Analysis: No more sweeping waste under the carpet

A new strategy suggests the government is finally getting tough on food businesses. By Nick Hughes.

Is the government about to get tough on food waste? There was plenty of posturing to that effect in the recently published Waste and Resources Strategy, which sets out the government’s plans to preserve resources by minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and moving towards a circular economy.

Amid a series of new commitments on food waste the headline-grabber was a pledge (or should that be a threat) to make food businesses report annually on the amount of food waste they generate.

It’s a significant, and some would say timely, intervention by a government that has historically been happy to leave the heavy lifting on food waste to businesses and their partners in the charitable sector.

Although food waste has shot up the sustainability agenda in recent years to the point where businesses not taking action find themselves in the minority (unsurprisingly so, since the commercial case for reducing waste has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt), the collective determination to cut food waste has not been matched by progress, which the government says has plateaued in recent years.

In total, the UK generated 10.2m tonnes of food waste in 2015, according to DEFRA statistics. Households contributed the most (7.1m tonnes), followed by manufacturing (1.85m), foodservice and hospitality (1m) and retail (250,000).

Inspired, no doubt, by the insight that nothing focuses the mind of businesses like the prospect of being shown up by their competitors, DEFRA is taking the bull by the horns in the expectation that the requirement to report will “spur companies into taking the necessary targeted action”.

Some businesses are already getting ahead of the curve. Last year saw a decisive shift in the willingness of food companies to publicly report their progress on food waste after 90 of the UK’s largest retailers, food producers, manufacturers, and foodservice companies committed to measure, report and act on their food waste by September 2019 as part of a Food Waste Reduction Roadmap developed with IGD and WRAP.

Signatories are required to set a food waste reduction target for their own UK operations in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 target to halve per capita food waste by 2030 and to report on their progress publicly using tools such as the new Food Waste Atlas, which brings global food loss and waste data together in one place.

The aim is that by 2026 all 250 of the UK’s largest food and drink companies will have made the same commitment. The government, however, may not be prepared to wait that long and plans further consultations on new powers to set mandatory food waste prevention targets for appropriate food businesses and to introduce surplus food redistribution obligations if progress on reducing food waste is deemed too slow.

Softer policy options have not been entirely passed over in the new strategy. DEFRA has published a nine-step food waste hierarchy, and plans to produce best-practice guidance for the hospitality sector on reducing food waste, including tips such as offering a range of portion sizes and a take-home service for leftovers.

To ensure the public sector doesn’t get left behind, the government will also create a food standard for NHS hospital trusts in 2019 which will put sustainability and food waste as key priorities. New WRAP guidance, meanwhile, will be developed to tackle food waste in schools.

Viewed in its entirety, the new strategy marks a step change in the seriousness with which the political establishment views the food waste scandal.

Companies that believe they can bury the issue beneath a tonne of waste will not be able to hide their sins for too much longer.

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