Food recycling | some staggering numbers

Food recycling is about making sure that as little food as possible is wasted. This means that food should actually be eaten rather than being thrown away. And if food cannot be eaten for some reason then at least it is composted and not sent to landfill.

The hospitality industry leaves a lot of produce uncooked that spoils and many meals that are prepared but not eaten. At home people leave fresh food in the fridge too long and a fair amount of processed food stays in the pantry beyond its ‘use by’ date.  

This happens every day and is so normal we hardly notice it.

An average Australian household wastes over $600 worth of food a year equivalent to roughly 20% of what they buy — a remarkable $5.2 billion worth across the country. 

This is like leaving one out every five bags of groceries in the supermarket each time you go to the shops.

Somewhere between 20 and 40% of fruit and vegetables don’t make it to the stores just because they don’t look quite right. These days the consumer seems to value looks over flavor [dare we say looks over substance].

The nutritional value of the food wasted is large and morally difficult to justify when there are people who go hungry. Even in Australia that is proud to call itself the lucky country and has more than enough resource to feed a population twice its current size, every day a million kids go to school without breakfast or have no evening meal.

So there is no need to waste food if it is already grown and there are hungry people around to eat it.

The scale of the food recycling problem

The numbers when we start to add up all the food outlets and fridges in the neighborhood are remarkable:

  • At times half the food that leaves the farm gate fails to reach the fork
  • The developed economies collectively have almost twice the amount of food than is needed to sustain the people living in them
  • The cereals and bread thrown away by households is enough to feed 30 million of the world’s malnourished people 
  • The billion people in the world who are consistently hungry could be well fed on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the rich countries

These statements point to some scary inequalities, market failures and blatant negligence.

Food recycling begins to make sense.

The environmental issue with food waste

If it stopped at the morals of hungry people in a world of plenty that would be bad enough. But there is more.

A kilo of beef that goes into the bin has cost the environment 50,000 litres of water necessary to grow that amount of beef. Similarly a kilo of rice needs over 2,000 litres and a kilo of potatoes 500 litres. In countries such as Australia where water is precious and there are conflicting demands on its use, such waste is foolish.

And there are nutrients in all that food too. The reason most plant foods are nutritious is that they are the parts of the plant packed with energy and nutrient to promote reproduction. These nutrients come from the soil naturally or are put there as fertilizer. No farmer can be happy that his expensive fertilizer ends up in the bin.

And from the bin a large amount of food waste finds its way to landfill where ot is buried. Over time this oxygen starved organic material decays to release methane that happens to be is an especially potent greenhouse gas. Methane is  23 times more potent global warming potential than CO2 and its also smells terrible — odour control at landfills creates management challenges if there are neighbours.

At a time when developed countries still argue over modest targets for emission reduction it seems very odd that 10% of their greenhouse gas emissions come from growing food that is never eaten.

Fortunately many countries now realise that landfill is not the best place to put food waste. In the UK for example, most organic waste is recycled including food recycling and either 

  • burnt to generate electricity
  • burnt in low oxygen [a process called pyrolysis] to produce biochar that is a valuable fertilizer
  • composted to use as organic fertilizer 

Australia still has a way to go with food and green waste making up nearly half of municipal waste that goes to landfill. Trucks shift over 3 million tonnes of food to landfill sites every year. 

food supplies waiting to be distributed to remote communities in Papua New Guinea


Fortunately there are some easy wins amongst all this pessimism. Many of the moral and current environmental issues with wasted food are just laziness on our part. It’s much easier to throw it away the stale bread than recycle it.

Around the world enthusiastic people are offering food recycling services to make it much easier for homes and businesses to recycle food.

Local councils are providing food recycling bins and sending the food and green waste to purpose built composting facilities and digesters.

Then there are organisations like OzHarvest who collect unwanted food from hospitality businesses and distribute it to the needy.

You can check out OzHarvest here and maybe leave a donation for a truly worthy activity.


If you live anywhere in Africa and no longer need any household item all you do is leave it by your front gate. In minutes the item is recycled or repurposed [often in truly ingenious ways].

When resources have value there will be someone to come along and realize that value. The challenge with food waste is that we do not recognize the value of the resource that we are throwing away. 

This is about to change. In some countries it already has and the stragglers will follow. Even a modest rise in the price of oil will make compost and biochar economical for any farmer reliant on fertilizer inputs. Profit is a very powerful motivator.

As for the consumer it may take longer for them to realize that looks are not everything, but you will… won’t you.

› food recycling

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not everyone is fortunate enough to eat so well