Food waste is costing the global economy billions each year, and governments should act quickly to reduce it if they want to save money and scale back their carbon emissions, according to a new report.
The report, published this week by the U.K.-based Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), found that if countries made a point of reducing their food waste, the globe could save a total of $120 to $300 billion each year by 2030. Globally, the report states, a third of all food is wasted, an amount that totals $400 billion each year. And that value will only go up, the report warns — if estimates that the world’s middle class will double by 2030 pan out, the yearly value of food waste could increase to $600 billion.
That’s bad news for the environment. In its report, WRAP looked at the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste in the U.K., and found that each metric ton of food that’s wasted in the U.K. is associated with 4.0 to 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Previous reports have also found food waste to be a significant factor in global greenhouse gas emissions: in 2013, a report by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that, if global food waste was a country, it would be the third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
“Reducing food waste is good for the economy and good for the climate,” Helen Mountford, Global Program Director for the New Climate Economy, said in a statement for WRAP. “These findings should serve as a wake-up call to policymakers around the world.”
When it’s sent to a landfill, food waste decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s much more potent than carbon dioxide. Composting food instead of throwing it away can help cut back on those emissions, but it doesn’t treat the whole problem: the report notes that the best way to cut down on the emissions related to food waste is to simply reduce the amount of food that’s wasted.
Previous studies have illustrated how different countries face different challenges in cutting down on food waste. In poorer countries, lack of refrigeration, inadequate transportation, and inefficient harvesting methods are major contributors to food waste, while in wealthier countries, the waste tends to occur on the consumer side, with people buying too much food and then throwing away what they don’t eat. In wealthy countries, waste also comes from food that doesn’t live up to cosmetic standards: according to the U.N. Environment Program, up to 20 to 40 percent of fresh produce is thrown away by farmers because it isn’t attractive enough for the supermarket shelves.
Some supermarkets and groups have decided that discarding produce on the basis of beauty just won’t stand anymore. In France, major supermarket Intermarche launched an “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign last year to try to get consumers to stop overlooking fruits and veggies that were blemished or disfigured, and may otherwise have been thrown away if they had remained on the shelf too long. The supermarket also experimented with selling blemished and disfigured produce at 30 percent off in one of its stores.
Other supermarkets and organizations have taken similar steps: a recently-created group in Portugal purchases blemished or unattractive produce from supermarkets and sells it to customers at a discounted price. The E.U. relaxed its standards on what misshapen and blemished fruits and vegetables can be sold in supermarkets in 2009, making it easier for groups like this to be created.