What is food waste? Your ultimate guide 

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

For years, we’ve been spoiling bins with our food waste. Whether it’s the veggies your youngest refuses to eat, or the salad you forgot you bought the morning after that bottomless brunch, food is fed to bins all over the world.  

But you know what? Bins aren’t as hungry as you think. And there are plenty of better uses for the grub nearing expiration in the lost, forgotten depths of your fridge and cupboards.  

Just because food doesn’t go on your waist, doesn’t mean it has to go to waste. So, strap on your green armbands and dive into our extensive food waste guide to learn how to let your bins go hungry. 

What is food waste? 

Chucking food away is as big a crime as microwaving fish in the staffroom, or letting one rip in an elevator. The kids in Oliver! didn’t sing Food Glorious Food to watch you slide a half-eaten fajita into a soggy bin liner. 

Food is made to be eaten, and it’s wasted when it isn’t. Food waste is defined as any edible produce that’s been lost, spoilt or left uneaten. 

How is food waste defined? 

There are two key phrases when it comes to food waste. Here are their definitions: 

  • Food waste: produce that’s suitable for human consumption, but left unconsumed and discarded. This term is usually used for uneaten food at the end of its supply chain, such as household waste.  
  • Food loss: produce that’s spoiled, spilled or lost during the supply chain process. This usually occurs during harvest, production, processing and distribution. Food loss covers everything from unharvested crops to food damaged during transportation. 

All food waste is food loss, but not all food loss is food waste. Kind of like how all potatoes are vegetables, but not all vegetables are potatoes. 

Why food waste is a problem 

If food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind America and China. 

Food production accounts for more than a third of the world’s greenhouse gases (NewScientist). Yet one-third of our planet’s food is wasted, despite the UN reporting that food production must double by 2050 to meet the demands of our growing population. 

Food should be tasted, not wasted. And when produce is thrown away and discarded, it doesn’t just waste resources and edible items. It also wastes energy, contributes to global warming, and adds to world hunger. 

Biting off more than we chew means nasty emissions are created all for nothing. And to make matters worse, when food ends up in landfills, it breaks down to form methane, adding even more greenhouse gases into the mix. 

Food waste doesn’t just create a hefty ol’ carbon footprint. It stomps on the planet’s resources like a bully on an ant hill, or your nan doing the hokey cokey after one too many sherbets. 

How much food is wasted in the UK every year? 

According to Wrap (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), the UK annually wastes around 9.52 million tonnes of food. 6.4 million tonnes of that is completely edible when it’s thrown away. This costs us £19 billion per year; £284 for every UK citizen. 

The UK’s food waste creates 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every 12 months. Eradicating edible food waste would be the equivalent of removing one in every five cars off UK roads (UK Government).  

Food waste facts and stats 

  • • More than 900 million tonnes of food is wasted globally every year, with 17% of all the food we produce being thrown away (UN Environment Programme).  
  • • The average household spends £470 on food that ends up in the bin (Wrap). 
  • • 6.4 million tonnes of the UK’s food waste could be eaten (Wrap). 
  • • Cows, shield your eyes and ears… Because almost 500 million pints of UK milk are tipped down the drain each year (Wrap).  
  • • One-third of all food is wasted (United Nations food agency). 
  • • Food waste represents 8-10% of all greenhouse gas emissions (Wrap). 

What causes food waste? 

Causes of food waste can be split into four categories: 

  1. 1. By-product: Trimmings and scraps created during production that are left uneaten. This also accounts for crops that are spoiled due to weather and insects. 
  1. 2. Expired products: Items that have become rotten, or reached their sell-by or best-before date. A sell-by date is the deadline at which retailers can no longer sell a product to a consumer. If a product has reached its sell-by date, it usually has around one-third of its shelf life remaining. You should always consume foods within their use-by dates, unless you can freeze them. 
  1. 3. Leftovers: Produce left on plates, bowls and in glasses. This is most common in restaurants and households. 
  1. 4. Unsold items: Items that are left unpurchased in shops and hospitality, that can no longer be sold. 

One of the most shocking and avoidable reasons retailers waste food is cosmetic, with a whopping 40% of wasted fruit and veg tossed away for being too small or wonky. Not like at the Modern Milkman, where we appreciate our 5-a-day in all shapes and sizes. Our fruit and veg is seasonal, sustainably packaged and fresh from the farm. Reducing waste across the board! 

Where does food waste end up? 

Most discarded food waste ends up in landfill, just like those pesky single-use plastics we’re always bleating on about.  

Those rogue vegetables your kids catch you sneaking onto their plate? Landfill. The messy remains of that large kebab you drunkenly swore you could handle on your way home from the pub? Landfill. The crust-ends of the bread the whole family ignore until it’s past its use-by date? Landfill. Landfill. Landfill. 

Landfills are a big contributor to the climate crisis, creating greenhouses gases and toxic substances that weasel their way into our oceans and soil. But by using sustainable packaging, recycling and reusing, and reducing food waste, we can avoid them altogether. 

Food shouldn’t be left down in the dumps. It should be celebrated and feasted upon. Because once it finds its way from bins to landfill, it begins to rot away, releasing greenhouse gases that are 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and a million times more potent than your partner’s bottom-burps after a brussels sprout vindaloo. 

How much food do supermarkets waste? 

UK supermarkets waste 240,000 tonnes of food every year (Evening Standard). That’s the equivalent weight of about 1,500 houses, and heavier than 40,000 elephants. According to the Independent, supermarkets throw away enough food for 190 million meals each year. And yet, only 9 percent of their food waste is donated to the hungry. 

Maybe it’s time we remove the “super” from supermarket. 

How much food do businesses waste? 

An estimated 60% of food waste comes from households (BBC News), with the rest being thrown out by retail, leisure, hospitality and other businesses. 

Which countries produce the most food waste? 

According to a study by Forbes, China is the biggest waster of food, with over 91.5 million tonnes wasted per year. India is second-highest in the global food waste league table, with almost 68.8 million tonnes of food wasted over 12 months. The United States is third, with over 19.3 million tonnes. The UK is the seventh-highest contributor to the billions of food wasted each year. 

What are the most-wasted foods? 

According to studies and surveys, these are the most frequently wasted household foods: 

  1. 1. Bread 
  1. 2. Bagged salad 
  1. 3. Fresh vegetables 
  1. 4. Cooked leftovers 
  1. 5. Fresh fruit 
  1. 6. Milk 
  1. 7. Eggs 
  1. 8. Cheese 
  1. 9. Meat 
  1. 10. Fish 

Now, we’re not going to try and create some mystical recipe using all of the above ingredients (milky, eggy, cheesy, fruity, fishy, meat stew, anyone?). But there are several ways you can make haste in reducing food waste. 

How can I reduce my own food waste? 

Youth is wasted on the young, and food is wasted on bins. But becoming an avid waste-watcher is easier than you think. From the supermarket to your fridges, bowls and plates, here are a few ways you can cut down on food waste in your home. 

Meal planning 

Meal planning makes your culinary life so much easier, adding some much-needed organisation and structure to your eating habits. That’s not to say you can’t have fun with it, though.  

Planning ahead just ensures you eat exactly what you want, when you want, with the exact ingredients you need. 

Shopping lists 

“Do we still have the cranberry sauce from Christmas?“. “Argh, we forgot to get more loo roll!” “Do we have enough bread for the kids’ lunches tomorrow?” 

We’ve all been there. Standing in the middle of the aisle, having an existential crisis about what you already have at home. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Shopping lists solve these age-old problems. All you need to do is check what’s in your cupboards, fridges and freezers, and make a note of what you need before you shop. This way, you never double-up on items you already have. Simples. 

Refill stations 

Throwing out unused herbs and spices is a waste of thyme. And wasted rice or pasta is an absolute crime against all things delicious. 

That’s why we love refill stations. These shops allow you to fill up your own reusable containers with as much or as little produce as you need. Shop and watch your food waste drop! 

Leftovers 

If leftovers were the correct way to dispose of food waste, they’d be called rightovers.  

Next time you’re struggling to squeeze those last remaining chips or final morsels of lasagne beneath you’re already-loosened belt, don’t just toss them away. Ask the restaurant if you can take them home with you. That way, never again will you be up all night regretting the fries that got away. 

The same applies at home. Your bin may open its greedy mouth every time you offer it food, but a much more efficient way of enjoying your masterful cooking is to sweep your leftovers in tupperware to enjoy for lunch the following day. 

Portion planning 

We all know it takes a wizard to know just how much pasta or rice is enough for one person. And even the best of us can finish a sharing pack of Maltesers in one sitting. But if you are keen to reduce waste while watching your waist, it’s worth deciding on your portion sizes early on.  

If you’re cooking a recipe for four, but there are only two of you, try halving the ingredients. Or, cook the full recipe and freeze or refrigerate your leftovers.  

Keep a beady eye on dates 

No, not the sweet fruits. We mean sell-by and use-by dates! If you notice an item in your fridge or cupboards approaching its use-by date, check the guidelines on the label to see if it’s freezable. This will extend its shelf life and ensure it doesn’t go to waste. 

Or, if you have a mix of ingredients nearing their sell-by date, try heading to Google to see if there are any scrumptious recipes that combine them. We have our own selection of delicious waste-reducing recipes below: 

Some supermarkets have actually started removing sell-by dates to help prevent food waste. Our eco-friendly groceries arrive fresh from independent farmers, bakers and tasty treat makers, so that you can enjoy them as much and for as long as possible. 

Keep your cool 

A common cause of food waste is setting your fridge and freezer at the wrong temperature. This can speed up the spoiling process and reduce freshness.  

Check out this Curry’s guide to avoid your appliances having their own climate crisis. 

Storage 

Should chocolate go in the fridge? Could Jack have fit on that door in Titanic? Do tomatoes belong in cupboards? What is the correct name for a bread roll? And where the heck do you store eggs? 

These debates have divided families, ruined friendships, and fired up offices for years. And while we can’t solve all of them, we can help you store your groceries in the right place to prolong shelf life. Check out this useful food storage guide for more info. 

Change your shopping habits 

We source our fresh produce from independent suppliers, farmers and dairies, and deliver it in sustainable packaging. This includes fresh milk, spring water, and soft drinks in return-and-reuse glass bottles, as well as the option to schedule flexible grocery deliveries up to three times a week. 

Our green milkround is the perfect way to reduce plastic waste and food waste, as it allows our eco-conscious customers to order exactly what they need, when they need it. No more last-minute trips to the shop. No more single-use plastic. No more excess grub! 

How to ensure uneaten food isn’t wasted 

Sometimes, food ends up uneaten. And that’s okay. Here are a few ways you can still whet your appetite for reducing waste with your own uneaten scran: 

Apps that help combat food waste 

As well as our own nifty Modern Milkman app, there are other applications that help you combat food waste. Too Good To Go, for instance, is a takeaway service that has helped over 18,000 businesses save 10 million bags of food from being wasted.  

Olio is another fantastic waste-reducing app, which allows neighbours to share household items and shop homemade. 

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