The rotten state of food waste in the UK 

We lift the bin lid on industrial and consumer food wastage, and what we can do about it.

by Bella Ali-Khan | Social | 27 April 2022

Ahead of the latest release of our Ignite reports, which will look at a variety of social impact issues, we’re diving into the world of food waste to find out who’s making a difference. 

Wasting food is rubbish 

The amount of food that is wasted every year in the UK is truly rotten. As a nation, we produce the highest amount of food waste in Europe, with 9.5 million tonnes going in the bin a year. And yet, 8.4 million people in the UK are in food poverty (1).

Where does all this waste come from? While consumers often bear the brunt of the blame for food waste at home, a large proportion of food waste comes from within the food industry. From supermarkets setting unsustainable cosmetic standards for farmers to produce perfect fruit and veg, to restaurants over ordering and not selling fresh produce. In the UK, supermarkets throw away 100,000 tonnes of food annually (1)

At home, we Brits suffer from a lack of education around food waste and how to use up ingredients before they go bad. There’s also an over-reliance on use by dates, meaning food is thrown away based on date, rather than instinct. According to the River Cottage, the most commonly-wasted foods are bread, milk, potatoes, cheese and apples (1). Milk aside, eating these foods if they’re a little past their best won’t harm most people. We don’t know about you, but surely giving milk a good sniff, or eating around a bruise on an apple is par for the course. 

When food is wasted, not only is it a waste in and of itself, but its negative impact is two-fold. First of all, there’s the impact this food’s process has had, including initial land use, pesticides and herbicides used as it was growing, the water used to grow it, emissions from production and packaging (which, if plastic, will also be going to landfill) and finally, transportation. Every step of that impact was for nought if the food winds up in a bin. If the food then goes to landfill, it will emit methane as it degrades. This contributes significantly to global warming, as methane is 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. (2)

And the criminal fact is that there are so many people in the UK alone who desperately need access to food. 8.4 million to be exact, 2 million of them children. (3)

The BCR (Brexit Covid Russia) Sandwich 

So what’s driving food insecurity and hunger in the UK? In short, it’s complicated, but there are at least three big factors currently in play. 

First there was the Brexit vote in 2016, which triggered a sharp fall in the pound and began the inflation rise, as the cost of exports increased (4). Second was Covid-19, causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Inflation is currently the highest it’s been in 30 years (4), and the annual increase in wage growth simply can’t keep up. People are effectively taking pay cuts. Pair this with soaring energy bills and the rising cost of food, and the cost of living crisis is forcing people to choose between heating and eating. 

And it’s not looking like there’s going to be any let up soon. Consumers are facing the prospect of April’s national insurance rise, doubling energy bills, and council tax increases. The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), too, has warned that millions of pounds of additional post-Brexit paperwork fees will be passed onto meat-eating customers, in a bid for survival (5).

Jack Monroe, campaigner, columnist and author, has been analysing the cost of basic essentials for a decade. In a recent article for The Guardian, they explained, “Last year the Smart Price pasta in my local Asda was 29p for 500g. Today, it is unavailable, so the cheapest bag is 70p; a 141% price rise for the same product in more colourful packaging…A few years ago, there were more than 400 products in the Smart Price range; today there are 87, and counting down.” (6

In an interview with BBC Today, Richard Walker, MD of Iceland, explained why the cost of food was increasing so sharply, quoting ‘rising commodity prices, labour shortages, distribution issues, rising energy costs, national minimum wage increases and the impact of new taxation.’ (7)

“Business is not some endless sponge that can forever soak up these costs, therefore it will start to translate through to the shelf.” (7)

And of course, there is the tragic and ongoing military invasion in Ukraine as well. The UN’s Food Agency has already warned that world food prices could increase 20% as a result of the war (8). Two and a half million UK citizens were forced to use food banks last year (6). There has to be another way. 

Odd is good 

So what, in the face of all this, can we do? Thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope. 

Naturally, there are actions that consumers can take at home to reduce food waste. We are all guilty of forgetting the odd bag of salad or not eating every cauliflower leaf. And there is, of course, reconsidering waste, such as potato peelings (hello homemade crisps), or freezing veggie scraps to make stock. For those with gardens or balconies, composting is easier and, contrary to what many fear, isn’t messy, smelly or pest-attracting.

Then there’s just trusting your gut over what’s printed on the packaging. Last year, Too Good To Go (the app that allows consumers ‘rescue’ food that would otherwise go to waste) launched their ‘Look, Smell, Taste’ campaign. This encouraged consumers to assess food before they throw it in the bin, based on the label. Since launching, over 40 food and drink brands have signed up to the initiative, including Danone, Nestlé, and Yeo Valley Organic, with some brands adding the Look, Smell, Taste reminder on packaging. (9) Earlier this year, Morrisons scrapped use-by dates on milk, to reduce wastage (10)

We’re better when we share 

And that brings us on to Fareshare. This is the UK’s national network of charitable food redistributors. Made up of 18 independent organisations, and run by a huge number of people doing good, Fareshare takes good quality surplus food, and sends it to people in need. The charity sends food to over 10,500 charities in the UK, from school breakfast clubs to older people’s lunch clubs, homeless shelters to community cafés. By working directly with the food industry, Fareshare is able to provide enough food to cook almost a million meals for vulnerable people, every week. All from food that would have been wasted.  

It’s a truly good charity, tackling two awful problems, and finding a fair, human solution. It’s also the charity with Marcus Rashford as its ambassador. There are loads of ways to get involved with Fareshare. You can donate, volunteer, or fundraise as an individual or a business. For us, it’s by providing our creative and strategic skills, and giving our time as volunteers. We’re delighted to be working with Fareshare, and can’t wait to share the next campaign with you. 

Explore Fareshare. 

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