How does cutting back on food waste save energy?

How does cutting back on food waste save energy?

It is estimated that one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted1. This staggering statistic represents a significant loss of potential nourishment and contributes to various environmental impacts, including unnecessary energy consumption.

As we have become more aware of environmental concerns, food waste has become a bigger issue for all of us — even The King.

To mark his 75th birthday, King Charles has written an article for The Big Issue highlighting the problem. It’s a concern that has been close to the monarch’s heart for some time.

With a growing population and the intensifying effects of climate change, reducing food waste is not just an option but an imperative. His Majesty has emphasised the urgency of addressing this issue, calling for a collective effort to minimise food waste and promote a more sustainable food system.

But what exactly is the connection between food waste and energy consumption and are there any practical things we can do to reduce both?

The energy footprint of food waste.

Food production, processing, transportation, and disposal are all energy-intensive processes. When food is wasted, the resources used in these stages are squandered, and that includes unnecessary energy consumption2. Specifically:

Agriculture. Growing crops, raising livestock, and using fertilisers and pesticides all require significant energy inputs. When food is wasted, these resources are lost, and the energy expended is in vain3. For instance, producing one kilogram of beef requires an estimated 550-700 litres of water4 and the energy equivalent of a gallon of petrol5.

Processing. Transforming raw food into the products we eat involves various energy-intensive steps, such as refrigeration, cooking, and packaging. When uneaten food is thrown away, the energy used in processing is also wasted. 

Transportation. Food travels long distances from farms to processing plants, distribution centres, and retail outlets. The transportation sector is a significant energy consumer, and food waste contributes to unnecessary fuel consumption. In fact, it’s about 19 million tonnes of CO2 every year - about the same amount as 5.5 million typical cars6.

Disposal. Food waste that ends up in landfills decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Managing landfills also requires energy, further compounding the environmental impact of food waste. But you could use unwanted food to create your own compost for your plants (which will help cut back the energy used to manage landfills). What’s more, many local authorities collect food waste to be used in large anaerobic digestion plants to create biogas - which can be used as a renewable fuel. All you need to do is separate out your food waste at home.

Practical steps to reduce food waste and save energy.

Reducing food waste not only conserves energy but also offsets the environmental consequences associated with energy production. We can minimise the need for additional food production, processing, transportation, and disposal, and so reduce the demand for energy resources and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are some practical steps we can all take to reduce food waste and conserve energy:

Plan your meals: Planning ahead helps you avoid buying more groceries than you need, reducing the risk of food going uneaten. Make a shopping list based on your meal plan and stick to it.

Store food properly: Proper storage extends the shelf life of food, minimising spoilage. Learn the best practices for storing different types of food to ensure they stay fresh longer.

Understand food labels: 'Best before' and 'use by' dates are often confusing and can lead to premature food waste. ‘Best before’ is a guide for when food is no longer at its optimum - but it is still good to eat.  Food must be eaten by the ‘use by’ date or it can make you ill.  Understand the difference between these labels and use your common sense to determine when food is still safe to eat.

Embrace leftovers: Don’t throw them in the bin. Get creative and transform leftovers into new dishes. Leftover chicken can be transformed into a delicious chicken stir-fry, while leftover rice can be made into rice cakes or fried rice.

Compost food scraps: Instead of discarding them in the trash, compost food scraps and use the nutrient-rich compost to fertilise your garden. Composting reduces household waste and provides a natural fertiliser for your plants.

Collective action for a sustainable future.

Reducing food waste is not just an individual responsibility; it requires a collective effort from every part of society. 

While we are busy at home minimising food waste, businesses can adopt more sustainable practices such as improving how they manage their stock, optimising supply chains so that as little energy as possible is used in processing and transportation, and educating their employees about food waste prevention. 

Together, we can all work to reduce food waste. This helps reduce our energy consumption, conserve resources, and offset the environmental impacts of throwing away perfectly good food. And so help to create a more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.

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Published 17/11/2023