How Much Food Are We Wasting?

by Patrizia Gragnani

Last year, on the 29th of September the world celebrated the very first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste[1]. Food waste is an issue that concerns global food security and has significant environmental, economic and social impacts. 

What is food waste? 

According to the Food Waste Index Report 2021 of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), food waste is defined as food, or any substance that is intended for human consumption, and associated inedible parts removed from the human food supply chain in the sectors of manufacturing of food products, food and grocery retail, food service, and households. Food waste occurs when food ends in landfill, controlled combustion, sewer, litter/discards/refuse, co/anaerobic digestion, compost/aerobic digestion or land application. [1]

Are Europeans wasting food? Yes, a lot.

According to the EU Project “Fusions: estimate of European food waste levels” of 2016, 88 million tonnes of food waste are generated in the EU each year, which results in economic losses estimated at € 143 billion [2]. Every year, 20% of the food produced in the EU is lost or wasted while, according to the Euro Food Bank Statistics of 2018, 21.7% of EU population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion [3]. The percentage of European living at risk of poverty or social exclusion is the highest in Bulgaria, with 32.8%, and the lowest in Czechia, with 12.2% [3].

Is the rest of the world doing better? Not much.

On the global scale, the figures are not significantly better than in the EU. According to the UNEP Food Waste Index Report, in 2019, 931 million tonnes of food was wasted, roughly 17% of the global food supply [1]. Out of which 11% of the total food waste occurs in households, 5% in food service and only 2% in food retail. The food that we waste globally could be enough to feed the world’s hungry people [1].

What may be surprising to some is the fact that there is not much difference in household food waste between high, medium and low-income countries.

In summary, tonnes and tonnes of food literally go to waste worldwide. But one country, South Korea, has taken the lead in drastically reducing its food waste.

How is South Korea handling food waste?

Back in 2005 the country banned dumping food in landfills, and in 2013 it introduced compulsory food waste recycling [4] . Koreans are required to purchase special biodegradable trash bags for their food waste [4]. An average Korean household of 4 people spends 6$ a month on the purchase of such bags [4]. While 6$ a month might seem a bearable expense to some, this scheme encourages households not to waste food, and also covers 60% of the cost of the food recycling scheme [4]. The household food waste is collected and separated into its liquid part, that is then used to produce biogas or bio oil, and its dry part, recycles as fertilized or animal feed when suitable [4]. This measure, coupled with the use of 6000 smart garbage bins, placed in Seoul and enabled with scales and radio frequency identification that enforces a pay-as-you-recycle philosophy, has reduced urban food waste by 47.000 tonnes from 2013 to 2019 [4]. Therefore, South Korea managed to reduce the quantity of food that gets thrown away by households, on the one hand, and to recycle 95% of food waste, on the other [4].

The Korea Zero Waste Movement Network, among other objectives/projects, teaches young students and their teachers how to embrace circularity and reduce their waste, so that Korean citizens learn from a young age how to reduce their environmental impact [5].

So, given that households generate most of the food waste, how can we reduce our waste of food?

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) we can start with 9 simple and easy steps [6]:

  1. We can take smaller food portions both at home and at restaurants.  
  2. Don’t throw leftovers: we can eat them tomorrow or use them in a different dish.
  3. We should buy only what we need. When shopping for groceries, it is easy to fall into the trap of impulsive buying. We can avoid this by preparing a list of food we need to buy, and sticking to the list!
  4. No prejudices: “ugly” or irregular shaped fruits and vegetables are still good! Let’s pick those that are more likely to be discarded and therefore wasted.
  5. Let’s store our fresh food properly: refrigerators should keep a temperature between 1 and 5 degree Celsius. Let’s arrange our groceries as our fridge producer suggests: each shelf has a specific purpose!
  6. First in, first out: we should eat first what we bought first to avoid wastage.
  7. Understanding food expiry dates. Often the food expiry dates we find on products indicate the date by which it should be sold or by which the food quality is best. Often, these dates are chosen in a conservative manner, in order to protect the producer from possible litigations related to the consumption of spoiler products. However, if stored properly, food might be edible a few days after the indicated expiry date. We can try before tossing it in the garbage!
  8. Some food waste is unavoidable, but we can try to compost it and use it as fertilized for our plants and garden.
  9. Remember that we can always donate the surplus! 

In conclusion, looking at the astonishing results that South Korea gained in just a few years, we learned how reducing food waste to the minimum is possible. At the same time the food waste that cannot be avoided, can still be recycled as animal feed, fertilizer or as biomass for the production of biogas.


[1] United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Food Waste Index Report 2021, 3., Accessed on 05.07.2021.
[2] Stenmarck, Å., Jensen, C., Quested, T., Moates, G., Bukst, M., Cseh, B., … & Redlingshofer, B. (2016). Fusions: Estimates of European food waste levels. IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute: Stockholm, Sweden., Accessed on 05.07.2021.
[3] EUROSTAT (2019), Downward trend in the share of persons at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU, Newsrelease 158/2019., Accessed on 05.07.2021
[4] Douglas Broom (2019), South Korea once recycled 2% of its food waste. Now it recycles 95%. World Economic Forum. 12.04.2019. Accessed on 05.07.2021
[5] Korea Zero Waste Movement Network,, Accessed on 01.07.2021
[6] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017), 9 tips for reducing food waste and becoming a #ZeroHunger hero, 26.05.2017,, Accessed on 01.07.2021
Categories Food & Agriculture

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