In the UK alone, 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted by families every year, equivalent to £700 per household. How can we get better at buying, storing, using, and reusing our food?
Food waste is a huge problem across the world. As well as being expensive and a questionable use of resources, it is a major contributor to climate change. According to a 2018 study, around 6% of total global greenhouse gas emissions come from food that never gets eaten. And DEFRA estimates that if food waste were a country, it’d be the third largest emitter after the US and China.
In the UK alone, households waste 4.5 million tonnes of edible food every year, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). That amounts to £14billion worth of food waste, or £700 per family – a significant dent in anyone’s grocery bill. Factor in the retail supply chain and the hospitality sector, and the total rises to 6.4 million tonnes (or 9.5 million tonnes, when you count the parts of the food that can’t be eaten anyway).
These figures, from 2018, are lower than they were in previous years. Households wasted 26% less edible food, worth around £4.8billion, than they did in 2007. However, more progress is needed if the UK is to meet the United Nations target of halving food waste by 2030.
“The latest figures from WRAP show that the tide is beginning to turn, albeit slowly,” says Andy Needham, Managing Director of Approved Food. “The work that companies such as Approved Food have put in to raise awareness of the problem is beginning to pay off. While it has become apparent that people are becoming more ‘food smart’ and are modifying their shopping and food storage habits, there is more work to be done to ensure this continues in the long term.”
The situation is similar elsewhere. The Australian economy loses $20billion in food waste each year, while Canadian households squander C$17billion. Globally, between a third and a half of all food is lost or wasted, with developing countries tending to lose more at the production stage, and developed countries losing more after the food has left the farm. Clearly there are systemic changes that need to happen if the UN is to reach its targets. To cite just a few examples, governments could set legally binding targets for businesses; ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food; and ensure that food waste is collected separately from the rest of the rubbish. (On the latter point, food gives off harmful gases like methane when it rots. Collected separately, it can be turned into fertiliser.)
From an industry perspective, there are agreements in place like the Courtauld Commitment 2025, an ambitious voluntary commitment that seeks to reduce waste and make food production more sustainable. The likes of Pizza Hut and Nestle have signed up, along with various regional governments.
However, since around 70% of all wasted food comes from domestic settings, this is one area in which consumers themselves can make a real difference.
People are becoming more ‘food smart’ and are modifying their shopping and storage habits, but there is more work to be done
“From a household point of view, there are various reasons why food is needlessly thrown away, including a lack of knowledge about portions and how to prepare it,” says Needham. “Confusion over food labelling is also a contributor. There is a huge difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ – the former is centred on food safety while the latter is a guarantee of quality.”
In actuality, food that’s past its ‘best before’ date is perfectly safe to eat, so long as it looks and smells OK. Surveys suggest that 83% of consumers now know this. But for the remainder, confusion around the terminology can mean throwing out good food with no good reason.
Approved Food, an online retailer that sells surplus and short-dated stock (food that’s past or near its best before date), has been working hard to make this distinction clear. Since it was founded in 2009, it has diverted over four million tonnes of goods that would otherwise have gone to waste, passing savings onto the consumer.
Although the stock changes every day, a shopper with a keen eye for a bargain might pick up a packet of Nobby’s Nuts for 25p (normally 69p), ten packets of Hippeas chickpea puffs for £5 (normally £2.39 each), or a 20-pack of dishwasher tabs for £2.99 (normally £8). The products are sourced from retailers with stock to spare.
“Within the supply chain itself, supermarkets still need to do more to make surplus food available more widely,” says Needham. “Approved Food has urged big retailers to allow more access to food further up the supply chain – in other words, food that has been produced but has not yet been delivered to store, to enable more of it to be available for redistribution.”
This includes supermarket own-brand products that are edging a bit too close to their best before date, as well as products that require a change to the packaging design. Without the help of organisations like Approved Food (as well as charities such as FareShare and FoodCloud), these products might well end up in landfill.
However, confusing labels and surplus supermarket stock are only one part of the problem. For many households, wasting food simply comes down to poor meal planning, and not knowing what to do with leftovers.
“Waste is a human-made invention,” points out Ollie Hunter, author of 30 Easy Ways to Join the Food Revolution and Join The Greener Revolution. “Nature doesn’t waste, it turns energy into energy, and in the same way we can cook with zero waste. Good menu planning and buying correctly makes a huge difference, and if you are stuck then a freezer is a friendly storage solution. The other great way to help us cut waste is using preservation techniques like pickling, sugar, fermentation, or storing in fat like butter or oil.”
He recommends ‘eating root to fruit’, which means finding ingenious ways to use the whole fruit or vegetable. This might include using beetroot stalks and leaves to make a dhal, incorporating broad bean leaves in a salad, or using pumpkin seeds to make a dukkah.
tools to keep handy
in the Fight Against Food Waste
“Another way to waste less is creativity,” he says. “Arancini is a traditional technique to use up left over risotto and transform it into something new and delicious. What new and exciting dishes can you create?”
A former Masterchef semi-finalist and current pub-owner (his pub, the Wheatsheaf, was voted the UK’s most sustainable by the Sustainable Restaurant Association), Hunter wants people to eat locally, organically, and seasonally. He points out that by adopting a zero-waste policy, we should be able to save money and therefore afford the organic produce.
“This gives us more flavour with fewer ingredients, which is only heightened by sourcing food locally because it is fresh. Sustainable food isn’t just great for the planet, it’s more nutritious, more delicious, and more joyful,” he says.
While this kind of approach may seem daunting for the average household, there are suggestions that the pandemic may have recalibrated people’s relationship with food. (And that doesn’t just mean making your own banana bread.) Locked down at home much of the time, families have been making shopping lists, cooking more, and keeping a closer eye on the contents of their fridge.
What’s more, confronted with empty shelves in the supermarkets, many of us started to appreciate the value of what we had in the pantry. Hubbub, a UK sustainability charity, says 57% of us value food more than we did pre-Covid.
“Households have learned to love their food during the various lockdowns – but more can still be done to prevent it being needlessly wasted,” says Needham. “Figures from WRAP showed that during the first lockdown, people were throwing away less food than they were before the coronavirus pandemic, with a 34% reduction in the amount of bread, potatoes, chicken, and milk ending up in the bin.”
It’s one of the few heartening statistics to come out of the pandemic. And there’s reason to hope the trend will continue – once you’ve got a taste for proper meal-planning, the habit is likely to stick.
This trend seems to be more pronounced in older age groups. Despite millennials’ and Gen-Z’s much-vaunted interest in environmental issues, it’s actually the over-55s who are most likely to say they’ve reduced their food waste over the last year – 81% agreed with that statement in one survey.
However, younger consumers may be more likely to use apps like OLIO – a sharing app that allows people to give away unwanted food and other household items to their neighbours.
As for where consumers still have work to do, the WRAP research uncovered gaps in people’s knowledge about food storage. Almost half of those questioned thought apples would keep longer if they were unpacked at room temperature (they should actually be kept in their original packaging in the fridge) while 40% believed chicken breasts should be frozen on the day of purchase (they can be frozen at any point up to the ‘use by’ date).
What’s more, the figures on festive food waste remain truly galling. “Each year in the UK, five million Christmas puddings, two million turkeys, and 74 million mince pies go to waste, not to mention huge quantities of vegetables, fruit, and snacks,” says Needham. “Obviously, this is totally unacceptable where people are also relying on food banks and charities to put food on the table.”
Hunter believes the way forward is simple: we need to think about ourselves as a collective, rather than as isolated individuals, and to act accordingly.
“We have made huge positive steps forward not only in terms of awareness but also culturally,” says Hunter. “We are all part of this mammoth ecosystem, the planet, all connected, and every decision we choose that makes a positive action, makes the world a better place.”
We need to think about ourselves as a collective, rather than isolated individuals