Food waste exacerbating climate crisis

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Protecting food protects the environment

Climate footprint of fresh produce: well-packaged beats unpackaged

Enormous quantities of greenhouse gases are released in order to feed humanity. A sizeable proportion of these emissions is unnecessary because worldwide a third of all food ends up in the rubbish instead of in people’s stomachs. Without this waste, up to ten per cent of climate-damaging emissions could be avoided. Packaging optimised to extend the shelf life of food can make an important contribution here.

Enormous amounts of food are going to waste while 690 million people worldwide are going hungry. In 2020, food waste totalled some 931 million tonnes; this corresponds to 17 per cent of all food products sold. In Germany alone, 12 million tonnes of edible items are thrown away each year, more than half by private households. Some food ends up in the rubbish even though it could still be eaten. Other food spoils because too much was purchased and then not eaten. On average, 82 kilograms of food per capita goes to waste annually in Germany.

A third of all greenhouse gases are food-related

Such destruction of resources is not only morally questionable: it also plays a decisive role in climate change. The production of food, as well as its transport, processing, packaging and preparation, generates enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. In total, a third of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to human nutrition. Most of the gases are released during the production of animal products: Depending on how the animals are kept and fed, between seven and 28 kilograms of CO2 equivalents have already been emitted by the time a kilogram of beef finds its way from the pasture to the plate. Dairy products like butter and cheese have a similarly high impact. In contrast, a kilogram of bread only results in 0.7 kilograms of greenhouse gases being produced. A vegetarian or even vegan diet can therefore significantly reduce a person’s personal climate footprint. 

Enormous savings potential in private households

Another way to reduce emissions is to buy and consume food in a more conscious way. At present, around 4.4 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases – which corresponds to eight to ten per cent of the total – are caused by food that is not consumed. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of CO2. In the EU, about 88 million tonnes of food are wasted every year. The reasons are manifold. Agriculture sometimes results in production surpluses. In the retail trade, products that are still edible must often be disposed of because they have passed their best-before date. Consumer behaviour also contributes to food spoiling at home, being ‘forgotten’ or no longer used. In Germany alone, six million tonnes of CO2 equivalents could be saved annually if only half as much food were to be wasted in private households. The items Germans throw away most often are fruit and vegetables, followed by ready-prepared food and bakery products. 

Is packaged or unpackaged better?

Optimised packaging can contribute to avoiding food waste – and thus to reducing climate-damaging gases. That is the conclusion of a research project titled ‘Stop Waste – Save Food’ lead-managed by the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna. This is because packaging can extend the shelf life of many foods and thus protect them from premature spoilage. It is true that paper, cardboard, aluminium and plastics contribute to the production of climate-damaging greenhouse gases. However, their contribution within the overall value chain is usually almost negligible compared to much more substantial contributions such as animal husbandry, heated greenhouses or energy-intensive shopping trips. In fact, the climate footprint of packaged food is on average about 30 times higher than that of its packaging. In other words, packaging is only responsible for about 3.0 to 3.5 per cent of the total climate impact of packaged food. This led the authors of the Austrian study to conclude: “The use of packaging has paid off when on average more than 3.5 per cent of the food packaged has been prevented from going to waste by the packaging’s protective function.” The following conclusion can be drawn from the concrete examples that were examined: in retail alone, doubling the minimum shelf life could reduce the waste rate by about 40 per cent.

Education is needed

Packaged food usually performs better than unpackaged food in private households as well. Take ham, for instance: if it is purchased freshly packaged at the meat counter, it spoils at least three days earlier than plastic-packaged ham from the self-service shelf. If the product is eaten within a few days, the climate footprint of freshly packaged ham is better than that of elaborately packaged ham. But if 25 grams of the ham has to be thrown away because it was not consumed in time at home, the cost to the environment is 15 times greater than the additional environmental costs attributable to the plastic packaging. As a survey conducted as part of the ‘Stop Waste – Save Food’ study revealed, most consumers are not aware of correlations such as these. Around 70 per cent of the respondents to the survey said they considered packaging waste to be a greater ecological problem than food waste, although the facts prove the opposite is true: optimally packaged food performs better environmentally and has a smaller carbon footprint than unpackaged food that ends up in the rubbish – regardless of whether the packaging materials are recyclable or not.

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