Food waste – a global problem, with local solutions

A third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted and the impact of it is far-reaching. Food waste is a global problem - from intensifying food insecurity and malnutrition - to the significant contributions it makes to global greenhouse gas emissions. In this blog Sarah Ottaway, Sustainability and Social Value Lead at SUEZ, argues food waste needs more attention if we want to create a better food system for people and planet.

If global food waste were a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas behind only China and the US.

In the UK the situation is no different. For example, the hospitality and food sector wastes 18% of the food they purchase, creating around 1.1 million tonnes of food waste each year. It also has financial implications, from the money lost when food is purchased and not consumed, to the cost of disposal and recycling.

What’s worse, this isn’t unique to business. Households generate 4.5 million tonnes of food waste every year, costing the average family £700. You might expect this to make its reduction a top priority, but neither the financial repercussions nor the impact on the environment has resulted in a significant shift in public behaviours. Recent research from WRAP revealed that only 39% of the public is connecting food with the impact they have on the environment. 

Reducing food waste has the potential to provide huge benefits to farmers, businesses and individuals

This is why it has its own target within Sustainable Development Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production). Target 12.3 aims to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses” by 2030. Progress has been made in the UK, particularly through the work of those signed up to WRAP’s Caultauld Commitment, which recently reported a reduction of 480,000 tonnes of food waste between 2015 and 2018, a reduction of 7%. For the UK to achieve target 12.3 though we will need to accelerate this reduction to 1.1 million tonnes within the next decade. This will require significant action, ambition and collaboration from field to fork, but will benefit everyone, from farmers to households. 

There are great examples of action being taken already, for businesses the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap aims to create a common, but translatable approach to setting targets. Those who are using this to date have reported a reduction in food waste of 7% and together saved over £100 million of food, reducing their costs and the impact of the food they have prevented from entering the supply chain.

For households, WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste continues to lead on behaviour change at a household level. But with most citizens still not recognising food waste as an issue they can actively help to solve, there is a significant barrier to the nationwide behaviour change we need. A key steppingstone in this will be the government’s plans to provide every household in England with a food waste collection service from 2023 (with similar policy measures already in place in Scotland and Wales). Local authorities, who already offer the service, have lower per capita food waste as a result of households being able to see the food they are wasting, triggering a change in behaviour. This in turn enables campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste to have a greater impact, as individuals can see a clearer direct benefit, whether it’s for financial or environmental reasons.   

Food waste is a problem throughout the supply chain, it contributes to global, social and environmental issues, and is costing businesses and households significant sums of money. But those who take action to reduce it will also reap the rewards, whether it’s a business looking to reduce costs, or a household looking to reduce their environmental impact.

This poses a question of why food waste is not receiving the nationwide and global attention it deserves, especially in the current challenge we face through COVID19, which has highlighted how important food and the resilience of our supply chains is.

This is one of the reasons why UKSSD’s Food System programme is so important. Through the framework and common purpose of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is enabling the entire supply chain to collaborate to develop answers to this and the other major questions we need to respond to in order to create a sustainable food system in the UK. 


Sarah Ottaway is Sustainability and Social Value Lead at SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK and a member of UKSSD’s Food System programme.