One of Europe’s Biggest, Most Wasteful Food Problems Is Almost Completely Avoidable

The EU throws away a lot of food, but nearly all of it is still edible.
(Photo: greenerleith/Creative Commons)
Aug 13, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The United Kingdom is the worst of the worst when it comes to food waste in the European Union. But the good news is that 80 percent of the waste in Britain—and across Europe—is avoidable.

Still, the study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, which gives a new level of understanding of the scale of food waste across the EU, doesn’t exactly present a pretty picture: All told, EU food waste averages more than 270 pounds per capita per year, and in the U.K., the country with the highest amount of waste, that number climbs even higher. Only about 50 pounds of what residents are throwing away, on average, every year is legitimately inedible.

The researchers based their averages on data from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Finland, and Romania between 1996 and 2005.

“In some ways it’s good that this waste is ‘avoidable,’ because it means we’re able to do something about it,” lead researcher Davy Vanham of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre told Reuters. “A lot of food is still ‘good’ but is thrown away when it passes its sell-by date.”

Member states are trying to do just that. In July, France passed a law that would require supermarket items set to be scrapped to be donated to charity, which is being considered by the EU parliament as well. In 2012, the parliament passed a resolution to cut food waste in half by 2025.

This latest study doesn’t exactly bode well for the prospects of that goal being met, and the researchers went beyond calculating waste of actual goods to show that resources such as water and nitrogen are, in effect, being tossed away alongside the food. When it comes to surface and groundwater resources, EU food waste surpasses municipal uses of those water resources across all the member states. As for rainfall, residents are throwing away the equivalent of what feeds farms in Spain, one of the largest ag producers on the continent, every year.

Despite the scale of waste—and remember, much of what is being tossed is past-their-prime vegetables and other still-edible foods—the researchers are somewhat optimistic.

Drastically reducing food waste, the authors wrote, “would not only save a large volume of water and avoid losses of reactive nitrogen, but it would also preserve other natural resources such as phosphorus, land and energy. In a world with limited resources, food security can only be achieved by a more sustainable use of resources along with adaptations to our consumption behavior, including the reduction or, ideally, the eradication of food waste.”