/ Food & Drink, Home & Energy

Chucking food away is flushing water down the drain

Water going down the drain

What’s your water footprint? It’s a hot topic for World Water Day, but if you throw lots of food away you could be wasting more than you thought, due to new figures revealing the environmental impact of food waste.

Despite our best intentions, most of us end up throwing food away on a regular basis. For me, it’s often larger vegetables, like cabbage, that I buy for a Sunday roast and then can’t find a use for all week.

I’ve always consoled myself with the fact that it goes into the compost, eventually helping to (organically) feed my garden. Until today, that is, because a new study by WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) and WWF has revealed some rather sobering facts about the environmental consequences of our food waste.

Food waste in numbers

The report calculated that the amount of water it would take to produce all the food UK householders throw away would equate to 6.2 billion cubic metres each year – or an astonishing 6% of all the UK’s water requirements.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the same wasted food also represents 14 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of that created by 7 million cars each year.

This is all a real eye-opener for me. I try to throw away as little food as possible – I’m liberal when it comes to use-by dates and am happy to throw limp veg into soups – but my main motivation has always been not wanting to be wasteful. Stopping to consider how my wastefulness is multiplied down the food chain has never occurred to me before now.

The size of our water footprint

As Liz Goodwin, chief executive at WRAP, says, ‘These figures are quite staggering.’ She explains that the ‘water footprint’ for wasted food is 280 litres per person per day – that’s nearly twice the amount of water the average household uses every day.

And what’s shocked me more is to see the breakdown of who creates the most waste. Up there at the top isn’t retail, as I’d assume. It’s us. Yep, household waste accounts for more than half of the waste generated within the food supply chain, whereas retail only accounts for 7.6%.

We’ve all seen images of the huge amount of food waste created by supermarkets, which puts these figures into some context. In my mind, these findings should shake us into action to plan our meals, eat our leftovers and use the freezer – or we might as well watch water wash down the drain.

Sophie Gilbert says:
22 March 2011

Meanwhile some people are starving…

This raises the question: is food or some foods too cheap for a lot of us? Would we chuck out a cabbage so easily if it cost a fiver?

I am perfectly aware that food is very expensive for a lot of us too. Is it safe for me to wager that poorer households waste less or no food?

I am staggered by the amount of wasted food in the catering facilities where I work. Unless vegetables are rock-hard or food is burnt I always clear my plate. (Maybe that is why I could do to lose weight!)

One of my pet hates is the supermarkets encouraging customers to buy multipacks. That’s fine for tins and toilet rolls but not for fresh food, particularly when it is unsuitable for freezing.

I was born in the early 50s, at a time when society was less wasteful in many respects, probably due to memory of wartime shortages and general shortage of money. I don’t know how we address the problem, but it is certainly useful to point out that food production uses a lot of water. The more reasons there are to avoid waste, the sooner society might face up to the need for change.


I waste no food – my dogs eat all that I don’t – (I don’t eat potatoes in any form – the only food my dogs will only eat as chips) – This reduces any food I get for the dogs. They even lick the plates before they are washed means faster washing up and reduces water used as the plates are ‘clean’ before washing.

As an OAP I cannot afford to throw away ‘surplus’ food anyway – in fact If food goes up in price – I have no choice but live on less. I never throw away “out of date” food because I’ve never been ill eating it yet – and I know there is a very wide safety margin.

As for multi-buys – I simply buy half as often – I have found that all fresh food from Sainsburys lasts at least two weeks in the fridge.- I do not eat pre-processed food like pizzas as they are too expensive.

I was born in the very early 30s – then old people often died of malnutrition – Recent reports seem to indicate that old people are still suffering. The return to Ration Books might help to stop over-buying, over eating and wasting food .

Poorer households are as prone to waste as much or more than richer households possibly due to lack of awareness.

I’m glad you said that you wash the plates after the dogs have licked them Richard.

I completely agree with the amount of food people waste – it’s just wrong. Many rely too much on use-by dates, when using your nose can tell you when something’s off (some things can even go off before their use-by date).

However, I think we should be free to throw some things away. Reheating food isn’t always safe (use the freezer as a first port of call) – for example, reheating old rice is a very big no-no.

Interesting – I don’t eat rice – so never suffer from reheating it.

The only food that ever gets thrown away on to the compost heap is if it is bad before I buy it and miss seeing it This is restricted to fruit.

I also only cook using a multi function Microwave – It is very efficient and fast – though I very rarely use anything but the microwave function (like grill sausages once a year)

If food has been properly heated and the surplus is covered and put in a fridge (at the correct temperature) it is safe to reheat on the following day. It is important that reheating is thorough, and that is no different from ready meals.

The reason that rice is a problem is that boiling does not kill bacterial spores (notably Bacillus cereus), which can produce growing bacteria after cooking. The problem arises when the rice is kept warm for hours, as is done in some restaurants. This allows bacteria to grow and produce toxins that are not removed by boiling. If the spare rice is put in the fridge as soon as it is cool then there is no harm in reheating it.

Patrick makes the important point that food can go off before the ‘use by’ date, usually because of incorrect storage (not necessarily at home). Some years ago there were plans to put indicators on the packaging to alert customers, but this does not seem to have happened in this country.

When I worked in a restaurant as a student I was horrified at the amount people left on their plates which then went straight in the bin. You would think that people paying considerable prices for their food to sit down and eat something a chef has prepared would mean little or no waste, sadly this is not the case.

Perhaps a scheme to encourage restaurants to at least send waste to a composting facility would mitigate some of this. There are a few food chains which prepare fresh food on site who send what is not sold at the end of the day to homeless charities. This seems like a great idea, which hopefully will encourage other businesses to do the same.

I am not surprised, I am a serial food waster, but only because I am a terrible cook!!

I don’t chuck my food down the sink though, whats with that? I put it in the bin.

Or is really people throwing food away, or is it people just doing the washing up?

Bun2011 says:
31 March 2011

It’s incorrect to say reheating rice is a ‘big no-no’. You’ll make people waste their cooked rice!

As long as the cooked rice is cooled down quickly, and stored properly, it’s fine to reheat rice. It’s not the reheating that causes the problems. If you leave cooked rice at room temperature for too long that’s when bad things start to happen (as wavechange explains), and it shouldn’t be reheated (as this will not kill off the bacteria spores).

Food doesn’t need to be wasted – plan meals, buy what’s needed and be creative with leftovers.

Old fruit goes into muffins, veg that starts to wilt goes into veg curries, oven bakes, soups, or gets chucked in the slow cooker with a tin of toms or stock for stew – then it’s popped in the freezer to be used at a later date.

I make bread in a breadmaker, it’s hardly ever goes to waste, but any leftovers are be turned into breadcrumbs (for meatballs or fishcakes) or homemade crutons for salads or soups (or to feed the birds, of course.)

With busy lives this may be easier said than done for some, but with the cost of my supermarket shopping rising there’s not much wasted in this household at all.