Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, discusses the findings of a recent study into local authority food waste recycling collections and explains why uniformity is key to tackling the UK’s growing food waste mountain.
According to insight from WRAP, the UK wastes more than 9.5 million tonnes of food waste per annum – 70% of which is intended for human consumption. Breaking this figure down by sector, 16% (1.5m tonnes) is generated by food manufacturers, 12% (1.1m tonnes) is wasted by hospitality businesses, and 3% (300k tonnes) by retailers. The remaining 70% (6.6m tonnes) is generated by households.
Estimates suggest that this waste has a value of £19 billion, with the edible fraction alone (6.5m tonnes) equating to 15 billion wasted meals and accounting for the unnecessary release of more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas.
Food waste now comprises c.50% of black bag waste, with the average family throwing away between £250-400 of produce every year.
In efforts to counteract this trend, businesses operating across the food supply chain are fighting back. Through process innovation, voluntary commitments, reduction tactics and recycling agreements, total national food waste volumes have tumbled by more than 25% since 2010.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for household levels.
Consumer-generated food waste continues to grow, with a notable spike experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Food waste now comprises c.50% of black bag waste, with the average family throwing away between £250-400 of produce every year.
While much of this waste is down to poor planning, bulk buying, unwanted leftovers, and plate scrapings, the fact of the matter is simple. A significant volume of food generated by households ends up in the bin. What’s more, only a handful of the UK’s 343 councils provide residents with separate kerbside collections, meaning the vast majority of waste is landfilled.
Cutting household food waste requires fundamental legislative change. Our lack of collection uniformity is not only costly but also hugely environmentally damaging. The system is outdated and disjointed, resulting in a number of unnecessary negative consequences.
The national impact of collection inconsistency
Earlier this year, The Solar Centre published a report exploring the disparity in food waste recycling rates across the UK. Split by local authority, the study collates collection volumes by geography and highlights the opportunities missed by a lack of system uniformity.
While some local authorities, such as Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, collect upwards of 245kg per person (per annum), figures from other areas are much less favourable. In Runnymede Council, for example, just two tonnes of food waste were collected for recycling last year, despite a population of 333,000 residents. Findings from In Your Area suggest that landfilling this waste cost upwards of £3.5 million.
To tackle consumer food waste, two things are clear.
We need to provide solutions for the fraction of food waste that is considered ‘unavoidable’. While not a silver bullet, food waste recycling provides a simple and effective solution.
Firstly, we need to better equip the public with the knowledge, tools, and education about the countless ways in which they can reduce food waste in the home. After all, from carefully planning meals, creating shopping lists, and cutting portion sizes to using leftovers and donating excess produce to community fridges, reducing food waste volumes isn’t as challenging as it may initially seem.
Secondly, we need to provide solutions for the fraction of food waste that is considered ‘unavoidable’. While not a silver bullet, food waste recycling provides a simple and effective solution.
At ReFood, we recycle food waste using the anaerobic digestion (AD) process to capture the biogas produced by the natural degradation of food and turn it into renewable energy. The resulting digestate can also be used to create a sustainable fertiliser; enabling beneficial nutrients to be reinvested back into the food chain.
Alongside diverting food waste away from landfill, AD prevents harmful greenhouse gases from being released into the atmosphere. This is hugely important as methane, released as food waste rots, is considered 21 times more damaging to the environment than CO2.
So, there’s a double benefit to the planet – firstly by preventing food from ending up in already overflowing landfill sites and, secondly, by using it to generate renewable energy and replace the chemical fertilisers used in farming.
We believe this is an area of focus where our approach must change. Every home in the UK should have access to regular kerbside food waste recycling collections. While the Government has long talked about rolling out food waste collections for all UK households, legislation has repeatedly been pushed back.
Embracing change, driving results
While throwing away your leftover groceries may not seem important, the implications are greater than you may think. The time to act is now. A clear, national strategy on kerbside collections that we can all support, alongside more support for households to minimise their avoidable waste, would really help to tackle the issue head-on.
A current lack of uniformity in local authority kerbside collections is putting us further and further behind when it comes to cutting national food waste figures and preventing the damaging release of greenhouse gases. The environmental impacts of inconsistent collections are clear – a lack of control when it comes to waste management. We need to step up to the plate, and quickly.