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Sustain Sustainable Food

What’s the problem?

Sustainability is not just about the food you eat. Three areas of special concern are dealt with briefly in this chapter: waste, energy and water. Whilst Sustain does not specialise in advice on these important aspects of the food system, we mention them here because they play an important part in the overall sustainability of our food and farming systems.


However much energy is has been used to make food and its packaging, all of it is wasted when it is thrown away. For example, in the UK we throw away an estimated 6.7 million tonnes of food every year, accounting for around a third of all of the food we buy. About half of this is edible, with the rest comprising of peelings, meat bones, and so on. Food also makes up a high proportion of the waste from manufacturing, catering and retail outlets. Fruit, vegetables and salads make up about 19% of the waste by weight from supermarkets. Artificially high cosmetic standards stipulated by supermarkets and caterers can also result in large amounts of a fruit crop going to waste.[1]


Low energy bulbLarge amounts of energy are also used to prepare food - in cooking and refrigeration - and indirectly in the production, processing and transporting the food. Most of this energy will be from non-renewable fossil fuels, and are therefore a significant source of greenhouse gases. In total, the food sector is estimated to be responsible for between 20 and 30 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.[2] Much more could be done to improve energy efficiency at home and in food businesses, so that we can all play our part in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming.


TapWater demand has increased dramatically over the past quarter of a century, and we now use half as much water again as we did in 1980.[3] This is a result of changes in lifestyles and many more water-using appliances. The need for us to use water more efficiently is due to several factors – not simply because water resources are finite (a good enough reason in itself!). For example, water purification is a major user of energy, which contributes to climate change. In itself, climate change means we can expect hotter, drier summers and more unpredictable weather, with greater risk of droughts and water shortages. We should all do our bit to use water more wisely.

What can we do about it?

A recent survey from the market research organisation Mintel[4] reported that 71% of British adults recycle as much packaging waste as they can. This attitude is supported by a 2007 government survey, which also showed that around two-thirds of us are concerned about saving energy, and over half about saving water.[5] For example, you can:

  • Cut down the amount of excess packaging that comes around your food, by telling retailers that you would prefer to receive goods in minimal packaging. Ask them to explore using packaging that is re-usable, refillable or made from recyclable materials. 
  • Buy in bulk. Weight for weight, larger boxes, cartons and bags use less packaging materials than smaller ones. 
  • Choose goods that are (in order of preference):
    • Re-usable – washable crockery, jugs, cutlery and other goods are far better than those that get used only once and then thrown away. 
    • Made from recycled materials – to support the market for recycled products. 
    • Compostable or recyclable
  • Avoid goods and materials that cannot be re-used, composted or recycled. If it needs to go in the bin, it will go straight to a landfill site, and these are filling up rapidly! 
  • Cut down food waste you produce by making the very best use of the food you buy, to use up leftovers, and to get creative with what you’ve got. Putting soup on the family menu is an easy and tasty way to use excess vegetables, and to cater for seasonal variations. 
  • Participate in a food composting system run by your local authority, or set up a composting pile or worm bin in your garden. 
  • Don’t be fooled by the cosmetic appearance of fruit and vegetables. Use blemished fruit andvegetables and riper fruits that might otherwise go to waste. 
  • Follow energy and water saving advice of specialist organisations (see details below).

For further information

About Sustain 

Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture and promote equity. We represent around 100 national public interest organisations working at international, national, regional and local level. The alliance is a registered charity (no. 1018643) and company limited by guarantee (no. 02673194).

[1] Friends of the Earth (2002) Briefing Paper: Supermarkets and Great British fruit, see:
[2] Calculations from, for example: Garnett, T., Food Climate Research Network, presentation to Sustain: The alliance for better food and farming, spring 2007. See the FCRN website at:, and EIPRO Environmental Impact of Products, April 2005, European Science and Technology Observatory and Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, see:
[3] Greater London Authority (2007) Water matters: The Mayor’s Draft Water Strategy. See:
[4] Mintel report on Ethical and Green Retailing, June 2007 - to read more go to:
[5] Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2007) Survey of public attitudes and behaviours towards the environment.

Sustainable Food: What you can do - and ask others to do - to help make our food and farming system fit for the future.

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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