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How to reduce food waste and your environmental footprint

Food waste is an enormous environmental problem. When we chuck out food, we also chuck out the water, land, energy and labour used to grow and make the food and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Not to mention the hard-earned cash we use to pay for it and the time we devote to buying it that also goes to waste.

According to Oz Harvest, one in five shopping bags’ worth of food in Australia ends up in the bin – and 35% of the average household bin is food waste. This equates to a whopping $3800 worth of groceries per household each year. Even scarier, an estimated 8% of greenhouse gases come from food waste.

‘Food waste is a problem at all levels of the food system – around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost or wasted annually on a global scale,’ says Dr Sonia Nuttman from Deakin University’s Faculty of Health.

But it’s not all bad news. Because ordinary folks are a big part of the problem, we’re ideally placed to help provide a solution. Want to help the environment and your hip pocket? Here’s how to reduce food waste.

What causes food waste?

We’re all guilty of buying more food than we can eat, not having a plan for how we’re going to cook the food we buy or forgetting about leftovers hiding at the back of the fridge. And who hasn’t left food out on the bench at a party, only for it to spoil before we get a chance to pop it in a container or the fridge?

Indeed, Dr Nuttman says a ‘lack of meal planning through the week often ends up in unnecessary purchasing of foods that don’t get eaten’. Plus, she says incorrectly storing foods and leftovers or using containers with broken seals is another big contributor to food waste.

And then there’s the place where most food waste comes from: the fridge. ‘If the fridge or freezer is either inefficient or not set at the right temperature, it can also create food waste,’ Dr Nuttman says.

'Lack of meal planning through the week often ends up in unnecessary purchasing of foods that don’t get eaten.'

Dr Sonia Nuttman,
Faculty of Health, Deakin University

Why food waste matters

Put simply, food waste generates greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. When food is sent to landfill, it rots and produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. ‘If food ends up in landfill, it produces greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane, which is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide,’ Dr Nuttman says.

Then there’s all the other greenhouse gases used to needlessly grow, produce, harvest, transport and package food that ends up in the bin. Food waste is such a big problem that if it were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, behind China and the US.

Food waste solutions

Eliminating global food waste would save the same amount of carbon dioxide as taking one in four cars off the road. An added bonus is more money in your pocket and perhaps better control of your finances. So, what can you do to reduce food waste in your home?

Thankfully, understanding how to reduce food waste is easier than wrapping your head around the science of climate change. Dr Nuttman says the first step is to write a meal plan each week and try to only buy food you need to make the meals on your list.

Next, store food correctly so it stays fresh. ‘Whether in the pantry or fridge, making sure food is stored in clear airtight containers – so you can see the contents – can prevent food spoilage,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘Use sticky labels to write the date of cooked items and do the same for frozen meats and meals as it’s so easy to forget when you purchased or made food, especially if it was a few weeks ago.’

What’s more, understanding the difference between ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates can help to extend the shelf life of food. ‘While foods shouldn’t be consumed after the use by date, a best before date is simply an indication of when a food is at its best,’ Dr Nuttman says. ‘Many dried and packaged goods are still fine to eat after this time. The only food you can’t eat after its best before date is eggs.’

As for the small amount of food waste you now generate, along with scraps like vegetable peelings, tea bags and coffee grinds Dr Nuttman says food compost is an easy way to convert it into a reusable natural resource for the garden – and keep it out of landfill.

‘Food and food scraps in a compost bin break down into nourishing soil, which can then be used as a natural fertiliser,’ she says.

If you live in an apartment and a compost heap isn’t a practical option, there are other food waste recycling options like the Bokashi bucket and worm farms. Some councils also offer food waste collection programs.

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Dr Sonia Nuttman
Dr Sonia Nuttman

Associate Lecturer, Health, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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