Has the UK made any progress in reducing food waste?

In 2015, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimated that UK households, hospitality, retail, and wholesale sectors generated an incredible 10 million tonnes of food waste, 70% of which was considered edible.

This called for urgent measures. As enormous amounts of food were being wasted and the commercial sector produced a lot of food surplus, millions of people could not afford regular meals or were living in severely food insecure homes. 

In September 2018, 121 organisations from across the UK announced that they would be joining the cause against food waste and implemented the Target, Measure, Act strategy. Aimed at reducing food waste by half by 2030, the strategy requires participants to set a waste reduction target and apply a set of actionable measures to achieve this goal. 

More than one year into the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, WRAP is reporting considerable improvements. However, in spite of taking great strides towards the end goal, the UK still has many areas with room for improvement, both in terms of household and commercial food waste. 

Large food businesses saved around 53,000 tonnes of food  

According to the report, in the first year of the UK Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, participant businesses achieved an average 7% reduction in food waste and collectively saved around 53,000 tonnes of food, worth over £85 million. 

To reach these results, participants followed the 5-step waste hierarchy: 

  • Reduce the amount of produced food, which is one of the leading causes of food surplus 

  • Feed people in need with the surplus of edible food. Businesses donated extra food to food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters 

  • Feed livestock by diverting the scraps to farms 

  • Put waste oils and food scraps to industrial use

  • Create nutrient-rich compost from food waste 

  • Dispose of the remaining waste responsibly. Most eco-aware businesses in the UK now have a machine to bale waste on-site, which saves space and creates a cleaner work environment. 

Other measures taken by large supermarket chains include: 

  • removing the date label from pre-packed unprepared fresh produce

  • increasing the shelf life of products such as milk

  • removing the “best before” data from selected fresh produce

  • introducing smaller pack sizes to discourage clients from buying excess food

  • offering boxes of unsold food at a discounted price. For example, supermarket chain Morrisons offers boxes of edible food past the sell-by date at £3.09, through the Too Good To Go app. 

So far, all major supermarkets in the UK have joined the cause, together with several food producers and trade bodies. By 2025, authorities aim to reduce waste by 20% and have the entire UK food retail market implement the waste hierarchy. 

What can be improved?

Existing measures have definitely yielded promising results, but, despite these results, the UK still generates large amounts of waste. WRAP and other organisations need to continue to work with companies and help them reduce waste even further. Additionally, all waste reduction measures have to be implemented without generating other problems. For example, WRAP representatives did notice that small packs of bread were 74% more expensive per kg than larger loaves, which forces people to buy in excess. 

Earlier this month, supermarket chain Sainsbury’s stirred controversy after photos surfaced online of unnecessary waste being binned despite being edible. This included beer packs missing one beer and lettuce packs with missing barcodes, but there was also non-food waste, such as slightly sticky aftershave bottles. Since the supermarket has food donation partners in the UK, the choice of throwing away these products had customers worried that UK retailers aren’t putting in all the effort to reduce waste and that they should be treating the issue more seriously. 

Household food waste initiatives 

Although most food waste occurs at a commercial level, household waste is a problem too and British authorities have tried to encourage change starting at an individual level. Councils in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland already have some form of food waste solution for households, such as special collection centres where people can leave unwanted food, and this has brought about positive results. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the household waste recycling rate increased by 5% in just three months after these collection stations were introduced. In Wales, 62% of households recycle food waste. 

Meanwhile, reports show that the household waste recycling rate in England has been stuck at 44% since 2013. As a result, the Government plans on applying the Resources of Waste Strategy, which would introduce mandatory separate food waste collectors to all English households by 2023. 

Why it’s important to tackle food waste 

The UK as a nation still struggles with waste management and, compared to other types of waste, such as industrial or hazardous waste, food might not seem very harmful. However, it has a serious impact both on the economy and on the environment: 

  • At a household level, wasted food costs British families up to £400 per year, which can add up to £24,000 in a lifetime. 

  • Food waste that goes to landfill generates dangerous greenhouse gases and toxins that affect soil quality, pollute the water, and increase carbon emissions. 

  • 8.4 million people in the UK (the equivalent of the entire London population) live in poverty and cannot afford daily meals. 

  • Food production costs a lot of energy and resources because the chain includes many steps: growing crops, manufacturing, transportation, and putting products on the shelves. 

The good news is that the UK is making progress and saving money in the process. However, we remain one of Europe’s biggest food wasters, along with Germany, France, and the Netherlands.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.