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Reduce your Food Waste to Save the Climate – How does that work?

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Every bite generates greenhouse gases before it is on our plates, but when nearly a third of it is dumped into trash, couldn’t we be doing more to protect the climate?

How cutting your food waste can help the climate

What did you leave on the plate after your lunch or dinner today? A grain or two? Some bread or chips? Or was it more than a few spoonfuls because you were stuffed?

It is worth keeping in mind that every time you leave something on the plate, you are not just trashing food that could have been your next meal – but even that it contributed to a big carbon footprint before it even reached to your platter. Farming, processing, storing, transporting, packing, selling, and even preparing food that we eat produces greenhouse gases. 

And not just that. Every time we throw some away, it goes into a landfill, composts, and contributes some more to the climate change – negatively. 

Today, ONE-THIRD of all the food produced on this planet is DUMPED. It has even been calculated that if “Food Waste” was a nation, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, according to the United Nations. Since, 33% of greenhouse emissions globally come from agriculture, and 30% of this food is driven away by garbage trucks – about 1.8 billion tonnes of it a year. If, as a global community, we controlled food wastage altogether, we’d eliminate 8% of our total emissions.

And, no, individual families aren’t the only criminals. Here’s is an unbelievable fact: A 2018 study found that about 1/3 of fruits and vegetables are dumped for not having adequate size and shape before it is presented to us at a grocery shop.

Food wastage is seen by many as a social or humanitarian concern, which are big Big BIG factors in themselves. Whole cultures advocate against it strongly, and cult followers do adhere to them, but they are a rare breed nowadays. 

However, what people don’t realize is that apart from all this it’s also a big environmental factor. With wasted food, we also waste all the energy and water it takes to plant, harvest, process, transport, package, and sell it (Yep, huge lights at the supermarkets don’t help the case at all). And the 33% of the food that goes into landfill and rots, produces lots of methane—a greenhouse gas even more lethal than carbon dioxide. 

Why do we waste Food?

Food wastage - Dumping into the dustbin

The reasons are countless. Ranging from completely silly reasons like – in certain parts of the Planet it is considered respectful to leave a small quantity of foodstuff on the platter to demonstrate that the host hasn’t thrifted on portions. To practical third world reasons like – Lack of refrigeration. But in developed countries, the biggest reason is easy availability of plentiful supplies of cheap produce. It makes buyers less mindful about what they buy and what they finally consume.

How much food stock do we dump exactly?

Food is rejected on the basis of shape and size

Counting exactly the quantity of food we’re dumping in our homes isn’t easy. Kate Parizeau, (Associate Professor, University of Guelph) and colleagues conducted a study in Canada where they dug through the trash generated by 94 households in Guelph, Ontario. They categorised the food they found based on how edible it was and how much of it there was. They learnt that each household dumped about 3kg of avoidable food waste every week, i.e. almost 23.3kg of carbon emissions into our atmosphere. The same data for UK is even higher, at 68kg edible food being dumped at home each year per household, according to 2020 data from the British waste and recycling charity Wrap.

But there are not enough studies or researchers who wish to dive into our bins and study them. And, even in those studies where people are asked to check and record their food wastage from their bins, they tend to under-report the quantities.

“I don’t think people are completely aware of [the climate impacts of food waste],” says a Food Waste researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala. “But I think the problem is even bigger, because most people, they don’t actually waste food, according to themselves.” 

Anne-Marie Bonneau, a book editor living in California, USA and author of the Zero Waste Chef blog, was deeply impacted once she found that up to 40% of the food produced in the US isn’t eaten. “My mouth fell open,” she says.

Now, she calculates (proudly) that she’s reduced her food waste to nearly zero quantities, while also composting crumbs like tea leaves, eggshells and citrus peels, and utilizing everything else in her diet. “I try to keep our inventory small enough that I don’t throw out food, and large enough that we have enough food to eat,” she says. “If I can’t get to something before it will go south, I freeze it.”

Now, reaching this level of waste reduction isn’t easy or even possible for most of the people for practical or social reasons, but Bonneau endorses starting out with baby steps. First and foremost, you have to learn to cook, even if to only make some simple meals, like soups, or salads. Then, start checking the food inventory at home, before visiting the supermarkets. “Instead of surfing the internet and finding a recipe that looks good or going through cookbooks, first look at the food you have on hand,” she says.

Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

  • Make a list of what you need to buy and be mindful about it. A casual visit to the supermarket, especially when you are feeling hungry, can lead you to buying more food items than you require. 
  • Befriend your freezer. Fresh foods are always better, but frozen foods can be just as nourishing. They even remain edible for a longer time. A lot of seafood, for example, is frozen before it reaches your supermarket and then thawed and put on display. This means it will only stay fresh for a few days. So, buying frozen food is a guarantee to extend the shelf life of the food. Produce is a great example of items that can be frozen to keep them edible longer.
  • Go all the way with leftovers. Don’t go shopping just yet! Use the food you have at home. Websites like Big OvenSupercook, and MyFridgeFood provide for some amazing recipes made from ingredients you already have at your home. 
  • Don’t shy away from Blend, bake, and boil. Fruits and vegetables still taste delicious in recipes, when they are overtly ripe. Don’t believe us? Look at all the restaurants, we visit. You can use your wilting, browning, or imperfect fruits and vegetables to make sweet smoothies, bread, jams, sauces, or soup stocks.
  • Spread the Message. Reducing food dumping is the most real way to reduce its negative impact on climate. We think that the food produced by us as a Planet is not too much. The food distribution among geographies and classes is the real issue. And awareness is an important first step; Educating consumers about food dumping could eliminate 2.3 million tons of harmful emissions.
America dumps 40% of it's food

Once repurposing and utilizing what you already have in your house, becomes a habit, you could be preventing not just carbon emissions, but even significant time and money, too, by not having to run to the supermarkets each time you cook a meal at home. “It’s so satisfying when I make a meal out of almost nothing,” says Bonneau.

Now, yes, for many of us, cooking a meal out of nothing or even remembering the items already in our refrigerator is not easy at all. “We know there are many reasons why people aren’t able to reduce their food waste,” says Parizeau. Not just this, a lot of people really WANT to provide lavishness for their families by keeping a well-stocked refrigerator, and others might be extra-cautious when it comes to food safety and throw away food for just being a few hours old, while still others may simply not be able to make the time to plan or cook meals at all.

To challenge some of these obstacles, Parizeau recently went on to publish a cookbook containing food waste-reducing recipes that combine, for example, a whole head of cauliflower rather than half of it, so that people can utilize the vegetable then and there in whole, rather than a half being thrown away later on when it has become too old. Similarly, many recipes can be adapted to whatever fruits or vegetables or grains you have on hand.

Is All Food Waste Created Equal? 

food thrown into garbage dump

Nope. All of it is different when it comes to carbon emissions. As expected, (the Vegans have been right all along) Meat and dairy products have extremely higher carbon emissions than fruit and vegetables, so decreasing the quantity of non-vegetarian food you waste or even purchase, will have a larger effect than cutting down on dumping out old carrots.

A 2018 study gave very eye opening results that fresh vegetables and fruits make up 25% of edible family food waste in the UK, but only lead to 12% of the greenhouse gas emissions from wasted food. Compared to this data, meat and fish are only just 8% of wasted food, but still lead to 19% of emissions.

Accordingly, a 2015 study on food waste in Swedish supermarkets gave out results that, fruit and vegetable section accounts for 85% of food wasted by weight over a three year period, that food only made up 46% of the total carbon footprint from wasted food. On the other hand, meat constituted 3.5% of the total weight of food that was dumped, but 29% of the carbon footprint. Now, that is a seriously large proportion.

“If you want to reduce carbon footprint then beef will be a real target product,” says Eriksson. “There you have super concentrated emissions, so you have a lot of emissions in a few kilos of food waste.”

Your Local Food Disposal System also makes a lot of difference

This is a large factor that is often ignored by almost everyone. Organic waste decaying in a landfill discharges methane, a greenhouse gas many times more lethal than carbon dioxide. However, if this leftover matter is composted in a well-maintained composting system that lets in oxygen, it leads to a significant reduction of methane released into Earth’s atmosphere and the carbon dioxide in the composting organic matter will be stopped and stored in the resulting soil.

There was a study that stated that the greenhouse gas production from composting is only 14% of the same food discarded into a landfill, while Mattias’s work stated that the production varies depending on the food, composting bread, for example, would discharge only 2.2% of the emissions from discarding it in a landfill. Project Drawdown, a research organisation, states that if composting levels worldwide soared, we could knock off emissions by 2.1 billion tonnes by 2050.

“The easiest and foremost step in the food waste disposal system is to change from landfill to anything else,” says Eriksson. “Home composting, anaerobic digestion, setting it on fire, anything at all, just about everything is better than dumping into a landfill.” While there definitely are better and worse alternatives among these other disposal methods, the scale is much smaller. So if your leftovers are currently dumped in the bin, it’s a point worth pondering over, whether there is any way to change that.

If you have garden at your home, you can go for home composting. Else, you could check if you can have the food wastage picked up from your home for industrial composting. Many countries have set out plans to offer weekly food waste collections, and various local authorities already do so to contain the quantities of food that end up in landfill. Then, in some responsible countries, like Denmark, sending food or any other organic waste to be dumped into landfills is already banned.

An Ending Note

Despite all these measures, the most substantial change that most of the conscious people in high income countries could commit to, is to stop purchasing too much food and produce in the first place. Ultimately, a decrease in buying could take us to a place and time where we no longer produce more food than we require. 

If your singular contribution to this global issue seems like an insignificant drop in the ocean, try to think of it from a larger perspective of close to eight billion people on the planet. “As people start to care more about food waste in their household, they become more informed citizens,” says Parizeau. “They ask questions about how the food system works, and they ask for regulation to reduce waste across the entire system.”

A Green Co. aims to reduce the waste in our Landfills, Oceans , and our natural surroundings. We are on a mission to make things better for our Planet. We believe that, as consumers, we can bring about a difference with our everyday choices, just as large as corporate and government policy decisions. And, thus our motto:

“Natural Products for Everyday Use”

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