How Does Food Waste Impact The Environment?

Can the food we waste have an impact on our environment? At Best Food Facts we’ve looked at tips for reducing food waste at home, but what does this food waste look like on a global scale? What are the costs associated with food waste? And does food waste damage our environment?

We reached out to Dr. Kate Parizeau, associate professor and food waste expert at the University of Guelph, and Dr. Michelle Coyne, former research fellow with the Food Systems Lab at the University of Toronto and advocate for food waste reduction, to tell us about the economic impacts of food loss and waste and the impact on our environment.

How much food loss and waste is there in Canada? Around the globe?

Parizeau: “Reports from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation demonstrate that Canadians generate 85 kg of food waste per person annually, and that this amount is increasing over time. Globally, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that we waste about one-third of all food produced each year, amounting to 1.3 billion tons.”

Coyne: “In 2014, Value Chain Management International (an organization associated with the University of Guelph) estimated that Canadian food waste was valued at $31 billion per year. Globally, about one-third or 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year. Consumer waste takes a slightly higher share of the food at 47% of total food waste in Canada. The remaining 53% is wasted across the value chain from farm to consumer. However, any plan to reduce food waste requires a coordinated effort from producers, distributors and consumers. Ongoing research from around the world is helping give us a better picture of where, why, and how much food is being wasted.”

Is reducing food waste good for the environment?

Parizeau: “Yes, reducing food waste is definitely good for the environment. Rotting food can produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 32 times more potent than carbon dioxide. When we waste food, we also waste the resources that went into producing and transporting that food (e.g. land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel).”

Coyne: “Absolutely. When thinking of food waste, it is important to think about the entire food chain. For all the food that is wasted from farm to fork, the non-renewable resources necessary for its production and distribution are also wasted. By reducing the food we waste, we can also have an impact on reducing our carbon footprint. In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report that found food waste to be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, second only to the United States and China.”

Doesn’t food waste just break down in the landfill anyway?

Parizeau: “It takes a very long time for food to break down in a landfill, and this type of food breakdown creates methane because landfills are low-oxygen environments. When we trap food waste in a sanitary landfill, we also lose access to all of the nutrients that could be recovered from that organic matter. Composting is a good way to recover nutrients, but there are also environmental impacts associated with this type of treatment, especially when municipalities use big trucks to collect organics. It is worth the effort to compost, but we should aim to only compost inedible organics (e.g. pits, peels, leaves), and try to eat all of the edible food that comes through our kitchens.”

Coyne: “Wouldn’t that be nice! While food is biodegradable, landfills don’t allow for natural breakdown processes to occur. The breakdown of food requires airflow and landfills are stacked and compacted in such a way that air can’t get through the layers. If you’ve ever been to a landfill or looked at a photograph, you’ll see how high they can be. Underneath all the top layers are compacted layers of all matter of waste. Once products are compacted into a landfill, they become indistinguishable from each other. There has been a strong move towards organic separation of waste, with green bin programs, for example, diverting organic waste away from landfill. This has become of primary interest to a number of city councils across Canada, as well as the National Zero Waste Council.”

And how much money could I save if I were to reduce the amount of food I throw out?

Parizeau: “An average consumer could save up to $1,100 per year by reducing the food that is wasted at home.”

Coyne: “On average, Canadian consumers waste about 25% of the food they purchase. Researchers have made the analogy that this is like buying four bags of groceries and throwing one away as soon as you walk out of the store. Therefore, reducing food waste at home could have impressive food budget savings. It will also save time and effort in cleaning out forgotten leftovers and food from the back of our fridges.”

About one-third of all food goes to waste each year. Reducing food waste benefits the environment by reducing methane and greenhouse gas emission and saving energy and non-renewable resources. Reducing food waste also helps consumers save about $1,100 per year.