The forthcoming Christmas and New Year celebrations usually include an abundance of food and drink. Such abundance is understandable at a time associated with hospitality, but it can also lead to waste. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, food waste (and food loss) refers to the decrease of food in subsequent stages of the food supply chain intended for human consumption. Food can be wasted or lost throughout the supply chain, from initial production to final household consumption. One third – about 1.3 billion tonnes per year – of food produced for human consumption is wasted or lost globally. In 2013, approximately 1.35 million tonnes of food and drink was wasted or lost in Scotland.
Food waste has environmental and socio-economic impacts. From an environmental perspective, food waste results in the waste of other natural resources mobilised to produce or transport food including labour, land, water and energy. A quintessential Scottish Christmas dinner requires maize and wheat to feed turkeys; farmland to grow vegetables such as parsnips, carrots, Brussel sprouts and potatoes; water to irrigate the crops; as well as energy to pump water, harvest crops and transport the food to processors, retailers and consumers. Furthermore, food disposed of via landfills contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. From a socio-economic perspective, food waste costs both households’ and local authorities responsible for disposals. It also raises questions about the paradox of waste amid food insecurity. Consequently, activists, academics and policymakers are increasingly drawing attention to food waste and food loss, which are referred to as global social problems or global public policy issues.
The United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, European Union Law broadly provides policy and legal frameworks for waste management. The revised European Union Directive (2008) offers five steps for dealing with waste, ranked according to their environmental impact, otherwise called the ‘waste hierarchy.’ The UK has incorporated the Waste Hierarchy into UK law through the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012, Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 and the Waste (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2011. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), an organisation set up to promote sustainable waste management, designed a specific food and drink material hierarchy for businesses in the food and drink sector. Under the food and drink material hierarchy, the best option for dealing with waste is to prevent raw materials, ingredients and products from becoming waste in the first place. The next best option is to send surplus food to animal feed or to redistribute it for human consumption through charities. Charities that redistribute surplus food in the UK include Olio, FareShare and FoodCycle. Rightly placed at the bottom of the hierarchy as the worst ways of dealing with food waste are disposing it through waste incineration without energy recovery and sending it to landfill.
Across the UK, Governments have a variety of initiatives on food waste reduction. The Scottish Government takes the lead with its Zero Waste Plan. Scotland was the first in the UK to introduce a food waste target, reduction of 33% by 2025, as detailed in its circular economy strategy ‘Making Things Last: A Circular Economy Strategy for Scotland.’ Notably, the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all made separate household food waste collection compulsory. England is the exception. Only three days ago, on 18 December 2018, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced its Resources and Waste Strategy for England in an attempt to keep up with its counterparts. The Resources and Waste Strategy plans to introduce compulsory separate household food waste collection in England by 2023. These initiatives collectively seek to put the UK on course to achieve its United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 by 2030.
In addition to the Government initiatives, WRAP is actively involved in food waste campaigns in the UK. Its vision is ‘a world in which resources are used sustainably.’ Its interventions on food waste reduction include the voluntary Courtauld Commitment alongside the Love Food Hate Waste and Recycle Now Campaigns. The Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary agreement that brings together stakeholders across the food system. It has a target to reduce food and drink waste in the UK by 20% by 2025. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign provides practical tips on food preparation and storage that can help reduce food waste at household levels. While the Recycle Now campaign provides practical tips on recycling; it ‘seeks to help people to recycle more things, more often.’
Focus on Supermarkets: Need for Hard Law?
Should the UK draw inspiration about food waste reduction from its neighbour? In 2016, the French Government introduced a law which made it illegal for supermarkets bigger than 400 sq metres (4,305 sq ft) to destroy or landfill food. The supermarkets are required to donate food approaching best-before dates to charities that redistribute surplus food. Alternatively, supermarkets can turn food that is no longer edible to animal feed or compost. Penalties for breaking the law include fines from 3,750 to 75,000 EUR or two years in prison.
Conclusion: Our Roles in the Future of Food Waste
The questions about the introduction of hard law to combat food waste and the responsibilities of producers, processors and retailers in the food waste ecosystem remain unaddressed in this blog post. However, starting from the bottom–up, consumers can make intentional choices to reduce food waste. WRAP explains that around two-thirds of the potential reduction in UK food waste would require actions at household levels. Simple practices like making lists, purchasing the right amount of food, storing raw food materials properly until needed, creatively consuming left-over food and donating surplus food to charities can contribute to food waste reduction.
The forthcoming festive celebrations and New Year is an opportune time to consider contributing to food waste reduction. Small individual changes can make a big difference to the world around us.
Blog post by Titi Adebola