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Stop wasting food to cut climate change

How your cold leftovers are heating up the planet.

Iain Gulland | 14 May 19

"We are facing our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change……………[and] if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade we could face irreversible damage to the natural world, and the collapse of our societies. We're running out of time, but there is still hope.”                      

These few words from Sir David Attenborough in a stark new BBC documentary sum up both the scale of the problem and, crucially, the role we can all play in solving it.

For the millions of people who tuned in to watch the prime-time TV programme, ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, the apocalyptic scenes of wild fires and flooding around the world have become all too familiar.  And while many of us across Scotland enjoyed basking in unseasonably warm sunshine over the long Easter weekend which followed the broadcast, we are uncomfortably aware that heatwaves are also a key warning sign of global warming.

As the world gets ever hotter, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem.

What we are far less conscious of is that one of the most straightforward and significant solutions is something we can all do in our daily lives – by changing the way we buy and bin food. As one leading scientist on the programme put it, in a simple direction to viewers on how they can help combat climate change:

‘Eat everything you buy.’

He didn’t, of course, mean that anyone should eat more than is healthy. But we collectively bin hundreds of thousands of tonnes of food each year after filling our shopping trolleys with things we just don’t eat, due to a combination of poor planning and the lure of discount deals. And that doesn’t only cost us money, it costs the planet dearly too.

It might seem bizarre but scraping that leftover lasagne, mince or salad from your plate into the bin is seriously damaging the planet, because when those scraps of pasta and lettuce which you never got around to eating end up in landfill, they rot. And as they break down they emit methane, which is many times more harmful in the short-term to our climate than carbon dioxide (CO2).

Food waste is an even bigger cause of climate change than plastics. Zero Waste Scotland research has shown that in 2016 the carbon footprint of food waste collected from Scottish households was nearly three times (2.6 times) that of plastic waste collected from our homes, at roughly 1.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) compared to 0.73MtCO2e.

It is still vital that we continue to reduce plastic waste, which remains an extremely serious issue. But as more people ditch single use plastics as awareness grows of the wider impact of plastic waste, including pollution, we will send a strong message on the damage caused by binning leftovers and other wasted food.  

One of the key reasons why food waste has a far greater impact on global warming is that there is much more of it. Each year Scottish households produce around 600,000 tonnes of food waste. The amount of that food waste which is collected from Scottish households is roughly double the amount of plastic waste collected, with an estimated 456,000 tonnes of food waste collected in 2016, compared with 224,000 tonnes of plastic waste. Most of the food waste is also sent to landfill, with only 93,000 tonnes picked up through dedicated food waste recycling collections.

Zero Waste Scotland’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign connects with thousands of people through workshops and social media. The message is loud and clear; love your food more, waste it less and recycle unavoidable waste, such as egg shells or coffee grounds. Our awareness of the dangers of food waste is growing, which is good, but we’re not acting quickly enough yet to address the problem.

We have just launched our new Food Waste Reduction Action Plan setting out how we will build on our past successes to achieve the Scottish Government’s aim of reducing food waste nationwide by a third by 2025. It will be a challenge, for when it comes to rubbish, food waste is among the most damaging types there is.

While our food accounts for only 5% of our total waste by weight, it causes just over a fifth (22%) of waste carbon emissions. Those levels are so high because they don’t just include methane produced from rotting food in landfill, they also take account of the resources and energy used to grow, harvest, process and transport our food.

We have already played a key role in helping to reduce food waste by 8%, however, through work including supporting councils to increase household recycling collections.

As we expand our work further we will explore new ways to combat food waste, including improving how we monitor that waste to identify hotspots to help target greater support where it is most needed.

While the problems are great, I take hope from the growing numbers of people across Scotland and the world who want to play their part in combating climate change.

The BBC documentary illustrated how widely people are becoming engaged, from veteran broadcaster Sir David – now in his 90s – to Greta Thunberg, the Swedish schoolgirl inspiring tens of thousands of children worldwide, including Scotland, to hold ‘climate strikes’ urging greater action on global warming.

As we move forward with the action plan I would urge everyone to heed her words in a speech, also shown in the BBC documentary, as she says: “I've learned that you are never too small to make a difference."

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