Zero food waste to landfill is looking like an increasingly achievable goal

Written by: Philip Simpson | Published:
Only 1.8 million tonnes of food waste is currently recycled

Figures outlining the global food waste picture are bleak. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) approximately a third of all food produced in the world intended for human consumption is either lost or wasted.

This amounts to annual economic losses of $940 billion and means that more than a billion tonnes of food is wasted each year, while one in nine people remain undernourished.

In addition FAO estimates global food waste is responsible for 8% of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If it were a country food waste would be the third-largest emitter after China and the United States.

The statistics showing the scale of the UK’s food waste problem are similarly stark. As a nation we’re wasting more than 10 million tonnes of food and drink in the post-farm-gate food chain every year, according to WRAP. This has a value of £20 billion annually and is associated with around 22 million tonnes of GHG. Furthermore, estimates show that 70% of this waste could be avoided, while only 1.8 million tonnes is currently recycled.

Tackling the problem

Against this backdrop it’s clear that action is needed, and quickly. When ReFood published Vision 2020 – our roadmap to guide zero food waste to landfill in the UK – we (along with 800 organisations that support the ambition) called on the government to legislate for a full ban on food waste to landfill by 2020.

Achieving this would take a two-pronged approach. Firstly, by ensuring that local authorities, the food supply chain and waste companies work together, harness best practice and develop a comprehensive collection and processing infrastructure. Secondly, through the introduction of mandatory separate food waste collections from homes and businesses.

It was, and still is, our view that the ambition of eliminating food waste from landfill relies heavily on firm and convincing government intervention – a concept that is unfortunately yet to be realised.

Tangible progress

Putting government regulation aside, there is much to celebrate when we look at the bigger food waste picture over the past five years. While policy has not directly addressed the challenge, recycling innovation has continued to thrive under the auspices of a wide range of organisations.

We’ve witnessed greater collaboration at every stage of the supply chain and between key stakeholders, accelerating the adoption of best practice, improving waste prevention, creating efficiencies and maximising the value of food waste as a resource.

Among these successes there are a few standout initiatives. Within the food and drink manufacturing sector the Food and Drink Federation is working with members to deliver on waste reduction targets through optimising prevention and recovery options.

During 2016 it worked with FoodDrinkEurope to establish Every Meal Matters – food donation guidelines to make it easier for manufacturers and retailers to donate unpreventable food surpluses to food banks.

Agriculture – where figures suggest that around 2.5 million tonnes a year, worth around £800 million, is lost – has seen success in the increasing acceptance of so-called ‘wonky’ vegetables. For some crops as much as 25% of produce was previously being wasted for failing to meet appearance standards set by retailers.

But the greatest achievements can arguably be seen in the hospitality and food services industry, whose food waste costs some £3 billion. In terms of progress WRAP’s Hospitality and Food Service Agreement saw an 11% reduction in CO2 emissions over three years, while wider prevention activities saved an estimated 24,000 tonnes of food from being thrown away and doubled the redistribution of surplus food (760 tonnes).

In addition, WRAP last year introduced a Food Waste Reduction Roadmap Toolkit, giving businesses advice on cutting waste in their own operations, and on how they can replicate this with their suppliers and consumers. So far 117 organisations have signed up to a range of ambitious milestones.

Government finally steps up

Vision 2020 concluded that collaboration across the food supply chain would have a key role in achieving zero food waste to landfill. However, this collaboration must be driven by a strong and decisive commitment from UK government.

Fast-forward to today, and it is encouraging that the momentum achieved by those in the food supply industry appears to have motivated the government to take a strong stance on the issue of food waste in its latest Resources and Waste Strategy.

Not only has the government committed to working towards eliminating food waste being sent to landfill by 2030, but also alluded to the introduction of segregated collections for household food waste.

Annual reporting of food waste will be introduced, increasing transparency and giving an accurate picture of the scale of the issue – both good and bad. A government food surplus and waste champion, Ben Elliot, has also been appointed with the mission of raising awareness around the topic of food waste in the UK.

Elliot will be working closely with businesses to offer help and give direction on how they can drastically reduce their food waste, and the effective redistribution of any waste.

Driving further progress

As the UK strives to improve its food waste situation many debate the virtues of both ‘the carrot’ and ‘the stick’ approaches. It’s certainly the case that many view food waste reduction strategies as nice to have, rather than a necessity. This has arguably paved the way for favouring the stick.

Many believe that measures – such as government fines for any business deemed to have knowingly wasted high volumes of food, or those companies that fail to adopt proper processes to minimise commercial food waste – will be the catalyst to finally drive behavioural change.

At the other end of the spectrum – the carrot – there are those that celebrate the progress made so far, and view the measures and targets set out in the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy with optimism.

The future

The commercial, environmental and societal benefits of tackling food waste have gained significant traction over the past five years and it is exciting to see what can be achieved. Challenges remain, not least the lack of consistency in food waste collections at local authority level.

However, the Resources and Waste Strategy certainly has the potential to provide a workable policy framework to harness the progress made to date and encourage a more consistent approach to the reuse and recycling of food waste.

Philip Simpson is commercial director of ReFood

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