How to fight climate change by wasting less food

In conversation with Helen White at WRAP

Climate change reduction is a matter close to our hearts and we work with organisations as passionate as us about creating lasting change. To highlight people doing great things for the environment, we’re launching a series of interviews to champion climate heroes, and kicking off the series is our Chief Commercial Officer, Chris Winward, who speaks to Helen White, special advisor on household food waste, at WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), about the impact of food waste on global warming.

Chris: Hi Helen, firstly could you tell us about your role at WRAP?

Helen: Of course, in a nutshell, I work with food retailers, manufacturers and brands on engaging with citizens to reduce food waste and I am WRAP’s spokesperson on household food waste-related matters. I’ve helped to define our new approach to citizen food waste prevention and the re-development of the Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

Chris: Could you tell us about the link between climate change and food waste Helen?

Helen: Ultimately, wasting food feeds climate change, but people don’t often make the link. In fact, from our research, 80% of people in the UK are concerned about climate change, but only 30% make the connection with food waste.

To grow, produce and sell food, a vast amount of greenhouse gases are emitted, and when food is wasted it rots down in landfill, creating methane.

30% of global greenhouse gases come from producing our food, which is more than all commercial flights combined.

And globally, around a third of all food produced is lost or wasted, which contributes between eight to ten percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

Chris: That’s a surprisingly high number! Without wanting to oversimplify the issue, what are some of the barriers and how can we do better?

Helen: There are many reasons why we waste food, and one of the biggest problems is that life gets in the way! Nobody sets out to waste food, but life can be challenging and busy and we are all a little in denial.

As well as raising awareness, which is what Love Food Hate Waste does, there are other barriers such as waste management infrastructure i.e. if you haven’t got a food waste collection, it will just go to landfill. People have to be enabled to make positive change as well as engaged, and this requires a holistic, systems-thinking approach.

However, this doesn’t mean that the individual can’t make a difference, we can all play our part.

Chris: Is awareness the issue?

Helen: Awareness of the negative impact food waste has on the climate is a huge issue, but so is awareness of the positive impact which results from making changes, for example, the average family could save over £700 per year by not wasting food.

Chris: What are some simple changes we can make as individuals to limit food waste?

Helen: Firstly, it’s important to highlight that UK households generate 6.6 million tonnes of food waste, and 70% of that is good food that could have been eaten amounting to 4.5 million tonnes, which is enough to fill eight Wembley stadiums.

One change people can make is to plan better. Take time to plan your shop and buy enough to feed you and your family rather than too much you won’t get through in time.

Portion planning is also a contributor to food waste; and portioning out enough food, rather than more than you need, will help.

For example, one mug of rice can feed four people amply. We have all done it, popped rice in the pan thinking it isn’t enough and have added more, then it swells to far too much and it goes in the bin because people are nervous to reheat it (which is possible if done properly).

Chris: Do you think if we get people back to cooking real food from scratch that would help?

Helen: Yes, to some degree, but we have to approach it all in an engaging way that fits with people’s lives.

Some of us simply don’t have much time to cook, and there are some instances when it’s just not going to happen, for example, when you’ve had a bad day, you might not feel like standing over a stove for hours.

Interestingly, food waste has reduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, and we have found a correlation between people having more time and adopting good food management behaviours.

Chris: How do we keep up the good work now that Covid-19 restrictions are gradually easing?

Helen: We have a huge challenge in maintaining the good behaviours we saw during lockdown, and for this we need to engage people about the impact of their food waste, encourage good food management practices and enable these practices.

At WRAP we also campaign for clearer food labelling – such as a snowflake clearly on the front of the package, which means you can freeze the item, meaning it will potentially have a longer lifespan and won’t get wasted.

We need to ensure that manufacturers and retailers implement our best practice guidance on products, packs and labels to help reduce household food waste.

Chris: What do you think about finding a better solution for non-edible food waste?

Helen: Yes, we need solutions for the things you can’t eat such as eggshells.

We need to close the loop and use our food waste – the stuff we can’t eat, of course – for anaerobic digestion (AD) or composting.

Chris: Our vision is to have biogas plants all over the UK, taking in food waste, generating sustainable energy from the methane that’s generated and putting it into the gas pipeline. Biogas plants also use the waste digestate to spread on the land and fertilise it naturally. What do you think of this?

Helen: I think it’s an interesting approach to dealing with our food waste problem. We are going to need a range of resource-efficiency solutions if we are going to combat climate change.

Chris: How can people get involved with WRAP and make a positive change?

Helen: Visit lovefoodhatewaste.com for practical ideas and recipes to make the most of the food you buy. Get involved with Food Waste Action Week in 2022, and make positive changes to the way you manage food, plan and portion better and waste less. Everyone has a part to play.

Chris: We’re asking our climate champions to make a personal net zero pledge; would you be happy to do so?

Helen: My food waste is very low, I’m vegetarian and I’ve even swapped to a shampoo bar, so I’m going to go electric for my next car!