Topic 2 The environmental, social and economic impacts of food waste in the circular economy

⮚Worldwide, a third of all produced food is lost or wasted (1.3 billion to 1.6 billion tons/year).

⮚In the EU, it has been estimated that 20% of all food produced each year is lost or wasted, costing approximately €143 billion. It is estimated to 173 kg per person/year.

⮚Food waste accounts for between a third and a half of total household waste according to the World Biogas Association.

⮚31M tons of food waste would need to be reduced each year in order to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goal by 2030.As a comparison, 88 M tons of food is wasted in Europe each year.

⮚The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently estimated the full cost of food waste at USD 2.6 trillion, when environmental and social impacts are also monetized.

⮚At the same time, the latest Eurostat data (2018) indicate that 33 million people cannot afford a quality meal. (including meat, chicken, fish or vegetarian equivalent) every second day.

The later food is wasted along the chain, the greater are the environmental and economic impacts. These impacts must take into account the energy and natural resources spent to process, transport, store and cook the food, as well as its calories and nutrients.

Most food waste ends up in landfills, where it produces large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times worse than CO2, both of which cause global warming and climate change.

If food waste was a country, it would rank third in terms of greenhouse emissions, right after USA and China. The 1.6 billion tons of food that are lost and wasted annually are estimated to account for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

As agriculture accounts for 70% of the water used throughout the world, food waste also represents a great waste of freshwater and ground water resources.

hrowing out one kilogram of beef means wasting the 15,000 liters of water used to produce that meat, according to data processed by Centro Civiltà dell’Acqua.

Pouring one glass of milk down the drain means wasting nearly 1,000 liters of water.

Regarding land use, around 1.4 billion hectares of land, which is roughly one-third of the world’s total agricultural land area, is used to grow food that is wasted.

This means that:

  • A negative impact on biodiversity, as this area is not used as forest or wild land where CO2 could be captured.
  • Millions of liters of oil are also wasted every year to produce food that is not eaten.
  • Fertilizers are unnecessarily used, which again has negative impacts on biodiversity and soil pollution.

These maps show the distribution of these environmental impacts:

Source: Kummu, M. (2012).

This is an overview of the main impacts of food waste:




  • Production requires energy, raw materials and soil
  • Soil erosion
  • Over-fertilization of waters
  • Eutrophication
  • Water consumption
  • Water shortage
  • Loss of biodiversity
  • Environmental impacts of disposal
  • CH4, C02 emissions
  • Direct costs due to lost production
  • Social costs: health costs and welfare losses
  • Environmental costs because of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption
  • 4% of the global gross national product
  • Dwindling livelihoods
  • Health
  • Conflicts
  • Countermovement: e.g., Dumpstern, Containern
  • Strong contrasts: 800 million people are starving
  • Abundance in industrialized countries

This overview shows that while the food system has made significant productivity gains over the past two centuries, it does not meet long-term needs.

The industrial food system has worked wonders in increasing global food production to meet rising demands from the expanding world population. Food production has enabled population growth.

But this linear model sees food production that:

  • Extracts finite resources;
  • Is very wasteful;
  • Pollutes the environment;
  • Degrades natural capital.

Food brands, producers, retailers, governments, innovators, waste managers, and other food players are all working towards 3 main ambitions based on circular economy thinking:

  1. Source food grown regenerative, and locally where appropriate;
  2. Make the most out of food;
  3. Design and market healthier food products.

Achieving these 3 ambitions in cities could generate annual benefits worth $ 2.7 trillion by 2050.

Food designers have the power to ensure their food products, recipes, and menus are healthy to both people and natural systems. Marketing activities can then be shaped to make these products attractive to people: