Thursday, 3 January 2019

Some facts about food waste

Michael Gove has announced that we could divert 250 million meals per year to the most needy in society [1]. Is this a lot? There are 67 million people in the UK (approx). If we each eat 2 meals per day, that comes to 49 billion meals per year. The quoted 250 million meals is 0.5% of consumption. That seems a very low level of wastage to me, though we should still redistribute it if that is practical. We waste a lot more food at home. Here are some more facts about food waste.

We carry home and then throw away 5 million tonnes/year
By weight, those 250 million meals were 100,000 tonnes. According to WRAP, as of 2015 consumers threw away 5,000,000 tonnes of previously edible food (not tea leaves!) [2]. That is five million tonnes of food that we carried home (or our cars did) and then threw in the bin (or in some cases in the compost heap).

We throw out 15% of the food we buy
The total value of food thrown out by consumers as of 2015 was £14.9 billion [2]. Our total spending on food however was just under £100 billion [3] so we have thrown out 15% by value. Now that does sound like a serious waste to me.

Bacon rind is edible, and carrot skin but not parsnip skin
The definition of what is edible is an interesting one because we may not all agree. Not wishing to be criticised on this point WRAP conducted a survey asking people to classify various foods in two ways (1) do you normally eat them and (2) are they edible; the final classification used in their report was based on the average response from the two question. Do you agree with these? I am not convinced that bacon rind is edible. I often nibble cauliflower stalks as I am preparing the florets but I rarely put them in the pot. In this chart, the red bars (high scores) are foods that are edible.

Edibility of foods from a consumer survey by WRAP [2]. Scores above 0.5 (red bars) mean items are edible. The score is the average response from two questions: do you normally eat these items? and are these items edible?

    Bones, by the way were classed as inedible because only 28% of people use them to make stock and even when we do most of the weight remains.

    The biggest category of food waste is fruit and veg
    The last detailed survey on the sorts of food we throw out was in 2012. At that time, the largest category of food waste by weight was fruit and vegetables (28%). By cost, however, this group was equal top with meat/fish, both at 19%. Since there are now increasing numbers of vegetarians the meat waste has probably decreased a bit.

    The main reasons for discarding food were (by cost):
    • did not eat in time(43%)
    • cooked or served too much (26%)
    • personal preference (25%)
      • includes edible foods that we chose not to eat
    Personally I find it extraordinary that we throw out food because we cooked too much - in my dictionary leftovers is a synonym for convenience food - especially good for lunch!

    Supermarkets have reduced waste by moving sell by dates off the packaging
    The largest reason for household food waste was because we did not eat it in time. It may be genuinely spoiled or unsafe (past the use buy date), or it may be past its sell by or best before date and we are confused. Apparently less than half of us understand best before dates. One solution is to remove them altogether from the packaging - as Tesco has done for its own-brand produce [4]. Removing these dates can reduce waste at the supermarket too, as Sainsbury's has found. They reduced waste from loose apples by 24% by moving the best before dates from the product onto the crates. The savings were due  to reduced damage because shoppers did not handle the products so much [5].

    Do we waste food because it is too cheap?
    If we throw food out because it really has spoiled or is unsafe, then that could be because of bad planning on our part. If a company did this we would be outraged. So why do we do this at home? Sainsbury's set up a program called 'Waste Less Save More' to help but this was abandoned last year because the results were not very good [6].

    Presumably we have better things to do with our time or brain power than work out how to avoid waste. Is this because it is cheap? Food comprises only 11% of our household spending, below housing, recreation/culture and transport [7]. Even though we throw out 15% of this it is still only 2% of overall spending.

    The food we waste has an environmental cost too. WRAP estimated the GHG emissions at 22 million tonnes for 2015. This is a significant fraction (4.4%) of the UK total (496 million tonnes [8]).

    Some things to think about
    Here are some things to think about:
    • How often do you buy food that you do not have plans for?
      • Would shopping without a car make a difference because you would have to actually carry it home?
    • Is it acceptable to waste cauliflower stalks and bacon rind? 
    • Should supermarkets sell food in smaller quantities to reduce waste at home, even though this means more packaging, or alternatively more loose food and hence more waste from handling damage?
    • Food packaging is mostly plastic which is bad, but it reduces waste by keeping the food fresh for longer and undamaged. Should we accept more waste from supermarkets, on the grounds that it is a relatively small part of the total?

    [1] Food waste crackdown 'to help serve up 250m meals' (BBC) Oct 2018
    [2] The Courtauld 2025 baseline and restated household food waste figures (WRAP) May 2018
    [3] Food Statistics in your pocket 2017: Food Chain (
    [4] Tesco to axe 'confusing' best before dates on its fruit and vegetables (Guardian) May 2018
    [5] Reducing apple waste and loss in the Sainsbury’s supply chain: a demonstration project (WRAP) Oct 2015
    [6] Rotten results: Sainsbury's drops project to halve food waste (Guardian) May 2018
    [7] Family spending in the UK: financial year ending 2017 (

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