to reduce our demand, we must waste less.


Resource Futures is a sustainable resource management consultancy based at the Create Centre in Bristol.

For more information, contact:

For more information on the Foresight report:

This article first appeared in Bristol’s local food update, March-April 2011