How to Avoid Food Waste

Causes and Consequences of Food Waste

According to estimates by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), around 17 percent of all ready-to-eat food worldwide is not consumed, but thrown away. If you add food losses on farms and in supply chains, UNEP estimates that a third of the food produced is never consumed.

This problem is often referred to as food waste, especially when it would actually have been avoidable to throw away the food. However, the term food waste is not clearly defined and is used in different ways. Experts usually use different terms. The World Food Organization FAO differentiates between food loss and food waste. Food waste is the food that is lost in production or processing, for example when fruit rots as a result of refrigeration failures. Food waste is food that is thrown away in retail, catering or in private households because it is no longer wanted or because it has gone bad.

Energy, water and land, and fertilizers and pesticides are used unnecessarily for the production and transport of the food that has not been consumed. It is estimated that eight to ten percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are related to food loss and waste.

While around 690 million people around the world are currently starving, enormous amounts of food are becoming waste at the same time. This has a negative impact on the environment and the climate, and it is a major ethical problem. If the global community wants to guarantee global food security, as the United Nations have set itself the goal (see Sustainable Development Goals / SDG No. 2), a balance must be found here. Therefore, by the year 2030, food waste should be halved and food losses reduced (SDG 12). Food security means securing an adequate supply of food that is permanently physically and economically available, and also securing drinking water, sewage systems and health care for every single person on the planet. Factors such as climate change or wars are endangering food production in many regions of the world, while the world population continues to grow.

Awareness of the issue of food waste has grown significantly in recent years. There are always media reports on the topics of food sharing or "containers". Documentaries like "Taste the Waste" or "Wasted" also attracted attention. Sometimes media reports fail to focus on the fact that private households are responsible for more than half of all food waste in Germany. And there is hardly any other area where it is so easy to avoid waste. A large number of private and government initiatives are committed to combating waste and have developed solutions.

Food production pollutes the environment and damages the climate

Even today, global food production has many disadvantages for ecosystems and the climate, and the increasing consumption of meat around the world is particularly detrimental. In addition to the already very high consumption of meat in the industrialized nations, the emerging countries are also following suit. Hardly any other food consumes as many natural resources in terms of surface area and water as meat - followed by dairy products.

The need for agricultural land for growing animal feed is very high. To this end, valuable forest areas - for example in the rainforest - that previously absorbed significantly more carbon dioxide from the air than the forage plants do, are cleared again and again. According to the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 2019, the production of meat contributes significantly more to climate change by generating significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of plant-based food. See also the topics of the week Meat eats resources and The climate eats with the environment in the classroom.

In Germany, more than half of the national territory is used for agriculture. Intensive agriculture in particular is causing the decline and threat to numerous species - among other things through the use of pest control agents (pesticides). In addition, agriculture and animal husbandry, which use pesticides and fertilizers, create problems for soil and water. In the case of soils, erosion from water and wind, diminishing humus levels, and declining soil biodiversity are some of the effects of improper management. Fertilizer residues, including manure from animal husbandry, end up in the groundwater, where they pose a health risk. On the other hand, they also get into rivers, lakes and the sea. This promotes the growth of aquatic plants, which deprive the water of oxygen - the natural balance is disturbed. See also the topics of the week Soil is Valuable and Groundwater: Where does the pollution come from?

The production of food affects ecosystems, the climate and our health. For these and other reasons, it is very important to handle food carefully and to value it.

Food Waste and Food Loss: What's What?

The World Food Organization FAO differentiates between food loss and food waste.

The FAO defines food losses as the proportion that is lost or spoiled before the product is finished or on the market. This includes losses that occur during harvest, storage, packaging or transport. One example is strawberries that have been left in the heat for too long and ferment or become moldy as a result.

According to the FAO, food waste occurs when foods suitable for consumption are thrown away or spoil. For example, when bananas are sorted out in stores because their skin is brown. However, incorrect storage or incorrect handling of best-before dates are also considered causes (see tips in the section "What everyone can do"). Adverse shopping and cooking habits also contribute to food waste. Often people buy too much or cook too large quantities, so that leftovers or food that is no longer edible are thrown away.

The waste also differs according to whether it can be avoided. Waste is considered to be avoidable if the food was still edible at the time of disposal or would have been edible if consumed in good time. Unavoidable food waste is, for example, inedible components of food such as banana peel or bones. Food waste that arises due to habits, for example edible apple peel, which some disdain, is partially avoidable.

Food waste is often spoken of when food waste could (or could have been) avoided.

What is the level of waste?

So far, different information on the extent of food losses and waste has been found in the media and in various sources. This is also due to different definitions. Until recently, there was a lack of clarity about suitable methods for measuring food loss and food waste. UNEP presented this in its Food Waste Index Report 2021.

The current data on which the food waste index is based now shows that the proportion that is generated in private households alone is much higher than estimated in previous years: Around 17 percent of all food ended up in households, restaurants and shops worldwide in the trash. The assumption that less food is thrown away in poorer countries is incorrect, says the UNEP report. Rather, the amounts of waste are surprisingly similar in all countries.

Food waste in Germany

In Germany, the Federal Cabinet adopted the "National Strategy for the Reduction of Food Waste" in February 2019. Only since then have methods been developed for a nationwide collection of food waste. The following areas are considered: primary production, processing, trade, out-of-home catering and private households. This means that around 12 million tonnes of food waste are produced in Germany every year. More than half of that, around seven million tons, could be avoided.

According to this, the majority of food waste at 52 percent (6.1 million tons per year) is generated in private households. According to this calculation, each person throws away around 75 kilograms of food a year. This does not even include drinks and food waste that is disposed of via the sewer system.

Around twelve percent (1.4 million tons) of food waste is generated in primary production, and 18 percent (2.2 million tons) in processing. 14 percent (1.7 million tonnes) of the waste is generated by out-of-home catering. And, according to this calculation, retail accounts for four percent (0.5 million tons) of food waste.

Source: BMEL

How does the food waste and loss come about?

Consumable food is thrown away along the entire production chain, from original production to private households. Various studies see the following causes in particular:



  • bought too much (too big packs, special offers)
  • "unsavory" / "too old" / best before date exceeded / special ingredients that are rarely used
  • Preparation of large portions, leftovers are thrown away
  • poor storage and little knowledge of storage and conservation
  • Throwing away parts of the product, for example apple peel and bread crusts
  • Reject due to a lack of product / quality properties
  • damaged or spoiled products
  • Overproduction, especially of perishable goods
  • By-products such as animal carcasses and bones from meat production
  • incorrect storage
  • Difficulty planning the demand
  • Portions too large, no possibility for guests to take away leftovers
  • Throwing away unspent food
Wholesale and retail 
  • incorrect storage
  • aesthetic standard
  • Packaging defects
  • Best before exceeded
  • Oversupply

What role do consumption habits play?

Consumption habits and their interactions with production and trade play a special role in food waste. Large quantities of food are sorted out in retail because they are no longer optically flawless or because the best-before date will soon be reached. The reason is often that customers expect a flawless appearance. Anything that does not meet expectations is left behind. For example, kohlrabi often have to have a certain minimum size and should be sold with fresh-looking leaves - although consumers usually remove the latter in the shop.

In some cases, there are also standards and regulations on the quality of foods that lead to waste. Alleged or actual EU regulations are often cited. As a rule, however, it is the standards of the food retail or processing industry that go beyond the legal requirements and lead to large quantities of actually edible agricultural products being destroyed.

This also has an impact on agriculture. A considerable part of the harvest remains in many fields because it is difficult or impossible to sell.

What possible solutions are there?

In recent years there has been a growing awareness of the problem of food waste and loss. Political initiatives, private actors and also companies get involved to reduce losses and waste in the food sector.

The EU Commission regards the fight against food waste as part of its efforts to use resources more efficiently and to achieve sustainable development in the interests of the United Nations. With reference to the global UN sustainability goal of halving the amount of food waste at retail and private household level by 2030, the European Union updated the so-called waste directive in 2018. All EU member states are therefore obliged to take appropriate measures to avoid and reduce food waste.

At the beginning of 2019, the federal government in Germany adopted the national strategy for reducing food waste. In five so-called dialogue forums, strategies for avoiding food waste are developed along the entire value chain - from the field to the plate. The Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture has long been promoting the nationwide strategy Too good for the bin! with consumers for a more conscious handling of food and gives tips for everyday life, among other things.

In France, the parliament passed a law banning the grocery trade from throwing away edible food. Instead, they should be donated, used as animal feed or for energy generation, or composted.

There are supermarket chains in Germany that also sell fruit and vegetables that are not flawless on the outside, and that even advertise them specifically. Smaller companies are also involved in this area. Some sell or process food that has been sorted out in agriculture or retail.

There are many ideas for recycling food. For example, many trading companies work together with the so-called food banks, which supply the needy with food. The companies donate food that has been sorted out but edible, and the food is given to those in need.

What everyone can do about food waste

There are many everyday tips that can help reduce food waste. This includes:

  • Shop according to plan: check requirements, write shopping lists.
  • Shop in moderation, only stock up on manageable stocks.
  • Check stocks regularly and use them in good time - older goods first.
  • Check whether food with an expired best-before date (BBD) is still edible. Food with the note "best before" can usually still be consumed safely some time after the date. But be careful: Perishable animal products such as minced meat or raw poultry are marked with a use-by date ("use by ..."). After the date has expired, they must be disposed of immediately, as there is a risk to health if they are consumed. So here you have to look carefully.
  • Chill or freeze leftovers and eat them later.
  • Share or give away unneeded food and leftovers with others, for example through the "Foodsharing" initiative.
  • If there is food leftover: if permitted, dispose of it in the organic waste bin or compost vegetable waste in your own compost / worm box / Bokashi bucket.

Even unavoidable food waste can also be sensibly recycled - the Federal Environment Agency points this out. Vegetable waste can be converted into valuable fertilizer on your own compost heap, in a worm box or in a Bokashi bucket. In addition to vegetables, many other food waste is also collected in the organic waste bin, used to generate biogas and / or composted.

The Federal Environment Agency offers further information on its website.
Tips and instructions for shopping, storage and preparation as well as for creative residual recycling are available on the website of the nationwide strategy Too good for the bin! of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Related Links

Federal Environment Agency (UBA): Against food waste

Federal Center for Nutrition: Food Waste

WWF: food waste

Consumer advice center: Food: Between appreciation and waste
https://www.verb├╝ Zwischen-wertschaetzung-und-verschaltung-6462

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