CAMPAIGNERS WANT Britain to follow France's example, but is targeting supermarkets the right tactic?
The movement to regulate, or rather eliminate, food waste is gathering momentum. Campaigners, spurred by the introduction of a new law in France, have joined forces to launch the “Stop Food Waste in Europe” petition. Their plea to the European Commission is a simple one: “Every supermarket must give its unsold food to a charity of its choice.”
If only it were that easy. Back in January, the British Retail Consortium revealed for the first time the combined retail food waste figure. Using data from seven major supermarkets, and with the help of WRAP, the group calculated that in 2013 just 1.3% of all waste food came from grocers. In other words, supermarkets generated 200,000 of the UK’s 15m tonne total.
This finding echoed those by Tesco a year before: a warts-and-all waste audit by the country’s biggest supermarket chain found that the lion’s share of waste happened in the home or in the field. For example, 1% of bagged salads were thrown out by stores, but 35% ended up in customers’ bins, 17% never left the field and 15% were lost during processing.
With this in mind, are campaigners wasting energy lobbying for laws that affect such a small fraction of food waste?
In the UK, maybe. But not necessarily elsewhere. The Consumer Goods Forum recently committed to a “Food Waste Resolution” to halve food waste within its operations by 2025, from a 2016 baseline. “The 1% figure is only relevant to UK retailers,” says a spokeswoman. “[Our] members are global, and once you take both retailers and manufacturers at a global level, food waste is around 25%. The UK retailers are just one small piece in the puzzle.”
Organisers of the Edinburgh Mela festival have once again banned food traders from using polystyrene. Instead, the 30,000 visitors will use compostable packaging for any takeaway food bought on site. This can be put in the same bins as food waste and taken to a commercial composting site.
“Most conventional takeaway packaging goes to landfill or incineration, both of which cost £100 a tonne. Food waste recycling costs around £43 a tonne, so compostable packaging can boost recycling rates and save on gate fees,” says Eilidh Brunton, group recycling consultant for compostable packaging provider Vegware.
The initiative, now in its third year, is a smaller-scale version of the approach taken at the London 2012 Olympics. It can work well on enclosed sites where the right bins and treatment facilities are available. As some have suggested, this isn’t always the case for compostable materials. It can also be a headache for other packaging.
Banning polystyrene also appears to be à la mode, with New York leading the way. Oxford City Council considered a ban in a bid to reduce litter, but was reportedly talked out of it by the Foodservice Packaging Association.
The FPA argued that the polystyrene being used was, in fact, recyclable – the problem was finding a suitable treatment site for it. Discussions are apparently ongoing to find a solution.
Recycling food-on-the-go packaging is a headache, so the focus is currently on reducing it. Consultants at Eunomia have suggested that charges for single-use coffee cups are in order. Some 2.5 billion cups are used every year – and they tend to fill up street bins, leading to a lot of “indirect” littering.
“A financial incentive for consumers to opt for reusable over single-use cups would encourage both litter prevention and waste prevention,” they said. The most effective way to incentivise this switch “would be an obligatory charge on single-use cups”. They added: “The focus would be on encouraging behaviour change. The charge would, in order to achieve this, need to be relatively high, perhaps in excess of 25p per item.”
In other words, something very similar to the plastic bag charge. Speaking of which, UK shoppers used more bags last year than in 2013 – 8.5 billion against 8.3 billion – according to new figures published by WRAP.
Perhaps. There is little doubt that the lion’s share of food waste occurs up or downsteam of the supermarkets. There is an argument, however, that the small amounts of waste at retail level are simply a result of the supermarkets shifting waste up or down the supply chain. High profile reports and a series of waste audits have forced some to bring food waste to the centre of their sustainability agenda – and target reductions in customers’ homes and on suppliers’ farms.
This isn’t to say that retail-level waste should be forgotten. Tesco alone chucks away 55,400 tonnes of food at its stores every year – almost half of which is edible. The worrying and well-publicised increase in the number of people visiting food banks is reason enough to ensure that this kind of waste finds its way to a hungry mouth rather than a hole in the ground. Tesco’s new trial with Fareshare provides one example of what could be achieved.
In July, the House of Lords EU select committee formally called on the European Commission to take action. This included a proposal for EU food donation guidelines.
What this campaign is doing, once again, is raising awareness of food waste. Apparently, 2014 was ‘European year against food waste’, but this year may well now prove pivotal. The new circular economy package is slowly but surely taking shape (see this issue’s analysis) and policies to help combat food waste are firmly on the agenda.