Food Waste

Imagine if for every 5 bags of groceries you buy, you just threw one away. As a nation, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Australians throw out $8 billion of food every year, or about 20% of the food that we buy.

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When we throw food waste in the bin, it goes to landfill and breaks down underground where there is no oxygen. When there is no oxygen we call these conditions “anaerobic”. When organic matter breaks down in anaerobic conditions it produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. The breakdown of organic matter in landfills also produces a potent liquid called leachate, which can be toxic to the environment if it is accidentally allowed to contaminate groundwater and waterways.

Although the majority of food wastage occurs before we buy it, the impact of throwing food out after it reaches our homes has the biggest impact. When food is wasted in our homes we are wasting the resources used to store, process, transport and cook food as well as the water, fuel and resources put into producing the food in the first place.

We have limited resources: Phosphorus, which is an essential nutrient for the growth of all plants including food crops, has a limited global supply; a changing climate is expected to put further pressure on water availability; and clearing land to grow more food is impacting on biodiversity. This is driving up the cost of food and putting a lot of stress on our rivers and soils.

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Meanwhile, food security is a real problem in Australia. In 2004 it was estimated that 1 million Australians were experiencing food insecurity, meaning that even with all the excess food we are producing and wasting, we are still not feeding around 5% of our population properly. If we want everyone to have enough to eat while not damaging our environment, one of the key things we can do is reduce our food waste.

You can take action by first understanding why food is wasted in your home:

  • Do you cook more food than you need?                    
  • Do you not know what to do with leftovers?                  
  • Do you potentially throw out good food because you’re not sure if it is still safe to eat?
  • Do you buy takeout at the last minute instead of using up what you have at home?  
  • Do you do your grocery shopping without checking what you have at home first?  

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There are many easy things you can do to reduce your food waste. For example, you can meal plan to use up what’s in your fridge and pantry first. You can create a shopping list – and stick to it! You can learn recipes to use up the most common type of leftovers you have. You can learn how to store food to extend its life as well as how to freeze foods close their expiry date, like milk and eggs.

Sound daunting? It doesn’t need to be. The foodwise website has a toolkit, including checklists and simple steps to get you started.

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If you do need to throw food out, you can still reduce your impact by composting. Composting allows your food waste to breakdown under aerobic conditions, which means that oxygen is present. When organic matter breaks down with oxygen it produces carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is still a greenhouse gas, but it is much less powerful than methane. In fact, it is a whopping 28-36 times less powerful so it’s a much better option than sending your food waste to landfill!

Composting also reduces the risk of landfill leachate leaking into our groundwater and waterways, and as an extra benefit can be used as fertiliser in your garden, helping plants to grow while holding moisture in the soil.

Composting is a lot easier than most people think – simply add the right type of food waste with the right type of fill material, turn it frequently, and check on the moisture levels occasionally. Many councils have online resources for residents to learn more about composting, including a troubleshooting guide and solutions for people with small living spaces or no backyard. Some local councils who provide this information online are:

Brisbane City Council even has Community Composting Hubs, where residents can drop off their food waste to be composted by the council.

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Reducing food waste is a practical way for you to reduce your impact on the environment, including the health of our waterways. What leftovers are you enjoying today?

This post was made possible by grant funding received from the Australian Government through the National Landcare Program.