10 ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your food

Diet has long been a dirty word, but you can clean up your act by reducing the carbon emissions of the food you buy, eat and waste in these 10 simple steps.

Sept. 16, 2020, noon by Anna Prendergast

Fear not – reducing the carbon footprint of the food you consume doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the food you consume. Not only does food keep us alive, it also gives life meaning –  the growing, making and eating of it provides jobs, fuses connections and inspires creativity. So how do we eat in a way that is better for us as well as the planet? 

1) Go vegetarian. A plant-based diet is the single most effective way to cut your food-related carbon emissions. The statistics say it all: Our World in Data found that producing a kilo of beef emits 60 times the amount of greenhouse gases as a kilo of peas; meat and dairy accounts for around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Considering we need to cut global emissions by 50% by 2030 to stabilise Earth’s temperature, that’s a sizeable chunk we can solve just by eating less burgers. Red meat and dairy are particularly damaging – farming cows takes huge amounts of resources (water, land), often results in deforestation and produces harmful gases such as methane. 

2) Eating seasonal produce has a more significant impact than ‘eating locally’, a message often encouraged because it places responsibility solely with the consumer (rather than the corporations that control our supply chain). Don’t misread us – local produce can be wonderful, as long as it’s seasonal. Take strawberries for example: if they’re grown in a giant greenhouse in the UK in the middle of winter, using tonnes of energy (and therefore emissions), they’re no ‘better’ than strawberries shipped over from Holland, where a more optimal climate allows them to grow naturally until December. Want to know more? The Vurger Co has a handy guide to seasonal eating.

3) Ditch the single-use plastic where possible. Around a third of the plastic produced globally ends up in our ocean, and the majority ends up in landfill where liners can leak harmful pollutants into the watershed. Whilst some plastic is essential to keep certain foods fresh (1.5g of plastic film for wrapping a cucumber can extend its shelf life from three days to 14 days), all plastic’s good qualities – it’s cheap, strong and doesn’t degrade – are also its downfalls. When it comes to your weekly food shop, skip the supermarket for a bulk store, where you only pay for what you need and purchases go in a recyclable paper bag or your own container. Always take a reusable tote or carrier when you shop, and if you order food online opt for no bags – Morrisons will collect old carrier bags and recycle them, plus give you 5p off your next shop.

4) Minimise your food waste. Around 20% of all food produced ends up in the bin, which means the emissions created for that food to exist are not only excessive, but avoidable. Shop smarter – only buy what you need (again, bulk buying stores are great for this), do an inventory of your fridge before you shop, never visit Sainsbury’s when you’re hungry and susceptible to impulse buying. At home, store food properly to elongate its shelf life; take ‘Best Before’ dates with a pinch of salt; use up what you’ve got before you buy more; recycle packaging as much as you can and compost leftover raw produce. If your council doesn’t provide proper facilities for this, find your local MP and write to them to find out why. Make the most of the food you buy too – take a ‘nose to tail’ approach to animal produce, and Google the bits of your vegetables you’d usually throw away. For example, cauliflower leaves often get chucked, but grilled with a drizzle of olive oil and salt they make a delicious snack. There are also apps such as Too Good To Go, which connects you to local stores and chefs trying to get rid of surplus for free, and Olio, where you and your neighbours can swap and give away food you don’t need but is perfectly edible (ideal for pre-holiday fridge clearouts). Put the money you save towards a great meal out…

5) ...at a zero-waste restaurant, such as Silo, whose kitchen has completely eliminated food waste. Eating out at restaurants is an integral part of how our country socialises, networks, dates and dines, and making good choices is all part of the fun. London’s Silo is a pioneer in its field, but there are plenty of places upping the standards of how we eat out, such as boutique hotel collection The Pig, whose 25 mile menu reduces food miles, supports local suppliers and provides total transparency; or Native, which turns foraged ingredients into the most spectacular flavours.

6) The Pig’s restaurants also make use of a kitchen garden: and so can you. Got a garden, roof terrace, small windowsill or local allotment? Grow your own! Drop into a local garden centre for tips on how to choose the right plant pot, fertiliser and seeds. There’s nothing more satisfying than biting into a meal you nurtured from seed to saucepan, plus you’ll cut out all the emissions associated with mass-produced fruit and vegetables, such as water wastage and air miles. 

7) Think about your alcohol consumption. Unlike food, there’s no making excuses for the ‘necessity’ of booze in our diets, and the production of glass wine bottles in particular produces a large amount of emissions. Use your consumer power to encourage brands that are already coming up with solutions: canned wine grew 67% in 2019; Scottish spirit brand Arbikie has debuted a carbon positive vodka (in other words, each 700ml bottle creates a carbon saving of 1.53kg CO2e, which more than offsets the emissions used to produce it). Toast Ale, a London-based brewery, is a certified B Corporation (which puts purpose over profit) and turns surplus bread into craft beer. Even winemaker Accolade, who owns Kumala, Hardy’s and Echo Falls, has announced its core wines are now carbon neutral. We’ll drink to that. 

8) Get your local community involved. Initiatives are springing up all over the UK such as Brixton’s People’s Fridge, which allows local businesses (such as Pret A Manger and Sainsbury’s) to contribute surplus food to the easily-accessible fridge, where absolutely anyone can help themselves, stopping that food going to landfill and feeding people for free. Got leftover non-perishables you don’t know what to do with? Find your nearest foodbank via charities such as Trussell Trust and donate tinned and dried food that will stop someone else going hungry. 

9) If you’re back in the office, travelling a lot or simply regularly need to eat on the move, preparation is key: thinking ahead, planning your meals and making them at home will save you money on highly wasteful takeaway boxes, bags and cups (most of which can’t be recycled as they have high plastic content). Reusable storage is available in long-lasting materials such as steel water bottles, biodegradable bamboo cutlery and innovative beeswax wraps in place of clingfilm. 

10) Finally, let C Free help. Whilst we will always encourage readers to first and foremost educate themselves (as Eddie says in this Q&A with C Free’s founders, arming yourself with the facts results in a shift in your mindset), there are thousands of articles on making sustainable food choices, some of which we cite in the points above. With C Free’s calculator, you can also figure out your remaining emissions for free, and if you want to take your efforts to reduce one step further, sign up and pay as little as a fiver a month to offset your eating habits by supporting carbon-reducing projects like tree planting in Colombia and efficient cookstoves in Rwanda.

Read more:

10 ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your shopping

10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint when you travel

10 ways to reduce your carbon footprint at home