A new report by the United Nations estimates that at least 17% of the world’s food supply goes to waste — the equivalent of about a billion tons of food ending up in the trash bin.
Most food waste comes from households. The study looked at waste from homes as well as the retail and hospitality sectors, says Richard Swannell, director of the non-profit international sustainability group WRAP, which co-authored the report with the United Nations.
People waste food by buying a surplus that expires before it’s used, improperly storing perishables, misunderstanding date labels and throwing away leftovers, he says.
“Best before” or “best if used before” labels describe the quality of the food, meaning it’s safe to consume beyond that date, he says, whereas “use by” dates are associated with food safety issues.
“You can actually freeze up to the use by date,” he says, “and therefore you can actually use the freezer as your friend to preserving that food for a later date.”
Looking at 54 countries representing about 75% of the world’s population, Swannell says researchers expected to see differences between poor and wealthy countries.
“There was no difference between the food waste in wealthier countries and the food waste in middle-income countries,” he says. “The average is about 74 kilograms [163 lbs] per person per year, which is more than the average body weight of a human.”
As food waste continues to pile up in landfills, global hunger is on the rise. A recent report from the humanitarian group CARE found the number of people undernourished or chronically hungry worldwide could increase from 690 million to 820 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The burden of hunger falls disproportionately on girls and women, CARE says.
“Women often eat last and they eat least when there’s a crisis,” says Tonya Rawe, CARE’s director of global food and nutrition security advocacy. “And now that we’re looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, that preexisting inequality is just being exacerbated.”
And food waste also has a stark impact on the environment. Food waste at every level — from farm to fork to landfill — accounts for between 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, Swannell says.
“If food loss and waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet behind China and the U.S.,” he says.
Composting reduces the overall greenhouse gas emissions by converting food waste into fertilizer, he says, but preventing waste saves money and has a bigger impact on the environment.
People don’t take action to reduce food waste because they don’t realize the extent of the problem, he says.
“When the U.K. started work in this particular space, nine out of 10 people in the U.K. said they didn’t waste food,” he says. “And yet, actually, when you looked at it, we’re wasting about 80 kilos [176 lbs] per person per year.”
Targeted campaigns supported by food retailers and manufacturers can help drive behavior change, he says. The decade-old Love Food Hate Waste campaign has helped U.K. citizens reduce edible food waste by 31%, he says, for example.
The average family in the U.K. wastes $1,100 worth of food every year, he says. Successful campaigns work by showing people the benefits of reducing food waste, he says, and reinforcing the fundamental principle of “buy what you need and eat what you buy.”