Biting Off More Than We Can Chew: What We’re Doing to Solve the Global Food Waste Problem

Written by Darren Don
 · February 8, 2023

Do you waste food? Of course not. You know food is a valuable resource, you spend your hard-earned money on it, and your parents taught you to clean your plate. But in reality, we all waste more food than we think. We all forget about the leftover takeout food from last month or the can of peaches in the back of the refrigerator. The good news is that we can all take simple steps to cut back on our food waste. Let’s first review why this matters for the planet, then dive into different strategies for taking action on this big environmental problem.

The Global Picture

Why is reducing food loss and waste (FLW) important? According to a Food and Agriculture Organization study, roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. This inevitably also means that huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain. FLW accounts for about 8% of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Resource Institute, if FLW were its own country, it would be the third-largest GHG emitter, behind China and the United States.

The world is responding. In 2015, At the United Nations General Assembly, countries of the world formally adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are global goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. SDG 12.3 calls for cutting in half per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reducing food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030.


Closer to Home: What’s (Not) Working?

In the United States, Food: Too Good to Waste is a food waste prevention toolkit designed by the Environmental Protection Agency to encourage reduction of household food waste. The Too Good To Go app allows customers to buy food that would be otherwise wasted from businesses at great prices. However, the US has not made progress. According to ReFED, a national nonprofit dedicated to ending FLW across the US food system by advancing data-driven solutions, the amount of food waste increased by 12% from 2010 to 2016 and has since plateaued.

California’s food waste has hovered around the 10 million ton level consistently from 2010 to 2019 according to ReFED. California is one of several states that have passed laws to keep food out of landfills. This is crucial because decomposing food releases methane, a GHG that is 28 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In 2016 California passed SB 1383. Its goals are that by 2025, there will be a 75% reduction of organic waste going to landfills and 20% of currently disposed edible food must be recovered for human consumption. Per an analysis by CalRecycle, California will need to significantly increase its infrastructure to handle the food waste diverted from landfills and ensure that there is a market for the end products of the recycled waste including compost and biomethane gas from anaerobic digestion.


Solutions: Finding Inspiration Abroad

As you can see, we still have a ways to go in reducing our food waste not just in California, but in the entire US. We can look to other countries for inspiration. Several countries have taken the lead in reducing their food waste according to the United Nations. In the United Kingdom, the Waste and Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) “Love Food Hate Waste” nationwide behavior change campaign reduced consumer food waste by 21% in five years by educating consumers about the costs of food waste and providing practical strategies for reducing that waste. In the Netherlands, their United Against Food Waste program has helped reduce household food waste by 29% from their baseline year of 2010. Their program includes tips for consumers and businesses. They also sponsor a Waste-Free Week to draw attention to the issue.

From these campaigns, a common theme is that increasing awareness of the FLW issue is an effective strategy. Our communities can benefit from both nationwide campaigns and grassroots-level discussions with our family, friends, and neighbors. You may have already been on board with reducing your food waste or you may now be inspired to find ways to reduce your waste. Besides purging your refrigerator of lonely food items and making a leftover pizza-few leaves of lettuce-bread end-salad dressing casserole, there are fortunately better (and tastier) strategies to reduce your food waste. In the next blog post we will discuss some handy food waste reduction strategies that we can all employ. Now go finish off that can of peaches!

Darren Don
Darren Don
Energy and Climate Research Manager

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