No more soft touch: Here are the hard food waste facts

Written by: RWW | Published:

A detailed picture of the UK’s food waste system is emerging and it isn’t pretty. Could a new framework published by ReFood this week offer some hope? David Burrows reports.

The grocery and food manufacturing supply chain creates about 6.5 million tonnes of waste, 4.3 million tonnes of which is food. 

Factor in the production, energy, water, logistics, disposal and lost profits and each tonne of that costs about £950; that’s £950 wasted before food even enters the home and even then there’s a good chance it won’t reach a human stomach. 

For despite the economic downturn, a squeeze on household spending and the rising price of food, the average UK household is still throwing away the equivalent of six meals every week. 

WRAP, the government’s waste advisors, have calculated that UK households generate about 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food waste, most of which goes from supermarket to fridge and then straight into the bin. 

From there, 40% will end up in landfill. 

The UK has made some progress, with food and drink waste having fallen in recent years, including the avoidable portion of it. 

The capacity available to divert it from landfill to anaerobic digestion (AD) is also growing.

It was up 84.8% in quarter two of 2013 compared to the same quarter in 2012, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

All these statistics (and more, including the eye-watering figures from Tesco’s supply chain) have been published in the past month; together they provide a detailed picture of the UK’s management of food waste. 

Sorry state of affairs

The message is clear: things need to change. “Food waste is a valuable resource that should never end up in landfill sites,” says Philip Simpson, commercial director at food waste recyclers ReFood. “Everyone from the food producer, through to the retailer, the restaurant and the householder can play their part in ensuring that we take full advantage of its considerable potential by ensuring we re-use, recycle and recover every nutrient and kilowatt of energy it has to offer.”

It seems straightforward enough, so why is so much food waste still being created, and why is so much of it ending up in landfill?

Finding solutions

In a two-year project, ReFood has tried to find some answers. 

This week the company published its findings, as part of a comprehensive report entitled Vision 2020: UK Roadmap to Zero Waste to Landfill. 

The research covers each part of the food waste chain, provides some damning statistics, as well as some hard-hitting calls to action. 

Indeed, in an interview with RWW, Simpson is obviously under no illusions that businesses and government need to take some tough decisions - and quickly - for the country to have any chance of diverting all food waste from landfill by the turn of the century. 

For a start, there needs to be a “clear timetable” for the banning of food waste from landfill, Simpson says, and compulsory separate collections of food waste from homes and businesses.

Previous studies have shown the potential economic and environmental benefits of landfill bans. 

One of the most recent was by the Green Alliance; the think-tank calculated that £508m of resources could be recovered from avoided landfill costs from a food waste ban. 

The Labour government has committed to banning food from landfill, if elected. 

The fact that the coalition has said it will consider food waste landfill bans during the course of this parliament “opens the door for a cross party consensus on a policy” according to the Green Alliance head of resource stewardship, Dustin Benton, after Labour’s announcement. 

The door was closed last week.

Although the coalition has backed AD with funding and incentives, there’s a feeling in Whitehall that it’s now time to take the financial and political stabilisers off. 

Last week, the new waste minister announced he will start reeling back his support for the waste sector and the department’s work on waste policy, including food waste. 

In an open letter to the sector (see front page) Dan Rogerson explained: “Our current programmes of work on anaerobic digestion and food waste are nearing completion; the responsibility for taking work forward will largely rest with the industries concerned. 

“In addition, given the strong financial case for local authorities to realise efficiencies from their waste contracts, we will be reducing the amount of generic support we provide to them in this and related areas.”

Simpson says that anyone involved in sustainability should be “horrified” by the announcement. 

“It makes your heart sink,” he adds. 

Defra’s approach

He isn’t alone. And yet Defra remains staunchly anti regulation. 

The department has long held the belief that with policy drivers such as (rising) Landfill Tax, local authority recycling targets and incentives for producing renewable energy through AD, as well as voluntary initiatives for industry such as the Courtauld Commitment (for the grocery sector) and the Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement on waste, there are enough incentives in place to see food waste diverted from landfill. 

During a recent session in front of a House of Lords select committee looking at food waste prevention, Defra director for resource, atmosphere and sustainability Colin Church continued to reiterate that action by retailers and caterers, as well as progress through voluntary agreements like Courtauld, are “working well”. 

Church added that the work of Courtauld is something his department should be “quite proud of”. He said supermarkets are highly competitive so to provide them with the space to work together for the common good seems “incredibly powerful”.

The ‘soft touch’ approach

Given WRAP’s figures, it’s debatable whether it’s powerful enough. 

Simpson, among others, wants to see tougher targets and policy rather than the “soft touch” approach. 

“We’ve had so many soft touches, it just doesn’t work,” he says. 

“If I was being cynical, the government are keen to have landfill continue at its current level due to the landfill taxes. 

“Look elsewhere in the EU and you see a more robust regulatory framework with rules and enforcement,” continues Simpson. Elsewhere also includes Scotland; the new Waste (Scotland) Regulations, set to come in to force January, will require businesses to separate food waste out for collection and, by 2021, there will be a ban on food waste going to landfill. 

Simpson is adamant that England needs a similarly clear timetable. 

ReFood’s 2020 vision includes a recommendation for a phased ban on food waste to landfill from 2017 for businesses. 

If Defra committed to this it would “be like winning the lottery”, Simpson says, adding: “We have that [clear commitment] in Scotland and it’s put us in a totally different market position up there. 

“I can’t understand how they can do it in Scotland but not in [a more urbanised country like] England. We’re tired of being stone-walled by Defra.” But it isn’t just Defra that needs to evolve. 

Greater collaboration

ReFood’s vision also calls for greater collaboration at every stage of the supply chain and between key stakeholders. 

The report uses the catering sector to show why the current ‘one-price-fits-all’ collection model isn’t working. 

The reports reads: “Food waste can be collected for significantly less than the cost of landfill tax through this [general waste collection model] … Paying per bin rather than by weight means as long as this general waste model prevails, the landfill tax will fail to divert food waste from landfill.” Simpson explains: “If you take food waste out of the general bins then the charge should come down, but the reality is that it never does. It’s up to the waste sector to change that model.”

As the biggest contaminant in the waste stream, food waste consigns millions of tonnes and billions of pounds of valuable resources to landfill or incineration each year. Can the UK afford such waste to continue?

The need for a holistic approach

Failure to take a cohesive approach to food waste could result in solutions that will continue to consign these resources to incineration or landfill, warns Simpson. 

“We would like to see the government and industry take a more consistent and holistic approach to waste in the UK; one that maximises its potential as a resource,” states ReFood’s commercial director.


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