Food waste creates logistical, environmental, and ethical challenges for our society. Globally, 1.6 billion tons of uneaten food are being disposed of every year, which corresponds to one third of all food (FAO; BCG). Food production requires resources. If we throw the food away, these resources are also wasted, which has an impact on the environment, such as land use and climate change as well as water scarcity in some regions (Greenerlicious). And the discarded food also leaves a carbon footprint: starting with greenhouse gas emissions released during fertilization, transport, storage, refrigeration, further processing, and disposal. Estimates suggest that 8 to 10 % of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food losses and waste, thus food waste accounts the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit; To Good To Go). Without food waste, the atmosphere would be spared over 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases (Washington Post).
In Germany, of over 18 million tons of wasted food per year, almost 10 million tons could already be avoided today (WWF). In some cases, food spoils in the field, during storage or transport, or is destroyed during processing (food loss); in other cases food makes it to store shelves but is not sold or purchased and then not eaten (food waste) (DW). With every eighth food item in German households ending up in the garbage, 571 kilograms of food is disposed of every second. Food waste generates almost half a ton of greenhouse gases per capita and year, which corresponds to around 4 percent of Germany’s total annual emissions (DeutscheUmwelthilfe).
The largest share of German food waste (over 50 percent) is generated by private households, followed by agriculture, out-of-home catering and retail (Bundesministerium für Ernährung und Landwirtschaft). This means that food waste is not just a matter for consumers but affects the entire food chain – from agriculture to trade. Causes include poor or incorrect storage, expiration of best-before dates, damaged or spoiled products, over-consumption and over-production as well as rejects due to lack of product characteristics (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit).
In agriculture, strict commercial standards and market requirements determine whether an item even makes it way to the shelves: if the shape, size or color deviate from the requirements of the buyers – the processors, wholesalers, retailers, or consumers –, sales are not assured; and if market prices are too low, the harvest is not worthwhile for the farmer. Yet, every product that is thrown away involves a high consumption of energy, water, and other raw materials in the chain from cultivation to retail (Verbraucherzentrale). To be exact, around 25 percent of the agricultural land in Germany as well as 2,700 liters of water per capita every year are wasted through food waste (DeutscheUmwelthilfe).
At the level of wholesalers, retailers, and large-scale consumers, such as restaurants and company canteens, large quantities of food are sorted out due to spoilage or reaching the best-before date. This results in food losses of almost 6 million metric tons, with an avoidance potential of 70 to 90 percent (WWF; WWF).
In private households, incorrect storage, poor shopping planning or misunderstanding of the best-before date tend to cause food waste (WWF). Additionally, consumers contribute to CO2 emissions through transport routes to the supermarket (KlimaTeller).
Significantly adding to the problem, disposed food usually ends up in a landfill where it decomposes and methane is released (source: To Good To Go). Due to the organic nature and high moisture content, food waste decomposes faster than other organic matter and produces a disproportionate amount of methane gas (NRDC).
In recent years, however, awareness of the problem of food waste and loss has grown. Political initiatives, private actors and companies are committed to reducing food losses and waste. In 2018, the European Union updated their Waste Directive with reference to the global UN sustainability goal of halving the amount of food waste per capita at the retail and consumer levels by 2030 and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including crop losses. In Germany, the federal government adopted the National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste at the beginning of 2019 (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit; UN). Initiatives such as the nationwide strategy Zu gut für die Tonne! (To good for the garbage can!) by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the online platform foodsharing e.V. or the app Too Good To Go have set themselves the goal of combating food waste and thereby encourage consumers to be more aware of how they use food and to provide tips for everyday life, among other things. Supermarket chains sell produce that does not meet the criteria, is not spotless or formed perfectly and even specifically advertise this. Some sell or process food that has been discarded in agriculture or retail ( Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und nukleare Sicherheit; KlimaTeller).
Consumers can contribute to significant reductions by developing a greater appreciation of produce and throwing out less food; improved management along the value chain and changed marketing strategies could also provide relief (WWF; Clean Air Farming).
Due to food waste, one third of all produce does not end up on the plate. Especially in view of the 690 million people suffering from hunger worldwide, throwing food away is socially unacceptable (Welthungerhilfe). Regarding the waste of resources, food waste is ecologically unacceptable. Thus, it is in the hands of the consumers, the industry, or retailers to maximize the value of our food and to minimize waste.
by Marie Klimczak