15 ways to cut your food carbon footprint
The UK’s total carbon footprint is going down, but making subtle tweaks to the way you shop, cook and eat – using the tips below – can help reduce your individual CO2 impact.
The latest figures show the UK’s carbon emissions are falling, down 49% since 1990. This is largely thanks to a drop in the country’s coal and gas use, but individually, we still have an annual carbon footprint of 5.2 tonnes of CO2.
Fortunately, saving the world isn’t just a job for superheroes or Swedish climate activists. Making several small changes to what and how you eat – from reducing food waste to updating your freezer – can cut your food carbon footprint and help reduce the total impact of CO2 on our planet.
1. Don’t overfill your kettle
Fancy a cuppa? Only put as much water in your kettle as you need. The Energy Saving Trust says this tip could save water, fuel and £11 a year on your electricity bill! Add an aerator to your tap – a little widget that reduces the amount of water coming out – to save a further £20.
2. Drink 'green' tea
If you are having a brew, think about what’s going in the pot. Britons use around 165 million teabags a day, but a 2019 report found many are heat-sealed using a type of plastic. Bigger brands are slowly making changes, but why not use loose tea leaves? They’re plastic-free and can be composted, too.
3. Pick better coffee pods
Making coffee at home does cut costs, but coffee pods are a huge environmental hazard. Globally, 29,000 end up in landfill every month, where they can take 500 years to break down. Go for compostable coffee pods instead – you still get your caffeine fix, but without compromising the planet.
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4. Avoid plastic food packaging
We know single-use plastics are harmful for the environment – they’re more likely to end up in our oceans than reusable options – and it takes a lot of fossil fuels to produce them. Tips to reduce your food packaging waste include using beeswax wraps rather than clingfilm, but it’s also good to know which types of plastic to avoid.
5. Stop eating meat...
Switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet can save you 0.8 tonnes of CO2 a year. It may not sound like much, but going plant-based is one of the most effective ways to shrink your food carbon footprint.
A 2023 study found a meat-eater’s diet produces around 10kg of greenhouse gasses every day, compared with just 2.5kg for a vegan diet; that’s a huge 75% reduction. In fact, avoiding meat and dairy is widely agreed to be the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.
6. ... or at least cut down
If going totally vegan feels too tricky right now, reducing the amount of meat you eat is still a good move. Researchers from Oxford University say swapping just one red-meat meal for a plant-based dinner every week could cut the UK’s carbon footprint by 50 million tonnes.
7. Don't bin your dinner
This one sounds obvious, but we throw away 6.6 million tonnes of food every year – and almost three-quarters of that is food we could’ve eaten. This food waste is equivalent to 36 million tonnes of CO2, so eating your leftovers can cut carbon and your food costs. Find some recipe inspiration.
8. Love your lumpy fruit and veg
We also throw away over 50 million tonnes of ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables every year in the UK and Europe, with an environmental impact equivalent to the emissions of almost 400,000 cars. You can now buy wonky veg boxes in most major supermarkets, or order one to your front door. Eat 'ugly' to help sustain a beautiful planet.
9. Consider your cooking methods
Figures show that cooking is responsible for 13.8% of the electricity we use in our homes, so finding a more efficient way to cook = less CO2 produced. The Energy Saving Trust says a microwave may be your best bet; unlike a gas or electric oven, it only heats up your food and not the air space around it.
10. Invest in the best cookware
Apart from how you cook your food, what are you cooking it in? Experts advise buying the best-quality pots and pans you can afford to stop them ending up in landfill in one or two years. Do your research and think about what you’re really going to use them for – do you need a one-egg frying pan?
11. Eat organic
While the debate over whether organic produce is healthier for you continues, a number of studies do agree on one thing: organic fruit and veg contain less environmentally harmful chemicals than non-organic. The Soil Association says healthy soil is also able to store more carbon – if all UK farms went organic, at least 1.3 million tonnes of carbon could be taken up every year.
12. Rethink food miles
We’re told not to buy fruit and veg with too many food miles, but the issue isn’t that clear-cut. Mike Berners-Lee, author of How Bad Are Bananas?, says bananas are actually okay because they’re imported by boat – their carbon footprint is just 480g of CO2 per kilo, despite the distance they travel. But, air-freighted produce, like out-of-season strawberries, have a much greater carbon footprint. So, try to find out how your food travelled from farm to fork.
13. Shop local – especially in season
To cut your food carbon footprint even further, you’d think buying locally grown produce is the answer, but (again) it’s not that simple. Berners-Lee says tomatoes are fine when they’re in season in the UK, but during the winter, it’s better to buy them from warmer countries rather than local varieties grown in heated greenhouses – this uses a lot more CO2, despite the lower food miles.
14. Feel the freeze
If you do pick or purchase a lot of seasonal fruit and veg, a freezer is your friend. Freezing food not only reduces food waste, but you can batch cook meals and freeze them, reducing the amount of gas or electricity needed to cook them individually. Just make sure your freezer is energy efficient – 16.8% of the electricity we use at home is for freezing or cooling or food.
15. Chest may be best
A freezer should last about 10 years, or longer if you look after it. If you do need a new one – and you’ve got the space – a chest freezer could be the answer. They can store a huge amount of food and are more energy efficient than their upright equivalents – when you open the door of a standing freezer, cold air flows out, but when you open the lid of a chest freezer, it stays inside.
More on sustainability
What is a food carbon footprint?
The facts about food miles
6 pieces of packaging to avoid
10 ways to eat out sustainably
How to reduce food waste
Is a vegan diet better for the environment?
How to compost food at home
Sustainability hub page
Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly.