Finnish households throw away between 120 and 160 million kg of food every year, an average of 23 kg per person.
STUDIES carried out at the request of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have estimated that between 2010 and 2012, 868 million people (approximately 12 per cent of the world population) were in a condition of undernourishment, not getting a sufficient amount of calories every day. While the figure is decreasing – between 2007 and 2009 it was 867 million and 898 million in 2004-2006 – it appears unlikely that the aim of the First Millennium Development Goal, halving the number of undernourished people by 2015, will be achieved.
The results of the research, executed by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) on request from the FAO, are quite worrying: roughly one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally every year. This amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes annually.
The waste of food has an impact on environmental degradation and climate change, as non-renewable resources are used to produce, process and transport food that no one consumes. The same goes for greenhouse gas emissions such as CO2. In addition, food wastage also contributes to high food prices, because it removes part of the supply from the market.
Tips to limit daily food waste
Plan your shopping: check the ingredients in your fridge and cupboards, then write a shopping list for just the extras you need. Buy loose fruits and vegetables instead of pre-packed to purchase the exact amount you need
Check dates and be aware of the difference: “use by” means that food is only safe for consumption until the indicated day (e.g. for meat and fish); “best before” indicates the date up until when the product retains its expected quality. Food products are still safe to consume even after the indicated “best before” day
Rotate: when you buy new food from the store, bring all the older items in your cupboards and fridge to the front. Put the new food at back to reduce risks of finding something mouldy in your food storage compartments
Freeze: if you only eat a small amount of bread, then freeze it and take out a few slices a couple of hours before you need them. Same for batch cooked foods, so that you have meals ready for those evenings when you are too tired to cook
Use up your leftovers: instead throwing leftovers away, you can use them for meals the following day or freeze them for another occasion. Fruit getting soft can be used for smoothies or fruit pies, vegetables for soups.
Food waste across the world
In medium and high-income countries food is wasted to a significant extent at the consumption stage and it’s discarded even if it’s still suitable for human consumption. In low-income regions the discard of nourishment mostly occurs during the early (production) and middle (distribution) stages of the supply chain, while less is wasted at consumer level.
According to the SIK calculations, the per capita food loss in Europe and North America is approximately 280-300 kg per year (this value is the sum of the food discarded at all stages of the supply chain: manufacturing, retail, distribution and consumption). In the same regions, the total per capita production of edible food parts for human consumption is about 900 kg per year. This means that approximately one-third of the aliments manufactured for human consumption is thrown away. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, the per capita food loss amounts to 120-170 kg per year, while the food production is 460 kg per year.
Overall, on a per capita basis, much more food is wasted in industrialised, medium- and high-income parts of the world than in developing countries. In low-income regions, causes of food losses and waste are mainly connected to financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques; as well as storage, cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. While in Europe and North America consumers alone waste about 95-115 kg of food each year, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia the numbers drop down to 6-11 kg.
In the Statistical Yearbook 2012 the FAO has listed the countries with the highest per capita food losses: US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Iceland, Russia, Norway and Switzerland. In these states, a person wastes on average over 250 kg of food every 12 months.
Food spill in Finland
MTT Agrifood Research Finland, the leading institute developing sustainability and competitiveness of the food system, has observed the situation of food waste across the country. The MTT project Food Waste Volume and Composition in Finnish Food Chain (Ruokahävikki Suomalaisessa Ruokaketjussa) studied the food wasting habits at four stages food supply chain: food service and restaurants, households, retail sector and the food industry.
“Food constitutes more than one-third of the environmental impact of overall Finnish consumers consumption and about one-quarter of the climate impact of consumption,” explains MTT project manager Kirsi Silvennoinen. “Many consumers don’t see food waste as an ecological problem, or they think that recycling or sorting waste help with this issue.”
Recipe for Presto Pizza using leftovers
Recipe for honey-mustard chicken pasta
Households throw away more food
The MTT analysis discovered that biggest percentage of food wastage in Finland comes from consumers. On average, a Finn throws away 23 kg of food each year and the overall amount of food discarded annually by Finnish households is about 120-160 million kg.
Fresh and perishable food, as well as leftovers from cooking and dining, composes the majority of disposed aliments. Vegetables (19 per cent), home cooked food such as casseroles, porridges and sauces (18 per cent) and milk products (17 per cent) are the goods that end up in the garbage bin more frequently. Bakery and grain products (13 per cent), fruits and berries (13 per cent) and meat, fish and eggs (7 per cent) follow. Convenience food amounts to the 6 per cent, while rice and pasta to 4 per cent. The remaining 3 per cent is made up of other ingredients.
The main reasons for disposing of aliments are spoiling due to mould (29 per cent), passing the “best before” date (19 per cent), plate leftovers from dining (14 per cent) and preparing food over need (13 per cent).
Situation in the rest of the Finnish food supply chain
From a study of 72 outlets in food services and restaurants, the MTT has estimated that the sector wastes 75-85 million kg of food every year, which covers about one-fifth of all aliments handled and prepared in restaurants and catering businesses over 365 days. In their analysis, researchers divided the wastage within the sector into three sub-categories: kitchen waste (flaws in cooking, spoiled products and raw materials), serving losses (overproduction) – which comprise the biggest part of discarded food – and plate leftovers.
The retail sector, on the other hand, disposes of approximately 65-75 million kg of food per year, a 12-14 kg yearly average per Finn. The goods that are thrown away the most are dairy products, fresh meat and fish. Tinned goods, dried and frozen food are the least wasted. As for the food industry, the data resulting from the Foodspill study varied from 75 to 140 million kg of edible food discarded annually.
Even though some of the statistics from the MMT Foodspill research can be considered worrying – who would have thought that a person throws away more than 20 kilograms of food every year? – the situation in Finland is much better than in other parts of Europe. A EU study of the food wastage in the 27 member states showed that the average European consumer annually disposes of 76 kilograms of food. However, study methods have been different and the results are not necessarily comparative, for example, food waste definitions can vary.
Reducing waste: what to do to help the climate, as well as your wallet
Various analyses have highlighted different percentages and ways of aliment wastage across the food supply chain. It becomes self-evident, thus, that there are different solutions to fight the loss and waste of aliments across the world. Every person, restaurant, retailer and government can contribute to the diminishment of the amount of food that goes to waste, as well as saving thousands of euros.
The manufacturing food industry, for instance, could improve and intensify the co-operation between farmers to reduce risks of overproduction. Surplus crops from one farm could solve a shortage of crops on another. Better co-ordination and communication would also help against supply chain inefficiencies among retailers, distributors, wholesalers and manufacturers.
The retail sector – food shops and supermarkets – could embrace the two-for-one philosophy on products that are about to expire. This will lead costumers to purchase those goods that, with the help of a few “storage tricks” like freezing, will still be edible for a longer time. Consumers surveys could contribute to set more appropriate appearance quality standards for retailers. Often, too high appearance standards result in the non-purchase of products. Goods, which packages are below these parameters, are thrown away even though the food per se doesn’t have any problem in terms of safety or taste.
To reduce nourishment waste governments could promote the donation of leftovers and products to charitable organisations, as well as creating “sub-standard” markets. Such places would sell food (which is edible but has been discarded by supermarkets due to errors on the packaging print or other appearance standard issues) at very affordable prices. These specific initiatives would definitely improve the quality of life of low-income or even middle-income people. In the EU, in particular, better knowledge and standardisation of packaging terms like “best before” and “use by” would avoid confusion among customers. Not everybody knows, for instance, that food is still safe to consume even after the indicated “best before” day, on the condition that storage instructions are respected.
Restaurants may contribute by adopting the “take home your leftovers” culture, a habit that is not universally accepted (like in the case of France). In addition, they could rely more frequently on making reservations, in order to fight overproduction. Knowing how many people will be eating definitely helps to decrease the amount of food that goes to waste. Same for different size portions: introducing small and big portions will give people a choice of buying food depending on their hunger level. Often part of a meal at a restaurant or school cafeteria is thrown away because of too-abundant plates.
Consumers, with a few small changes in their daily activities, are probably those who can reduce food waste the most. “Plan your shopping carefully and buy only what you need,” says MTT’s Silvennoinen. “Don’t overcook or serve too big portions.” In case of cooking more than what is eaten, the solution is quite simple: freeze your food to lengthen the period it’s edible. Leftovers and ingredients that are about to expire can be combined in recipes that include delicious pizza, soups or desserts, like websites such as Eating Well, Love Food Hate Waste and the BBC’s Good Food show.
Furthermore, it’s important to know the difference between “best before” and “use by” dates on food packaging. “Best before” indicates the date until when the product retains its expected quality, food is still safe to consume even after the indicated day, on the condition that storage instructions are respected and packaging is not damaged. “Use by” indicates the date until when the food can be eaten safely and it’s strongly recommended not to use any aliment after the expiration “use by” date.
One last suggestion: when you store food in your fridge and cupboards, remember to put the newest ingredients at the back and the oldest – those that will expire first – in front. Researches have shown that people are more likely to eat what they see first when opening the fridge. A series of easy tricks that will make you help decrease food waste, improve the climate and save you a few hundred euros every year too!