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Climate action: 10 steps to reduce food waste

Food accounts for 26% of our total consumer emissions. Reducing waste is therefore a great step towards cutting our footprint.

Here, we provide a roadmap to reducing food waste.

The UK throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste every year, and much of this comes from our households. Every apple, yoghurt or unfinished packet of ham that gets chucked adds to our carbon footprint.

Luckily, around 66% of people in the UK say that they are already making an effort when it comes to food waste. With costs rising, it can also be a great way to cut the cost of your weekly food shop.

10 Steps to reducing food waste

1. Look at where you waste

Some of us will waste a lot of fresh ingredients that we never eat or cook. For others the waste will mainly come from leftovers.

Spend a week paying attention to what you throw out, or just open your bin or food waste caddy and look what’s inside. Thinking about this will help you work out where to focus your attention.

You may also want to observe other patterns: do you waste more when you’re busy and stressed? Do you buy fruit that you’ll never really eat? Do you hate running out of ingredients and therefore overshop? Understanding these patterns can help you think through how to address them.

2. Check the temperature of your fridge

Your fridge should be between 3 and 5 degrees. Any hotter and it will cause your food to go off more quickly. We have a guide to fridges and freezers which includes some top tips on using the space efficiently.

3. Check how you’re storing food

Food will go off more or less quickly, depending on how you’re storing it. Most fresh food like fruit or vegetables will last longer in your fridge, but there are some exceptions if unchopped:

  • Potatoes, sweet potatoes or squash
  • Onions and garlic
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocado (won’t ripen properly)
  • Bread (it will go stale)
  • Fresh herbs (place on the counter with their stems in water, or in a newspaper or kitchen towel if you do want to put them in the fridge)

How you store your veg in your fridge will also make a difference. It’s good to keep fruit and vegetables separate, because some fruit can give off a chemical that makes the vegetables spoil quicker.

Vegetables with chopped ends, like broccoli, celery and asparagus will last better standing in the fridge with the end in water. The same goes for lemons and limes.

You may also want to think about how you arrange your fridge, putting new ingredients to the back and old ones to the front so you remember to use them up.

Vegetables and dried pasta in kitchen

4. Think about how you cook

For many of us, what we waste will closely relate to how we cook. It’s important that our solutions therefore also match up with our cooking patterns.

You could even write down how you cook, and what it means in terms of why you waste food and what might help. For example:

  • I cook spontaneously and like to buy ingredients on the day.
  • This means I waste ingredients that I buy in advance.
  • I could save waste by not doing big shops.
  • I could save by challenging myself to do a ‘ready steady cook’ once a week to use up ingredients I have left over. 

5. Plan your meals

Changing how you shop can be a good way to tackle food waste.

For some of us, planning meals and shopping accordingly can be a great step, because it means you know you have exactly what you need.

6. Make a shopping list

Checking your cupboards and making a shopping list means you won’t forget what you have or end up buying lots of random things that you don’t need or that don’t quite make a meal.

7. Measure out your quantities

If you’re someone who mainly wastes cooked food, you may just want to cook less. One easy step is to start measuring out or weighing the amount you need.

Print or copy out this list of quantities per person and stick it on your fridge:

  • Rice: 1 small cup – 75g
  • Pasta: 1 and a bit cups – 75g
  • Dried noodles: 75g
  • Dried lentils: 70g
  • Chickpeas: half a 400g tin
  • Tinned beans: half a 400g tin
  • Tofu: 100g
  • Veg for cooking: ~100g
  • Veg for salads: 30-60g
Ariel photo of fresh food section in supermarket

8. Make plans for leftovers

There are lots of things you can do with leftovers. You could start taking them for lunch. Or you could freeze them (just buy a marker and write on the box, otherwise you won’t recognise them!).

It can also be nice to learn some classic leftover meals. Pasta bakes, risotto cake, veg or egg fried rice, arancini, porridge for breakfast made with any leftover grains are all great options.

If you’re feeling super resourceful, you could also use some of your scraps. Vegetable cuttings and peelings like carrot tops and peel and onion scraps can be frozen in a tub or bag and then boiled into a stock or broth once you have enough. Lemon or lime skins can be packed into a jar with either sugar or salt to preserve them, which is delicious for salads or in stews.

9. Freeze excess fresh food

There are also often things you can do with excess fresh ingredients. Some vegetables and lots of dairy products can be frozen. Do an internet search to check how best to freeze them.

Some vegetables and fruits lose texture once frozen: get around this by blitzing or pre-cooking. For example, you could cook tomatoes down and freeze for sauces.

You could stew and freeze apples for breakfast. You could freeze bananas and strawberries and then blitz them into smoothies.

Some fresh ingredients also make great sauces or dips. For example, any beans can be blitzed with garlic and spices for something similar to hummus.

If you think you’re not going to use something, you could offer it on a food waste app for someone else to take off your hands.

We have a guide to four useful apps >

10. Compost

Most local councils now offer food waste collections. If you don’t already have them, you can order a food waste bin, a caddy for your kitchen and compostable bags from your council. Check whether this is on offer on the Recycle Now website.

You could also set up a home compost bin for your garden, if you have one. This is actually the most environmentally friendly option. The RHS has a good guide to starting a compost heap.

Basically all food, cooked or not, can be put in your council food waste bin. The only exception is liquids like milk or cooking oil. If you’re composting at home, you may wish to be a bit more careful as some cooked foods or egg shells can attract pests.

Why is reducing food waste important?

Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted globally each year. In rich countries, consumers waste about as much food annually as is produced in sub-Saharan Africa each year.  

By cutting down, we can reduce the amount of food we need to produce and therefore the emissions associated with it.

This is particularly important when we think about feeding the world’s population in the context of climate breakdown. Our global population is growing, which has led some to suggest we need to produce more and more food. But studies have in fact found that the problem is the way food is distributed and consumed rather than the amount we produce.

To feed the population sustainably, we therefore need to change our behaviour, as well as the global systems that decide who gets the food. Eating less meat and cutting down on food waste are small personal steps we can take towards a more sustainable food system.

Ethical Consumer’s Climate Gap Report

In October 2021, Ethical Consumer published the first annual Climate Gap Report looking at consumer action on climate change. It looked at ten key actions consumers must take for the UK to reach its emissions reductions goals, and how far we are from meeting them.

It found that without further action, we would miss all ten key consumer targets. It also found that emissions from food are increasing in the UK, pushing us in the wrong direction.

WRAP estimates that food waste makes up 3.6% of our total emissions. Householders account for about 70% of that total.

Our Climate Gap report used figures from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – the group that advises UK governments on decarbonisation. Based on their calculations, we need to cut our amount of food waste by 34% before 2030, compared to 2019 levels, if we’re to meet UK emissions goals.

While we have used the CCC’s figures, they have been criticised for not cutting fast enough. Going beyond this reduction in your food waste is therefore a great step you can take in cutting emissions overall.