A Chicken in Hand is Worth Ten Apples in the Bush

How many bags of compost do you generate in a week because your food went bad? One or two? But how about supermarkets? Every time you buy food, you may look for the items that look freshest. The one with the furthest expiry date. Most firm. Most ripe. Most pretty. You are not the only one that seeks these characteristics in the food products you buy, so what happens to the food that gets left behind? Once food items become spoiled to the point that supermarkets have deemed they will not be bought, they become waste.

Between six supermarkets studied in Sweden over a three-year period, 1570 tonnes of food waste (excluding bread) was generated (Scholz et al. 2015). Comparatively, the average person in Sweden generates 72kg (0.072 tonnes) of food waste each year. Scholz et al. (2015) analyzed the mass composition and ratio of annual supermarket waste and found discrepancies between the number of food items wasted per category, and their relative greenhouse gas emissions. Results showed that while fruits and vegetables comprised a whopping 85% of food waste by mass, they only contributed to 46% of the wasted carbon footprint (Scholz et al. 2015). As for meat products, they only contributed to 3.5% of the wasted mass but 29% of the total wasted carbon footprint (Scholz et al. 2015).  

In addition to the environmental impact, Brancoli et al. (2017) also state that meat waste contributes more to a supermarket’s economic loss than produce. One technique to reduce meat waste is outlined by Eriksson et al. (2016) whereby reducing storage temperature results in lower quantities of waste. Eriksson et al. (2017) described that changing the storage temperature for deli products from 8˚C to 5˚C results in 15% less food waste. They also point out that minced meats, which are often stored chilled, could be kept frozen to reduce their wastage as well. For produce, the authors categorized the main contributors to still be fresh, edible, and have a high quality (Scholz et al. 2015). This wastage is likely due to supermarkets often providing 7% more food than expected as customer demands can be difficult to project, and as newer and “better” products replace old, although still edible, ones (Brancoli et al. 2017). 

Supermarkets do have tools to reduce their food waste. Keeping foods frozen and at different temperatures, and possibly purchasing less, are small steps that could make big a difference.


Brancoli, P., Rousta, K., Bolton, K. Life Cycle Assessment of supermarket food waste. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 188, 39-46 (2017).

Eriksson, M., Strid I., Hansson, P. Food waste reduction in supermarkets – Net costs and benefits of reduced storage. Resources, Conservation and Recycling. 107, 73-81 (2017).

Scholz, K., Eriksson, M., Strid, I. Carbon Footprint of Supermarket Food Waste. Resources Conservation & Recycling. 94, 56-65 (2015).

“Global Warming Fatigue”: Does the Environmental Rationale for Reducing Food Waste Resonate with Consumers?

When you think of food waste, do you immediately consider its environmental consequences?

Generally speaking, consumers do not often make the connection between wasted food and wasted natural resources. However, when we step back and consider the problem more carefully, the environmental rationale for reducing food waste becomes clearer.

Evidence shows that food waste is indirectly accompanied by a wide range of negative environmental impacts including soil erosion, deforestation, water scarcity and air pollution, to name a few. Furthermore, the actual processes involved in producing and transporting food from farm to fork generate a great deal of greenhouse gas emissions (Schanes, Dobernig, & Gözet, 2018). The total contributions of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste to global warming have been estimated to be almost equivalent to the output of global road transport emissions (FAO, 2011)!

Ultimately, the production and transportation of food is highly resource-intensive. Of course, this is done with good reason: everyone needs to eat.

However, if food is wasted by households at the end of the supply chain, all of the various agricultural inputs, energy and greenhouse gas emissions put into its production, processing, transportation, cooling and preparation are in vain. Unfortunately, 50% of total food waste is in fact generated at the household level. So how do we help households make the connection between food waste and negative environmental consequences? 

Research shows that adding to the already abundant messaging about climate change may not be entirely effective. Recently, warnings and dire messages about the environment are fairly omnipresent. So much so, that we may be suffering from what some sources refer to as “global warming fatigue,” whereby the sheer number of messages results in less meaningful communications (Hebrok & Boks, 2017).

Few would disagree that they could do a little bit more to help out the planet. Although many of us recognize the importance of reducing our carbon footprint and being kinder to the planet, perhaps being surrounded by constant warnings may result in an overall reduced impact.

This leaves us with several questions as food waste researchers. The most pressing perhaps to investigate is whether or not the environmental rationale for reducing food waste should be a focus of educational campaigns.


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2011). Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change, (1), 1–4.

Hebrok, M., & Boks, C. (2017). Household food waste: Drivers and potential intervention points for design – An extensive review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 151, 380–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.03.069

Schanes, K., Dobernig, K., & Gözet, B. (2018). Food waste matters – A systematic review of household food waste practices and their policy implications. Journal of Cleaner Production, 182, 978–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.02.030

What kind of food you waste matters

Food waste is a problem, but among foods that are wasted, the environmental impacts of some are worse than others. One of the major problems with food waste is that all the resources and energy that go into creating food also are wasted if that food goes uneaten. So if you want to trim your food print, there are areas where your energies will have a bigger impact. The most significant is in the area of meat: while I won’t tell you to become vegetarian (though that could dramatically reduce your ecological  footprint), changing your food and waste habits with regard to meat is an area of great potential. While animal products make up a smaller portion of household food waste, the environmental impact of those products are significantly higher. In many ways reducing food waste fits in with many other aspects of ethical eating (for instance local or organic foods may have lower footprints as they travel shorter distances and may use fewer inputs).

For more info on your food’s ecological footprint:


Food foodprint