UK Food Waste and its Implications for Social and Environmental Issues

Contemporary sustainability campaigns often center on a concept of reduction; eating less meat, traveling fewer kilometres, or buying fewer clothes. Albeit right in its motives, this strategy can be interpreted by the public as a call for deprivation and is rarely welcomed. A more successful approach would be to target environmental issues via the consequences they have for society, such as food insecurity, economic losses, reduction in the recreational value of habitats, and an aggravation of all these problems in the future. Food waste successfully fits all these criteria. Appropriate plans for its minimisation and management send an influential, yet refreshing message: consume just enough.

25% of all purchased food in the UK is thrown away [1]. This percentage has never been so high, and the current upwards trend is concerning. To put this number in perspective, before the first World War, British households wasted a mere 1-3% of their food [1]. Today, over the course of one year, citizens of the UK are each responsible for roughly 70 kg of avoidable food waste, which amounts to 6.7 million tonnes of food waste from UK households per year [2]. In addition, some food is also wasted at the beginning of the supply chain, prior to consumers actually buying it. Taking into account households and industries as well as the retail, hospitality and institutional sector, this adds up to 13 million tonnes of food waste per year in the UK [1].

Food is wasted at every stage of the supply chain. It begins with inaccurate prediction of the demand for food, leading to sowing and growing more crop than can be sold [6]. For example, around 30% of all raw materials for the food manufacturing industry become waste, and up to 50% of harvests can be thrown away [3]. At the next step in the chain, food is subject to a very thorough cosmetic inspection before it makes it to the supermarkets. Fruits and vegetables ought to be of the same size and shape or else they are disposed of. Poor handling by both sales assistants and customers leads to bruised items, which remain unsold, and confusion regarding the actual meaning of “sell by,” “use by,” and “best by” labels further increases the incidence of wrongly discarded food. There is also a positive correlation between the amount of food waste and household income, implying that food is wasted simply because we can afford to [6].

Wasting food is expensive and is in fact a very realistic depiction of the common saying “throwing money down the drain.” Every year the average British household throws away about £420 worth of food [2]. Across the UK, households annually pay £10.2 billion for avoidable food waste, excluding items such as teabags, peels, bones, and other inedible food by-products[2]. Reducing food waste will be beneficial for our personal savings and can also become a source of revenue for industrial companies. A successful food waste minimization plan can bring up to £1.3 million in annual savings for a manufacturing business [4], mostly due to the increasing fees that companies have to pay for each ton of waste deposited in landfills. The successful implementation of a composting scheme can also reduce the waste sent to landfills by 40%, resulting in a 40% cutback in the tipping fees charged by waste processing facilities [3], and the composted material can later be sold to landscaping businesses, thus becoming a potential source of income [5].

Furthermore, while millions of tonnes of food are disposed of in landfills, at the same time, over 800 million people, both in the UK and overseas, are suffering from hunger and malnutrition [6,7], a social inequity that poses a challenge for us and the generations to follow. It is easy to speak about a redirection of surplus food towards the malnourished, but successfully implementing such schemes is very difficult. Health concerns, as well as current policy regulations, pose serious obstacles to their realization [8].

Food waste is also responsible for more than 20 megatonnes of CO2 and methane emissions each year [1]. For comparison, an average car releases 4 tonnes of CO2 per year, meaning that the emissions from food waste equal those of 5 million cars [9]. Food waste is a serious contributor to the current, unprecedented rate of climate change. However, it does not only impact the atmosphere. Producing food involves clearing of forests for agricultural land, using water for irrigation, utilization of energy for machinery and chemicals that may pose dangers to human health. Throwing away so much food devalues this exploitation of natural resources and human effort. Such behaviour contradicts all of the principles of sustainable development and further weakens food security [10].

Everyone can responsibly manage their consumption and decrease their personal food waste, through better planning of purchases and meals and developing an understanding of each product’s shelf life. It is important to keep in mind that up to 80% of all food waste is avoidable [2]. Composting the remaining 20% further reduces the environmental and social impact of food waste [5]. Adequate governmental response to food security issues can also be encouraged via the power of voting and campaigning.

As with any issue, spreading awareness and encouraging a bottom-up approach to change is key to a good outcome. A recent event in Scotland, hosted by the ‘Feeding the 5000’ campaign, aimed to achieve just that. Using vegetables that would have otherwise been plowed in, fed to animals or sent to landfills, the volunteering chefs and their teams prepared delicious and free meals for Edinburgh citizens [11]. While the success of the event is undisputed, it could not help but leave a bitter aftertaste. Yes, we fed the 5000, but what about the 9 billion we are estimated to be by 2050 [10]? Food for thought at its purest.

1. Parfitt, J., Barthel, M., Macnaughton, S. “Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050” Philosophical Transictions of the Royal Society B 365 (2010): 3065–3081
2. WRAP “The food we waste” Food waste report v2 (2008)
3. Schaub, S.M., Leonard, L.L. “Composing: an alternative waste management option for food processing industries” Trends in Food Science & Technology 71 (1996): 263-268
4. Henningsoon, S., Hyde, K., Smith, A., Campbell, M. “The value of resource efficiency in the food industry: a waste minimisation project in East Anglia, UK” Journal of Cleaner Production 12 (2004): 505–512
5. Thassitou, P.K., Arvanitoyannis, I.S. “Bioremediation: a novel approach to food waste management” Trends in Food Science & Technology 12 (2001): 185–196
6. Menaa, C., Adenso-Diazb, B., Yurtc, O. “The causes of food waste in the supplier–retailer interface: Evidences from the UK and Spain” Resources, Conservation and Recycling 55 (2011): 648–658
7. World Food Programme “Hunger Statistics” (2013)
8. Fehr, M., Calçado, M.D.R., Romão, D.C. “The basis of a policy for minimizing and recycling food waste” Environmental Science & Policy 5 (2002): 247–253
9. Carbon footprint calculator
10. Charles, H., Godfray, J., Beddington, J.R., Crute, I.R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J.F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S.M., Toulmin, C. “Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People” Science 327, 812 (2010): 812-818
11. Feed the 5000 Edinburgh (2013)

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gergana Daskalova is an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh majoring in Ecological and Environmental Sciences. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.