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Food Waste Versus Plastic Waste: which has a higher environmental impact?

Catherine Burrows

Article created by Catherine Burrows CEnv

Catherine Burrows. Catherine is head of Waste Management at Sodexo, a global catering and facilities management company. She reviews and explores sustainable solutions based on a circular economy approach to ensure the full value of resources are utilised.

food waste article

Food waste and plastic waste is a hot topic, we all go shopping so we’ve all got a part to play in this. So I want to share a dilemma question that you can ask yourself around what’s best; is it the food waste we need to be tackling or is it the plastic waste?

This is a topic I cover a lot, so even though there’s a massive environmental footprint to it, we can all work to minimise waste and get that education out there around everything that we do!

Food Waste

So, food waste, just to summarise, if it was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Around 40% of the food produced that we produce goes to waste. So that’s around a trillion dollars’ worth of food or the same landmass as Canada.

And when you think of that as a whole in terms of the whole geographical map, it’s a huge area that is being processed, paid for, managed, and going to waste. And now we’re in a cost-of-living crisis. There’s 800 million hungry people across the world that that need the food.

Agriculture and food is a key area in addressing the problem and the graph above shows the brown and green bars, all about farm use and the land use change in terms of that carbon impact and packaging. On the dark chocolate there’s a thin grey line [13kg] which is the packaging used to transport the goods.

It doesn’t mean that we should overlook packaging and its impact because obviously that has a huge impact, especially when it’s not managed properly. But just something to think about with that wasted food, is it best to have a bit more packaging waste, or is it best to actually throw food waste away?


From a packaging point of view, there’s a lot of packaging generation development going on, for example the development of new packaging, bioplastics.

Which is great, but it’s all about what’s best, what can be recycled, what has minimal environmental impact, and what is easy for us as consumers and customers. That’s because at the end of the day, we’re there in our kitchen emptying out the salad bag. We need to know where the packaging should go. Either, I need to take it back to the supermarket or it goes in the recycling bin.

Packaging obviously extends the life of products from a food point of view and there are different material types out there and most of the supermarkets are doing work to try and simplify that. And the extended producer responsibility reform that’s going on will also help to simplify that piece in terms of recycling labels and encouraging plastic that can be recycled better, and for companies to use kind of mono packaging rather than a good mix of packaging which we really can’t do anything with. Then it’s making sure it’s captured for that disposal point of view.

packaging food waste article

Tips for Shopping

As professionals and people we should be progressing the right messages to ourselves, our families and those around us. Here are some tips for shopping and dealing with food and plastic waste:

We’ve got weather conditions and climate change affecting how things are growing, but planning meals is key. Choosing the right portions for the right households. For example, there are disadvantages to consider,  quite often items that come in bulk, whilst they might be cheaper, they come in bigger packaging and be leading to more waste.

Buying loose where possible and picking things that are in recyclable packaging. Supermarkets are getting much better now at showing recycling labels on the back of packaging.

Segregating food waste where we can where it’s possible within our household collections.

Another tip is to shop local, utilise locally grown meat and locally grown food. Then we’ve got that awareness of how they are treating the environment, what their environmental standards are.

Finally freezing things where possible as well. It’s amazing what we can freeze, how we can make things with stuff that’s just about to go off.



It’s healthy. We all probably eat it. But actually, do we eat whole avocados? If we’re a small household, probably not. And more recently, I’ve actually switched to buying the Holy Moly Guacamole because it comes in a perfectly sized pot for one portion, and it means you’re not wasting it.

Because if we think the avocado comes from South America, and is associated with deforestation, gangs, lots of water use and the whole transport piece of trying to make the most of it compared to opening a packet and having to throw it away a few days later because it’s gone brown. So having it in that small portion and using it all up and not wasting any of it, yes it does have a packaging impact, but if they’re packaging those in pots that can be washed and then recycled and used again you’re potentially having that minimal impact, and it’s great if you don’t want avocado for lunch two days in a row. I don’t want to eat lots of avocado. Therefore, be aware of your situation and how much of it’s going to be eaten.


We can buy big pots of yoghurt if we know we’re going to be in all week. But if we’re travelling for business, or only one of us in the household, eats yoghurts. Then maybe buy little pots, it’ll ensure it lasts longer. We can potentially freeze it as well and make some kind of frozen frubes. But it’s just being aware of that, when I’m buying it, will I eat it all? Where’s it coming from? What’s the kind of carbon impact associated with it?

Personal experience

I, as a waste professional, still throw food away, still create waste, even though I try my best. It’s something that will be there, especially in our busy lifestyles. Sometimes it’s maybe about slowing down and thinking about it, planning and preparing not to create waste. A lot of plastic waste can be saved by using your local milkman and supporting local businesses.

This article was created by Chartered Environmentalist Catherine Burrows. Catherine is head of Waste Management at Sodexo, a global catering and facilities management company. She reviews and explores sustainable solutions based on a circular economy approach to ensure the full value of resources are utilised. Catherine has worked in the waste management industry for 10 years and recently became a member of IEMA.



WWF - Food Loss on Farms FAO - Food Wastage

Watch Catherine’s Food Waste talk here:

Statements on this blog reflect the views and opinions of the author(s) credited and they do not always represent the views or policies of SocEnv. The blogs shared on the SocEnv website are intended to be thought-provoking articles for informative and educational purposes only.