Why the UNEP Food Waste Index makes for concerning reading

Food waste

Philip Simpson, Commercial Director at ReFood, explores the findings of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) latest report into global food waste and why it makes for concerning reading.

Recently, the UNEP launched its annual Food Waste Index, a global report presenting the latest insight into real-world food waste volumes.

Covering both commercial and consumer sources, the document aims to provide clarity on food waste reduction momentum, as well as offer advice for better data collection and showcasing best practice examples to help support the transition from simply measuring to proactively reducing food waste.

However, while many saw this report as a yardstick of progress, a cursory first glance makes for concerning reading.

Philip Simpson, ReFood
Philip Simpson, Commercial Director at ReFood.

According to the data, over one billion tonnes of food waste were generated worldwide in 2022 (higher than previous estimates), amounting to 135kg per capita and almost a fifth of all food produced and sold worldwide.

Of this volume, more than 60% came from the consumer level, 28% was generated by the food services sector, and 12% arose from retail.

While there was a noticeable difference between food waste generated across primarily urban compared to primarily rural societies (with the latter better equipped to repurpose scraps to feed livestock or as home compost), the gap between high-income, upper-middle and lower-middle-income countries was negligible, with a variant of just 7kg per capita.

Key insights aside, however, and we return to the most important headline. In a world with more than 730 million people living in hunger, more than a billion edible meals are simply thrown away every day, resulting in a billion tonnes of food waste every single year – collectively equating to more than the weight of Mount Everest. More concerningly still, this volume continues to creep up.

Why are food waste volumes increasing?

Food waste

Global food and agricultural production have increased significantly over the past 50 years, driven by a combination of population and economic growth, alongside technological and cultural shifts in production practices.

Already, we are seeing the food system pushed to breaking point, but experts suggest that this high demand is set to continue.

Data from Statista, for example, predicts that the global food market will grow by more than 6% between now and 2028 alone,  while insight from Climatalk concludes that production will need to double before 2050 to meet escalating demand.

A rising population requires more food and more food comes with several environmental challenges, including the consequence of rising waste.

To produce food that is ultimately lost or wasted requires a quarter of all water used by agriculture and a land area the size of China, costing the global economy an estimated $1 trillion per annum.

It seems relatively self-explanatory, but the model is unsustainable in the long term. There will soon be no more room to produce our food, which means tackling waste must be our first priority.

Food waste is nothing new, so why is this report so concerning?

food waste

In 2015, the world’s 193 countries finally agreed and signed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – 17 legally binding targets to help end world poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy health, justice and prosperity. Goal 12.3 specifically binds us to halving food waste by 2030.

With just over five years to hit this target, a meagre four G20 countries (Japan, Australia, the USA and the UK), plus the EU, are on track. Progress, it seems, is far behind where expectations suggest it should be.

As a result, food waste is now responsible for between 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – five times that of the entire aviation sector.

Methane, the gas released during the natural degradation of food, is considered 21 times more damaging to the environment than CO2. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest polluter worldwide – second only to China and the USA.

So, while countless initiatives around the world are working towards tackling food waste, volumes are increasing and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to be released.

Why is this report so concerning? Well, it says that what we’re doing isn’t going far enough. Not by a long way.

Should the UK be seen as a best practice example?

food

Until recently, the UK was slipping behind the global pace when it came to food waste reduction. Despite positive legislative action from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, England’s dated waste management approaches were seeing more than 10 million tonnes of food waste generated every year, with little enforceable guidance regarding best practice disposal.

As a result, a significant percentage is lost to landfill, resulting in widespread environmental consequences.

However, this is all set to change. From March 2025, new Simpler Recycling legislation is set to come into force across England, which mandates separate food waste collections for non-household municipal premises (except micro-firms).

Mandatory food waste collections for all households, including flats, will be introduced 12 months later. While there will likely be a period of adjustment and handover, it proves a momentous moment for UK waste management.

An effective ban on the landfilling of food waste, alongside widespread zero-waste commitments from across the supply chain and the growing infrastructure to support food redistribution initiatives means that the UK is starting to make real progress when it comes to setting the standards in sustainable best practice.

So, while we are by no means the global leader, we are quickly building the foundations to lead from the front in the long term.

Where does food waste recycling come into play?

ReFood

As part of this new legislation, the vast majority of food waste collected at the kerbside will predominantly be sent for recycling.

After all, while far from a “silver bullet” solution, food waste recycling is widely considered a far more environmentally friendly alternative to landfill disposal.

Delivered on an industrial scale, it harnesses the anaerobic digestion (AD) process to capture methane released during the natural degradation of food.

This gas can either be combusted to generate renewable electricity or upgraded and injected directly into the gas grid.

As the UK’s leading food waste recycler, ReFood operates three state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion (AD) sites in Dagenham, Doncaster and Widnes. Collecting and processing 480,000 tonnes of food waste every year, we help businesses nationwide to cut costs, go green and minimise their reliance on landfill.

While electricity and gas generated at our facilities help to further reduce national reliance on fossil fuels, we also manufacture a sustainable liquid bio-fertiliser from the residue digestate produced during the AD process – ReGrow – which is used by local farmers as an alternative to chemical fertilisers.

With today’s recycled food used to grow tomorrow’s crops, we essentially close the food supply loop – a simple and circular solution.

Where next for food waste reduction?

Food waste

Global pressure will continue when it comes to food production and availability. After all, food remains one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.

While, at ReFood, we are merely scratching the surface of an enormous issue, we’re committed to doing what we can to harness the value in unavoidable food waste.

Real progress against the world’s war on waste will take collaborative thinking and joined-up action – across nations, across the world.

It requires proactive measures to prevent waste from arising in the first place, it requires process revolution to minimise waste across the supply chain and innovation regarding best practice waste management.

The Food Waste Index is an outstanding piece of work. It puts into stark context the sheer scale of the food waste challenge humanity is dealing with. Studies like this are important to raise awareness, improve education and offer guidance to drive future progress.

The most positive takeaway from the report, in my opinion, is that work continues around the globe to fight back against the scourge of food waste. It might seem like a lost battle, but it’s a hugely valuable place to start.

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The post Why the UNEP Food Waste Index makes for concerning reading appeared first on Circular Online.

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