“Theoretically, zero avoidable food waste is a possibility for EU consumers,” write JRC researcher Davy Vanham and colleagues in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). “This would not only save a lot of money for the consumers themselves, but also for local authorities, which have to pay for food-waste collection and treatment. In addition, this would not only save a large volume of water and avoid losses of reactive nitrogen, but it would also preserve other natural resources such as phosphorus, land and energy.”

Vanham and colleagues looked at national records on food waste from six EU member states. The UK was the worst culprit, wasting the equivalent in weight of one can of beans per person per day, whilst Romania had the best record, wasting an amount corresponding to one apple per person per day.

“We’ve noticed with Romania, and Africa, that there is less food waste as the population tends to have less money,” said Vanham.

The total EU consumer food waste averaged 123 kg per capita per year (with a range of 55–190 kg per capita per year), roughly 16% of all food that reached consumers, the team found. “Uncertainty is very high in these waste quantities, but has never been assessed in previous studies,” said Vanham. “Thus, for the first time, we have provided an estimate of the possible range.”

A total of 97 kg per capita per year of this waste was avoidable. In other words, edible food that wasn’t consumed. Non-avoidable food waste comprises items such as meat bones, egg shells, fruit stones, or fruit and vegetable peel.

For all the citizens of the EU combined, this added up to 47 million tonnes of avoidable food waste each year. The European Parliament recently called for urgent measures to halve food waste in the EU.

“In the EU, consumers are responsible for a major part of the total waste along the food supply chain,” Vanham told environmentalresearchweb. “In a world with limited resources, food security can only be achieved by a more sustainable use of resources, along with adaptations to our consumption behaviour, including the reduction or, ideally, the eradication of food waste.”

The blue water – surface and groundwater resources – associated with this avoidable food waste averaged 27 litres per capita per day, slightly higher than EU municipal water use. The green water – or rainwater – footprint, meanwhile, was 294 litres per capita per day, equivalent to the amount used for crop production in Spain.

The amount of nitrogen contained in avoidable food waste averaged 0.68 kg per capita per year. The food production nitrogen footprint was 2.74 kg per capita per year, the same amount as used in mineral fertiliser in the UK and Germany put together.

Whilst the bulk of the waste was fruit, vegetables and cereals, presumably because of their relatively short shelf-life, wasted meat contained the largest amounts of nitrogen and water. Wasted cereals came in in second place.

“Meat production uses much more resource in the first place,” said Vanham. “So even a little bit of waste can have a big effect in terms of lost resources.”

The team analysed six of the 28 EU member states – the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Romania – for the period 1996–2005.

“Ideally, we’d like data from all the member states – but the data from the other countries is not as reliable,” said Vanham. “Certainly it would be useful if governments invested more in measuring waste with greater accuracy.”

Next the team plans to investigate food waste at a more granular level. “Waste in cities tells us a lot – this is where the bulk of our population is living now,” said Vanham, who also believes that demand-side solutions should target dietary habits as well as food waste.

• This article was amended on 12th August 2015 to correct the figure for the amount of avoidable food waste each year for all the citizens of the EU combined to 47 million tonnes.

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