Why Food In Landfill Is Bad

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With a huge push on recycling across the UK, we all know that waste going into landfill is a big problem. Huge amounts are being spent on increasing recycling, yet Britons throw away a huge amount of food in their general waste bins every year.

Food in landfill is a big problem because it breaks down in the ground and creates methane due to a lack of oxygen. Methane is responsible for contributing over 20 times the global warming effect of the same amount of carbon dioxide. In the UK, 40% of all methane emissions come from landfill.

We know plastics are a problem, that we should make the effort to separate metal and paper from general waste for recycling, but food waste is often something that people are blissfully unaware of.

Food waste is a big priority for a number of reasons. As we’ve said, methane emissions contribute towards global warming, but there’s another big incentive to eliminate excess food products being disposed of too.

Global Hunger And Poverty

When you’re thinking in terms of waste and recycling, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and think in terms of how to responsibly dispose of waste.

What is far better though, is not to have the excess in the first place. If you only buy what you consume, there is no food waste. It’s a very simple concept, but one that’s almost always an afterthought. When you notice food that has passed its best, it’s usually in the fridge or cupboard, at least a few days after you bought it.

Annoying though it is from a financial perspective to throw food you’ve paid for in the bin, it’s arguably far more expensive to the planet when it ends up in landfill, generating greenhouse gases that contribute towards climate change.

Putting all of that aside, we live on Planet Earth which sustains a global population of approximately 8 billion people. That’s 8,000,000,000 humans living from the land. An alarming proportion of the human race lives in poverty, unable to be sure where their next meal will come from.

The best estimates say that between 8.4% and 9.2% of people globally live their lives in extreme poverty, defined as living their days on an average of less than $2.15 (US Dollars) per day (increased from $1.90 in 2022).

The range varies depending on how incomes are measured, but that’s somewhere between 672 million and 736 million people around the world struggling to feed themselves to the most basic level. To put it another way, it’s at least ten times the population of the UK.

With such a large number of people hungry around the world, we should all feel the guilt when throwing away food because it’s not been consumed in time.

How To Reduce Food Waste

On a personal, household level, there’s a lot we can do to minimise our contribution to emissions of methane from landfill.

According to a 2019 study by waste experts Biffa, the average household throws away £540 of food every year. With rocketing food prices since that survey, it’s likely that food waste value has increased, even though people are being more careful with buying what they need.

In 2019 the median average salary in the UK was just over £30,000. If you work five days a week for 47 weeks a year (every job varies due to holiday allowances), that’s 235 days, meaning the average UK employee earns around £128 per day before deductions like taxes and pension contributions. After tax and national insurance (but not other deductions that may apply), the daily rate falls to approximately £92.

Therefore, even back in 2019, somebody in the average household is working for almost six days a year, just to pay for the food that ends up in the bin.

Only Buy The Food You Need

The biggest single cause of food waste is buying more that you need in the first place.

We all have those times when you get an unplanned takeaway on the way home from work after a tough day. What that might mean, is a meal that you’ve bought food for won’t get made and eaten before it expires.

If that’s true in your house on occasions, then you’re already better than many people in planning what you eat. The worst offenders for binning food waste have one thing in common – a lack of planning their grocery shopping.

If you’re like me, I go into the supermarket with a list in hand, knowing exactly what I’m planning to buy. That sounds really organised, but I almost always end up going rogue on the way around the aisles, being tempted by those roll-back prices, or the 3 for 2 deals we all know and love.

Of course, reduced prices are great if you’re buying that product, but if you wouldn’t otherwise have bought it, is it really a saving?

Taking advantage of offers in supermarkets is often a touchy subject, as there are undoubtedly huge savings to be had if you know what you’re doing. Here’s a few rules to follow to help if you like a bargain:

  • Don’t bulk buy perishables
    Buying several items with a short shelf life is a recipe for waste. A common problem is buying three, perhaps as a three-for-two offer, and finding that you only use one or two of them before their dates are reached.

    While you could argue that you’ve not spent any more if you use two of them than if you’d just bought two in the first place, many of us forget the environmental impact from throwing them away.
  • Know what you’ve already got at home
    When you stumble across one of those end of aisle deals on the weekly shop, if it’s not on the list, you may not have a clue what’s already in the back of the cupboard at home.

    If you’re guilty of bargain temptation, make the effort to check what’s in the kitchen cupboards every few weeks. You’re then much more likely to skip buying more stuff you don’t need on the next shop.
  • Use your phone
    Is that bargain really a bargain? Yes, it might be that it’s reduced compared to the normal price in that supermarket, or on a multi-buy deal, but a quick look on your phone will reveal the price in other supermarkets or on online stores like Amazon. Maybe that deal isn’t as good as it looks after a quick check!
  • Before you pay, glance through your trolley
    Once you’re in the checkout line, it’s much harder to change your mind. We’ve all been there, stuck behind someone that’s suddenly hit with buyers remorse when the total flashes up on the till screen.

    There’s little more annoying in a grocery store than waiting for someone in front to decide what they don’t want after all and waiting for the items to be removed and returned to the shelves.

    Simply taking a moment to look at everything you’ve picked up means you can still return an item or two without the embarrassment of holding others up in line.

How To Dispose Of Food Waste Responsibly

Doing our best to only buy what we need is great, but it’s unrealistic to think that it will completely eliminate food waste on its own. Fortunately, there are ways to dispose of food that are significantly better than sending it to landfill.

Across the UK, the ability to separate waste is improving all the time. The most widespread services are paper, card, plastic bottle, tin cans and garden waste recycling services in terns of kerbside collections.

Food is a much more patchy collection, with less than half of UK households opting to use a food waste collection weekly. For clarity, over half of households are covered by food waste recycling collections, but inevitably not everyone makes the effort they should to use them.

As has happened with the more accepted recycling services, this should improve with time. While some homes will fail to recycle due to laziness, the majority of people simply need to understand why the separating of waste is important, and be helped to understand what they need to do.

Experts are now confident that public opinion heavily supports recycling, so that enthusiasm is best backed by education initiatives rather than punitive threats in the first instance.

For areas of the country where food waste collections are not in operation, most households should be able to access sites that provide disposal facilities. Usually these are available at the local tip, but increasingly at recycling sites in places like supermarket car parks too.

If you need to find out where your nearest site offering food recycling is, try your local council website, or our area by area guides.

How To Recycle Food Yourself: Get Composting!

Having said all of that about food recycling services, you might think that is the best option when you’ve got food that’s no longer wanted or edible. Actually, assuming you have some outside space, there is a much better option – a compost bin.

Composting is great if you do it well, because you can overcome the big problem that landfill has – a lack of oxygen as the food breaks down. In a compost bin (or compost heap), you provide the oxygen required and keep that methane release really low.

When done professionally, the breakdown of waste can result in almost zero methane emissions. That’s because it’s done in controlled conditions, and a large proportion of any residual methane can be captured as it is released and dealt with separately.

As councils that offer kerbside food waste collection services do this at scale, which is the better option? Use the collection service, or compost yourself?

It’s worth making an obvious point first, that either option is better than food going into general waste, just like any other form of recycling beats landfill. While we just said that councils are likely to be more efficient than hobbyist gardeners at reducing emissions from the food breaking down during the composting process, that doesn’t account for the emissions of the bin lorries completing their rounds.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re interested in having your own compost bin at home, it’s a great way to do your bit (or should I say do a bit more) environmentally. In addition, it also produces a brilliant fertilizer in the form of compost to use while gardening or to keep your lawn healthy, while at the same time composting can dispose of weeds and garden waste.

For home composting, there’s a bit more information required to get started, so we’ll add a guide to getting started in the coming weeks. For that reason, we won’t get into the specifics now, and will update this page in due course once it’s published.