how does food waste affect the environment

How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?

Last Updated on August 18, 2023 by Annie Baldwin

Food waste has a significant negative impact on the environment.

According to estimates, one-third of all food produced worldwide is wasted.

This article explains why reducing food waste is critical and outlines its major consequences, such as pollution, climate change, and resource depletion.

How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?

How Does Food Waste Affect the Environment?
Food waste can have a variety of negative effects on the environment. The three basic natural resources—energy, fuel, and water—used to produce food are wasted when we throw away food. Image Credit: New Food magazine

Food waste has a tremendously negative impact on the environment.

It contributes to climate change, air pollution, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss.

Reducing food waste is imperative to protect the planet.

Key Points

  • Food waste accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions from human activities.
  • Rotting food waste is a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Producing uneaten food squanders finite resources like water, cropland, and energy.
  • Up to 40% of food in the U.S. goes uneaten, costing over $200 billion annually.

Why Should You Care About Food Waste?

Food waste is a major yet often overlooked problem.

Up to 40% of food in the United States goes uneaten, amounting to over 160 billion pounds per year.

This wasted food ends up rotting in landfills, releasing potent greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming.

Cutting down on food waste is an impactful way to lower your environmental footprint.

How Much Greenhouse Gas Does Food Waste Generate?

When food waste decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Food waste alone accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

If it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter after the U.S. and China.

Reducing waste is key to lowering emissions.

What Is the True Cost of Wasted Food?

Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of uneaten food costs the U.S. over $218 billion annually.

Food waste consumes 21% of agricultural water and 18% of cropland per year while costing $2.6 trillion globally.

Cutting waste would preserve precious resources.

Does Wasted Food Deplete Finite Resources?

Besides water, producing uneaten food expends energy, cropland, labor, and capital.

For instance, food waste costs the U.K. over £20 billion annually.

Diverting surplus food to donations could provide meals for millions experiencing hunger.

How Can You Reduce Food Waste?

Start by buying only what you need, storing food correctly, and using leftovers creatively.

Compost scraps, donate excess food, and spread awareness.

Support businesses preventing waste and urge policymakers to incentivize waste reduction.

Small actions add up to a big difference.

How Does Food Waste Affect Climate Change?

Different types of waste dumped in landfill
It requires land, water, labor, and other precious resources to produce the food we throw away. To make matters worse, food waste is a significant source of greenhouse gases, namely methane, a gas that is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Image Credit:

Food waste has a significant impact on climate change, generating greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.

As organic matter like food scraps decomposes in landfills, it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

Globally, food loss and waste account for 8-10% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

If food waste were its own country, it would be the third largest emitter after the U.S. and China.

The production, processing, transport, storage, and disposal of uneaten food expend fossil fuel energy, resulting in carbon dioxide emissions as well.

Based on a model from Project Drawdown, reducing food waste could avoid up to 87 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Curtailing waste is imperative to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

We must transform behaviors, business practices, and policies across the supply chain to minimize food waste and its contribution to the climate crisis.

Why Does Food Waste Kill Marine Wildlife?

Food waste harms marine ecosystems when it enters waterways and leads to eutrophication.

As wasted food and food-contaminated wastewater make their way to the ocean, they enrich waters with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

This sparks algal blooms that can stretch for miles.

Algal blooms block sunlight from reaching underwater plants, disturb the marine food web, and deplete dissolved oxygen as bacteria feast on algae.

The resulting dead zones are devoid of oxygen and unable to support aquatic life like fish, crabs, and corals.

Even at low concentrations, algal toxins can accumulate up the food chain and poison marine animals.

Annually, over 700 marine dead zones are tied to organic pollution from mismanaged food waste and runoff from agricultural lands where food is grown.

Minimizing food loss and waste on both the production and consumption side will help mitigate eutrophication and its deadly impacts on marine biodiversity.

Keeping food waste out of waterways maintains clean and healthy oceans.

How Does Uneaten Food Waste Our Precious Water?

Producing food that ultimately goes uneaten squanders the precious freshwater needed to grow crops and raise livestock.

Agriculture accounts for around 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, largely going towards foods that will be discarded.

For example, 21% of all the water used for U.S. agriculture, over 25 trillion gallons per year, irrigates fields growing uneaten food.

Food waste also worsens water pollution, as substantial amounts of water are used to apply fertilizers and pesticides, which can run off fields and enter waterways.

The phosphorus and nitrogen that leach into water bodies contribute to toxic algal blooms.

Livestock waste containing antibiotics and hormones further pollutes water.

With over 2 billion people facing water stress, it is untenable to wastewater-producing inedible food.

Cutting waste would help ensure clean, adequate water for growing populations.

Why Does Uneaten Food Harm Wildlife And Biodiversity?

The encroachment of agriculture to produce uneaten food is a major driver of habitat destruction, placing pressure on wildlife populations and biodiversity.

As the global food system expands croplands and pastures to satisfy food demand, critical habitats like forests, grasslands, and wetlands are being converted at alarming rates.

This land conversion destroys the diverse ecosystems that wildlife depends on.

For instance, tropical deforestation for commodities like soy, beef, palm oil, and wood fiber destroys biodiverse rainforests that are home to endangered species.

Up to 80% of deforestation in tropical countries is attributable to agricultural expansion for food that will be wasted.

Curbing food waste avoids the conversion of habitats for unnecessary agricultural production, thereby protecting wildlife and ecosystems.

How Can We Solve The Food Waste Crisis?

Tackling the complex food waste crisis requires a systems-level approach that engages all stakeholders across the supply chain.

We need policies, incentives, and partnerships to enable systemic change in behaviors, infrastructure, and business practices.

Strategies include consumer education, improved storage and transport, streamlined date labeling, supply chain coordination, circular business models like recycling food waste, and centralized composting programs.

Governments can advance anti-waste regulations, standardize date labels, and fund infrastructure like cold storage and composting facilities.

Businesses must minimize waste in their operations, while citizens can reduce household waste by meal planning, properly storing food, and composting scraps.

A collaborative effort focused on curbing waste at every step can transform the food system to be environmentally sustainable.

Our Food Choices Matter

Reducing food waste mitigates climate change, preserves biodiversity, saves money, and feeds people.

Rethinking our food habits and systems is imperative to building a sustainable future.


What causes food waste?

Food is wasted due to poor storage, cosmetic standards, overbuying, plate waste, and supply chain inefficiency. Lack of coordination between actors and focus on cost rather than sustainability perpetuates the problem.

How can we stop food waste?

Strategies include buying only what we need, using leftovers, composting inedible scraps, donating surplus food, educating consumers, and improving production, storage, and distribution processes along the supply chain.

Why should I care about food waste?

Food waste worsens climate change, air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and resource depletion while wasting money that could alleviate hunger and poverty. Curbing waste benefits the planet and vulnerable populations.

What countries waste the most food?

Industrialized regions like North America and Europe waste nearly 300 million tonnes of food annually. Food loss is more prevalent in developing countries due to poor infrastructure, while rich countries waste more at the retail and consumer levels.

How can technology reduce food waste?

Innovations like sensors, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cold chains, and smart packaging can enhance traceability and coordination to minimize waste across the supply chain.

At GreenChiCafe, we are passionate about our natural world and protecting the environment. Reducing food waste is an impactful way to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation. Check out our website for more content on living sustainably.

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