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  • The Impact of Food Waste: Statistics, Trends and Actionable Insights
Last updated: 17 March 2024

The Impact of Food Waste

Food waste estimate

The hidden cost of food waste on environment and economy

Food waste is a significant global issue. Over 30% of food is lost or wasted annually, a staggering 1.3 billion tons.

Food waste occurs at every stage of the food "life cycle," from agricultural production to consumption and disposal. This means all stages of the food supply chain, from farms to households. Weather, pests, disease, low market prices, or high labour costs can lead to food being left in the field. 

  1. In fields, food is lost due to crop pests, diseases, and inefficient harvesting methods. This accounts for over 500 million tons lost annually.
    1. Postharvest handling, storage, processing, and distribution also contribute to food loss, generating around 350 million tons of waste, approximating £819 billion lost annually.

      These three phases alone represent approximately 75% of all food waste. The final step accounts for the last 25% of food waste.

      1. Discarding food in shops, supermarkets, and households adds to the problem.

        The cost of global food waste statistics

        Food waste is a significant economic issue. Experts estimate that the financial consequences, excluding fish and seafood, amount to £770 billion globally. And in the UK, the annual cost is estimated to reach as high as £19 billion. This figure includes household waste, hospitality and food service, manufacturing, retail, and wholesale sectors.

        Here is the breakdown of global statistics as of 2023:

        1. Food wastage's carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, equivalent to GHG released into the atmosphere per year.
        2. 1.4 billion hectares of land - 28 per cent of the world's agricultural area is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted
        3. The total volume of water used each year to produce lost or wasted food (250km3) is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia's Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
        4. More than 60% of all food waste is produced on the commercial level
        5. The average American household throws out 25% of the food they purchase
        6. A family of four tosses out more than £1,320 a year in wasted food
        7. In the United States alone, it is estimated to be between 30 and 40% of the food supply
        8. The direct economic cost of food waste is estimated to be £819 billion annually. 
        9. The yearly waste is roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat, and dairy, and 35% for fish.
        10. Around 13 per cent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17 per cent of global food production is wasted in households, restaurants, and hotels.
        11. Food waste is valued at £326 billion annually, which is about Austria's GDP.

        The magnitude of food waste

        The global volume of food wastage is estimated at a mind-boggling 1.6 billion tonnes of "primary product equivalents." This immense quantity has severe environmental consequences. Carbon emissions are responsible for up to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere. To put this into perspective, this accounts for a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions.

        In a world of seven billion people, set to grow to nine billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally and ethically, aside from the cost implications, all the land, water, fertilisers and labour needed to grow that food is wasted – not to mention the generation of greenhouse gas emissions produced by food decomposing on landfill and the transport of food that is ultimately thrown away.

        Consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food as sub-Saharan Africa's entire net food production each year. In developing countries, 40% of losses occur at postharvest and processing levels, while more than 40% at retail and consumer levels in industrialised countries.

        These facts show that they significantly contribute to global hunger and insecurity. Reducing this can save resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and feed more people. This reduction can be achieved through various methods, such as improving supply chain management, reducing portion sizes, and educating consumers.

        SectorSubgroupTypes of Food WasteEstimated QuantityEstimated Annual Total 
        Food RetailSupermarkets, Grocery Stores, Convenience StoresUnsold produce, expired products, damaged goods, overstocked items118 million tons13%
        Food ServiceRestaurants, Cafes, Fast Food ChainsPlate waste, uneaten prepared food, kitchen trimmings, overproduction, spoilage, expiration224 million tons26%
        ResidentialSingle-family households, Multi-family households, DormitoriesPlate waste, spoiled food, expired products, over-purchasing570 million tons61%

        Food waste per industry

        The food waste is produced by various sectors, including households (43%), grocery stores, restaurants, and food service companies (40%), farms (16%) and manufacturers (2%). It is estimated that 1.6 billion tonnes of "primary product equivalents" are wasted annually, which equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food. 

        This wastage has a significant environmental impact, with the carbon footprint estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent to greenhouse gases (GHG) released into the atmosphere annually. 

        By dividing the waste by food type, suppliers, retailers, and consumers waste approximately 45% of all fruits and vegetables, 35% of fish and seafood, 30% of cereals, and 20% of meat and dairy products annually. 

        Households waste

        Households are the most significant contributors, producing 570 million metric tons. This figure is supported by a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, which estimated household food waste at 569 million tonnes

        The average global household wastes 74kg of food each year per capita. However, this figure varies by country. For example, Australian households generate 102kg annually, while Russian households produce 33 kilograms per capita. 

        Restaurants waste

        Food waste in restaurants is a significant global issue with substantial economic, human, and environmental implications. According to the Green Restaurant Association, a restaurant can produce up to 25,000-75,000 pounds annually.

        It's estimated that 17% of a diner's meal is left uneaten, and 55% of restaurant leftovers are edible. This is equivalent to over £133 billion in food waste. Restaurants waste 4% to 10% of the food they buy, and 30% to 40% of the food they serve customers is never eaten. This results in a substantial loss for the restaurant industry. 

        Agriculture or Farming waste

        Global agriculture or farming is a significant issue contributing to food loss and environmental impacts. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Tesco's report, an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food goes uneaten worldwide, with 1.2 billion tonnes of farm-stage wasted yearly.

        This is higher than previously thought, pushing the share of wasted food to about 40%. Farm-stage food waste is 2.2 gigatonnes of CO2eq annually, 4% of global anthropogenic emissions. 

        In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that 1.3 gigatons of edible food is wasted yearly, with 1.2 billion tonnes, or 15% of food produced, wasted before it makes it off the farm. This shows that an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food go uneaten worldwide each year, with 40% of all food produced but never eaten being sufficient to feed two billion people. 

        The farming stage is worth paying more attention to, as farms were somewhat overlooked because they were a lower-income country problem, mainly due to poorer harvest and storage technology. However, waste at the farm stage can be driven by the socio-economic and market factors that shape the agricultural system.

        Manufacturing sector

        The manufacturing sector plays a significant role in global food waste, with a substantial amount of food being lost during the production and manufacturing stages. It is estimated that 30-40% of food production is lost before it reaches the market. This suggests that a significant portion of food waste occurs during the production and manufacturing stages.

        Food loss results from inefficiencies, and hidden costs are often equal to or greater than retailers' net profit—even the best-performing ones. 

        Various food manufacturers have taken steps towards tackling this issue. For instance, IKEA has become the first global company to halve food waste by leveraging WRI partnerships and research, cutting this by 54% across its 400 in-store restaurants. Similarly, General Mills, a leading food company, generated 1.71 thousand tonnes in 2021, a decrease of 23.7% over 2020

        The research suggests that food manufacturers and retailers are uniquely positioned to lead global efforts to reduce food loss because they are at the centre of the food value chain. Working with each other and all value chain participants, they can cut food loss by 50 to 70 per cent. 

        Wasted food management estimates

        These estimates are from the US Environmental Protection Agency and are for 2019. The global volume of food wastage is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes of "primary product equivalents," total food wastage for the edible part of this amounting to 1.3 billion tonnes. The amount of food lost or wasted costs 1.9 trillion BRP annually and is more than enough to feed all the 815 million hungry people in the world – four times over.

        It is important to note that these estimates exclude the small share of excess food that food banks cannot distribute and are routed to other management pathways. 

        In 2024, composting as a management pathway is estimated to effectively manage only about 5% of the total wasted food. However, the potential impact of composting is significant, as it reduces the volume of food waste sent to landfills and contributes to soil health, plant growth, and ecosystem resilience while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

        Percentage of food waste

        The chart is divided into several sections, each representing a different management pathway for food waste. The most significant slice, representing nearly 60%, is "Landfill," indicating that a substantial portion of food waste remains in landfills.

        Key statistics related to food waste management and food insecurity as of 2023

        Statistics valueValue
        Global food waste1.3 billion tons per year
        Global food waste carbon footprint3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year
        The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted250km3
        The total value at the global level£816.5 billion
        Percentage managed by donation7.76%
        Percentage managed by animal feed2.29%
        Percentage managed by composting4.49%
        Percentage managed by landfill59.84%
        Percentage managed by sewer/wastewater treatment6.00%
        Global Market Management in 2022£35.2 billion
        Estimated global market for management in 2027£46.6 billion

        This table shows a significant global issue with environmental, economic, and social impacts. It also highlights the importance of management in reducing the adverse effects. The estimated global market management is expected to grow. The projections are based on the estimated compound annual growth rate of the worldwide management market in the coming years, indicating an increasing demand for solutions to address this issue.

        Projected growth market value

        Here is a table summarising the projected growth of the global management market:

        YearMarket Value (USD Billion)Market Value (GBP Billion)CAGR

        The global food waste management market was valued at BRP 57.2 billion in 2022 and is expected to register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.4% from 2023 to 2030. The estimated value of food waste in the UK is around £14 billion per year. The EU member states have pledged to halve per capita global at consumer and retail levels by 2030 while investing in proper disposal to obtain beneficial goods like fertilisers and biogas. 

        The United States has set a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030. This can address climate change, increase food security, productivity, and economic efficiency, and save money for families and businesses. 

        Top countries with food waste data

        Regarding the gross volume of food waste, the most populous countries unsurprisingly top the list.

        1. China: As the world's most populous country, China leads in food waste, with an estimated 91.6 million tonnes discarded annually.
          1. India: Following China, India's food waste exceeds 68 million tons. The high waste levels in India, like China, are primarily due to the country's large population.
            1. United States: Despite having a smaller population than China and India, the US discards over 19 million tons of food yearly. As the world's largest food consumer, the US's problem is more a result of consumption patterns than population size.
              1. France and the United Kingdom: Each country exceeds 5 million tons annually. Despite their love for food and baked goods, these European nations need help with significant food waste.
                1. Russia: Russia's food waste exceeds 4 million tons due to its vast size and population.

                  If 'Food Waste' were a country, it would be the world's 3rd largest emitter of CO2 after China and the US

                  Top countries by per capita food waste

                  While the total volume is essential, it's also crucial to consider food waste per capita, which provides a more accurate picture of waste levels relative to a country's population.

                  • Australia: Australian households are some of the worst offenders per capita. The country wastes over 2 million tons of food annually, with an average of 361 kgs of food wasted per person each year.
                    • United States: The average American wastes 278 kgs of food per year, making the US one of the top contributors to food waste per capita.
                      • Greece: Greece leads in household food waste per capita, producing 141 kg per capita.
                        • United Kingdom and Spain: Both countries have an annual average household food waste of 77kg per capita.
                          • India: Despite its high total, the average volume produced per capita in India is less, with 50kg of food waste per person yearly.

                            Food recovery programs and combating food waste

                            These statistics underscore the urgent need for strategies with significant economic, environmental, and social benefits. For instance, ReFED estimates that an annual investment of £11 billion over the next ten years can reduce by more than 50% each year, resulting in £60 billion in annual net financial benefit. 

                            While some countries like France have made strides in curbing food waste, earning the top spot in the Food Sustainability Index, there is still a long way to go.

                            One example of a successful food waste reduction initiative is the "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign in the UK. The campaign aims to raise awareness about food waste's environmental and economic impacts and provide practical tips at home. The campaign has reduced household waste by 21% since its launch in 2007.

                            Another example is the "Zero Hunger" initiative by the United Nations, which aims to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. The initiative recognises the importance of reducing food waste and promoting sustainable food systems to achieve this goal. The initiative calls for action from governments, businesses, and individuals to facilitate and improve food security.

                            Efforts to reduce food waste must be multifaceted, addressing the volume, behaviours, and systems contributing to it. This includes improving food storage and transportation, promoting sustainable consumption patterns, and implementing effective waste management strategies.

                            In conclusion, while the challenge is significant, so too is the potential for improvement. We can make strides towards a more sustainable and equitable global food system by addressing food waste.

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