The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calculates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year, directly contributing to food shortages, water stress, unnecessary biodiversity loss, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research up to one third of all human- caused greenhouse gas emissions is created by the global food system.
When food is thrown away, it is not only the food item that is wasted. We must also consider the amount of resources put into producing that food; this means land, water and transport costs of creating that food must be included in the environmental cost of throwing it away.
The initial impact of Covid-19 on the food industry, before lockdown was announced on the 23rd March, was panic buying. The results of this are now being felt by the waste industry. According to one online retailer of surplus food and drink, they estimate that household food waste has risen 30% in two weeks as a result of stockpiling, which resulted in many goods bought in panic being discarded.
Secondary to this is the limitations faced by waste services due to staff shortages. As isolation measure were undertaken, many waste services have had to be restricted to all but essential. Food waste and recycling kerbside collections have been stopped in several councils across the country, resulting in food waste making its way into general waste disposal and landfill.
The panic buying also had a knock-on effect to many charities who rely on donations of long-life goods as food banks saw a major reduction in donations from the public. As the lockdown has begun, many households have been hit hard, those relying on food banks has increased with many people now unable to work. Charities such as The Felix Project, who we supported in 2019, have quadrupled food deliveries to vulnerable Londoners through the Food For London Now appeal.
The current lockdown and restrictions may, however, be changing consumer habits around food and food waste. Approved Food has campaigned for a decade for a better understanding of ‘best before’ dates on food labels, that it says leads to tonnes of perfectly good food being “needlessly binned” every year. And it seems that the result of reduced access to foodstuffs, plus limiting the number of shopping trips to all but purchasing ‘essentials’, has resulted in households wasting less, according to The Guardian.
Almost half of people (48%) said they were throwing away less food and of those wasting less, more than half (51%) said they were planning meals more carefully and getting better at using up their leftovers. Consumers are also making better use of their freezer, with about a third using it more and freezing a wider variety of foods.
Jimmy Dorrell, Head of Sustainable Business at Clarity Environmental, commented that it is positive to see food waste being addressed at a national level.
“Often food waste, and the environmental impacts of it, is overshadowed by other environmental concerns. However, with the lockdown resulting in people paying more attention to their consumption, food choices and meal planning, it does seem that food waste is starting to resonate more with people at home.
“The simple act of restricting the number of shopping trips means that people have to use what they have to hand and make an effort to plan accordingly. And rather than throwing away an item that has gone past its ‘best by’, people are using their sense to establish if it really is edible or not. With the additional time people have at home they can focus on meal planning to reduce waste. This is a really positive sign that will hopefully change attitudes permanently.”
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