Food waste falls down the political pecking order

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

While plastic has stolen the media spotlight, it seems as though everyone on both sides of the Channel has forgotten about food waste, which is the subject of aims and promises rather than concrete action.

I’ve just moved into a new co-working space. It’s a stone’s throw from the beach. There’s excellent filter coffee on tap. And free fruit. A 21st century internet connection. It’s a big, open-plan unit with sofas and breakout areas (to recover from any caffeine jitters). What’s not to like? Well, the bins – or lack of them. Where are the recycling containers, I wondered on my first day?

I know I am among friends here at RWW, so can freely admit my waste ‘problem’. At home there is currently a box of ‘unrecyclable’ packaging overflowing into the kitchen; the intention is to send it back to the producers/brands to find out whether they have plans to change the polymers they use.

The project started in January and I have yet to get around to posting it all. (My marriage, I am reliably informed, may depend on my doing so before the summer arrives).

Back to the new office, though. I found recycling crates in a room downstairs. A day later and two bins had appeared in the kitchen – one for plastics, tins and glass; the other for paper and card. I could now relax. Or at least until lunchtime. Where was the food waste bin for my banana skin? I know there’s a domestic kerbside collection in place for food (this is Scotland, after all), so I could take it home.

If everyone did the same it would certainly save the site owners money on waste collection fees. But it’s not really practical, is it? My wife carries her peels and coffee grinds home in her bike pannier; hats off to her. I’d be happy to do the same. But (and I may be doing the entrepreneurs of my town a disservice here) I can’t think many others would be.

So I had a chat with the owner. He’s keen on waste reduction and wants to replace three single-use plastics. A good idea but one he admits won’t be easy. “First, we have to decide what a single-use plastic is,” he says. “But definitely, let’s look at food waste first.” I warmed to his considered approach.

Indeed, we are in a time when it’s all too easy to jump on the anti-plastic bandwagon and to hell with everything else. It’s certainly an approach the UK government seems to have taken. The term ‘plastic’ is mentioned 73 times in the 25 Year Environment Plan; the eight references to food waste are clumped together in the space of three paragraphs (pages 88-89, if you’re interested).

Ministers want to “work towards” no food waste entering landfill by 2030 and “work towards” more separate kerbside collections. Some would say that’s a laissez-faire attitude, but on current form the government isn’t doing good or doing nothing, it’s actually blocking progress.

Otherwise, how do you explain Defra’s reported role in moves to “sabotage” EU plans to set a target to halve food waste by 2030? Or why it completely ignored the recommendations set out by MPs on the EFRA Committee last year, including mandatory separation by food businesses. The Courtauld 2025 Commitment was doing just fine, they said.

Really? WRAP, which runs the voluntary initiative, was recently given another £0.5m to help charities redistribute surplus food from businesses to those in need. Good news. But that can’t hide the swingeing cuts to WRAP’s overall budget. Not to mention the fact it’s been led a merry dance of late – the 2025 commitment was meant to focus minds on food waste, but now the government wants a “plastic pledge” too.

The bottom line is this: plastic is sexy right now; food waste is not. Who wants to talk about anaerobic digestion (AD) when there are mutant PET-munching enzymes about? Which is why we’ve had a deposit return scheme announced before a consultation on single-use plastic taxes has finished. And £80m dedicated to fight the scourge of plastic pollution – £20m for UK solutions and another £61.4m to “boost global research and help countries across the Commonwealth stop plastic waste from entering the oceans in the first place”.

Again, all good news. But here’s the rub: food waste is a £13bn drain in the UK economy, and we are one of the most wasteful societies in Europe. As such, half a million quid for redistribution won’t cut it. And neither will “working towards” the Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste by 2030. The UK needs a food waste reduction plan and a mandatory target – and so does Europe.

As I’ve been writing this, MEPs voted (overwhelmingly) in favour of the Circular Economy Package – and some fairly ambitious targets on landfill reduction and recycling. However, there’s no legally binding target on food waste. Member states “should aim to reduce food waste by 30% by 2025 and 50% by 2030”. Like the UK, countries will be working towards a vision rather than adhering to a plan that sets out how to meet a mandatory target. It’s all rather “timid”, as MEP and shadow rapporteur on waste Piernicola Pedicini put it.

For weeks, Defra secretary Michael Gove has been involved in a social media spat with Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, and Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s vice-president. It’s a battle over who has the most ambitious policies to limit plastic use. But neither Westminster nor Brussels can claim to have raised the bar when it comes to reducing food waste. Perhaps they think everyone will bike their waste to the nearest composting site or AD plant?

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