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Water and Carbon Footprint of Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK (2011)

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This is a report containing quantification and analysis of the water and carbon footprint of different types of household food and drink waste in the UK. In addition to raising awareness, the information can be used in developing national and regional policies targeting a reduction in the impacts of our carbon and water footprint related to our food system. It can also be used by the food industry to understand and minimise water-related business risk associated with food supplies to the UK.

Executive summary

In 2009, WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) identified that UK households dispose of 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink waste every year, most of which could have been eaten. This avoidable food waste has a value of at least £12 billion. However, financial cost is not the only impact. By wasting food, we also waste the water and energy that was used to grow and process those foods, create greenhouse gas emissions, and have a range of other environmental impacts.

The purpose of this report is to further raise awareness and to highlight the consequences on the UK and global environments of the large amount of food wasted in the UK. One of the main objectives of this report is to quantify the water and carbon footprints of household food waste in the UK, and to present the results in the context of impacts across the supply chain. The report builds on work published by WWF-UK (Chapagain & Orr 2008) that quantified the water footprint of the UK. WRAP and WWF-UK have worked together to produce this report which, for the first time, provides an estimate of the amount of water used within the UK and abroad in food and drink which is subsequently wasted in the UK. In addition, it also analyses this information in the context of water scarcity at production regions.

The water footprint of the UK calculates the amount of water used to produce goods and services consumed in the UK, as the sum of direct (e.g. household water use) and indirect (water used along the supply chains of goods and services) water. Previous research by WWF-UK (Chapagain & Orr 2008) has found this to be 102,000 million cubic metres of water per year. Our research has found that the water footprint of avoidable and possibly avoidable food waste is 6,200 million cubic metres per year representing nearly 6% of all our water requirements. In per capita terms, this is 243 litres per person per day, approximately one and a half times the daily average household water use in the UK. A quarter of this water footprint represents water used to grow and process foodhere in the UK, i.e. water from the UK’s rivers, lakes and aquifers.

It is estimated that avoidable food waste is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions of 20 million tonnes CO2equivalent per year, accounting for the whole life cycle. Avoidable food waste represents approximately 3% of the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions, with further emissions from overseas components of the supply chain. In contrast to the water footprint, approximately two thirds of emissions associated with food waste occur within the UK. These emissions are equivalent to those produced by over 7 million cars per year. The most significant contributors to avoidable carbon emissions are milk waste, coffee waste and wheat products (bread, cake etc.). The research also suggests that for some food and drink items, indirect emissions associated with Land Use Change caused by levels of demand for those items are greater than direct emissions.

The impact of greenhouse gas emissions is global; in terms of climate change, it does not matter where they are emitted. For water, knowing the location of the point of water use, and the relative scarcity of water resources in that location, is essential to understanding the social and ecological impacts of our footprint. This report identifies where in the world water is used to produce the part of the food being wasted in the UK and relates this to water scarcity in these production regions, with case studies for two countries. Case studies are also presented for foods for which waste has a high water footprint, and which are associated with supply chains reliant on areas where water is scarce.

The study is limited to carbon and water footprints only and doesn’t include other environmental impacts associated with food production, consumption and waste. Nor does this report address issues relating to social and economic costs and benefits with water use and carbon emissions.

The findings of this research highlight that actions to reduce food waste can have a significant impact on the amount of water we use and the amount of greenhouse gases we emit. They reinforce the messages from WRAP and WWF-UK on the importance of preventing food waste at all stages of the supply chain. By reducing food waste, householders can save money and also make a significant contribution to addressing current environmental concerns in the UK and abroad. Reducing food waste will not, by itself, solve all the problems of climate change and poor water management, but it can make a positive contribution.