Food waste has always been a concern for retailers. They have tried many ways to reduce it, from implementing food rotation processes, to monitoring performance indicators. Despite current efforts, the UK’s waste figures are still very high with eight million tonnes of food wasted post-manufacture – 60% of this waste (equivalent to £16 billion in food a year) could be avoided.
Food waste also features as an environmental issue with 20% of all food produced not even making it to the supermarket. Given the vast amount of waste produced we have to ask what has changed in recent years and are we even moving towards less food being wasted?
Reducing waste in retail
While 62% of Europeans think that shops and retailers have a role to play in preventing food waste, last year was marked by the introduction of waste reduction laws in Europe. France became the first country to pass legislation to reduce supermarket waste and force large retailers to donate unsold food. Later on, Italy offered incentives to businesses who will give food to charities and removed health and safety prohibitions for giving away food past its sell-by date.
Unfortunately, this legislation mainly affects the retailer section of the food chain, representing 0.25 Million tonnes (Mt) of waste. The vast majority of UK food waste, amounting to 7.4Mt, is produced by customers - and this is much more difficult to control.
However, action can be taken for the large share of household food waste (15-33%, depending on the studies) linked to customers misunderstanding the ‘date marking’. For example, only 36% of Brits correctly understand the ‘Use-By’ dates, according to WRAP. Removing ‘Sell-By’ date has already prompted results – between 2007 and 2012, the UK’s avoidable food waste reduced by 21%.
Labelling also impacts food redistribution: FareShare and Company Shop, two major UK’s food redistribution services, choose to not distribute food past the ‘best before’ date. To counter such practices, the European Commission has launched a study to map how ‘date marking’ is used within the market –findings are expected by the end 2017 and hopefully will support future policy making.
So there’s some good things that retailers can do (and are doing) to help reduce waste but as for the 7.4Mt produced by customers, what must be done here?
Changing consumer habits to reduce waste
Public awareness can be the key to changing consumer habits – the more educated we are on a particular topic, the more likely we are to act. Using campaigns can deliver fast results, as shown by a ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ campaign in West London, where avoidable food waste decreased by 14% in just six months (400g waste per household and per week).
Throwing good food away costs the average person in the UK around £200 a year, there is a lot we as customers can do to reduce food waste ourselves. Shopping with a list and planning meals ahead, rotating food in the fridge and thinking about freezing surplus vegetables or bread are all effective ways to reduce waste at home. If we still have food to waste, there is also the option to compost as most waste does not need to go to landfill.
The quest for no waste
Although it seems we have not made much improvement to our waste, it still becomes the focus for many governments with the European Commission creating the Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe in 2012 that outlines "the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy”. Circular economy – by opposition to the ‘take, make, dispose’ model - is an economy where everything is reused. In particular, this means food is always diverted from landfill, either consumed by someone else or composted to contribute to better crops.
No-one can tell when this will be happening, but I see encouraging signs of waste-tackling innovation by looking at the 47 finalists associated to the REFRESH European project. Example projects connect restaurants, stores and consumers to avoid waste and identify food coming closer to its use-by date in consumer fridges and sell smoothies using surplus food.
All these projects elude to one thing – there is not one way to win the food waste race but many! By implementing just some of these initiatives, retailers have a great opportunity to contribute positively to the end-to-end food chain and more importantly, get closer to their customers.