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UK Food Waste: understanding the scale of the problem

Try to imagine what it would take to feed the entire population of the UK, at 3 square meals per day for 11 solid weeks. We’re talking about 6.4 million Metric Tonnes of food to hit that target – and that’s exactly what we’re throwing away as a nation each year.

At the farm level alone, 1.6 million tonnes of food waste are produced annually. 15 billion meals’ worth of edible food is being discarded or destroyed at a time when food poverty is skyrocketing. Around 2.5 million people were reduced to falling back on food banks to keep themselves and their families fed in the 2020/21 tax year. That figure’s up by over 600,000 compared to just a year before.

The environmental impact of food waste

At the same time, this staggering tonnage of food waste production is wreaking havoc on the environment. Wasted food carries with it all the ecological baggage of the energy use, carbon emissions and resources involved in its production and transportation. In fact, the disposal of this waste in landfills is itself a significant source of methane gas – which is considerably worse than carbon from an environmental standpoint.

Just to put a few things in perspective:

  • The 714,000 tonnes of wasted potato matter thrown away yearly is the equivalent of pumping 326,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
  • The daily discarding of 20 million slices of bread equates to the total yearly greenhouse gas emissions of 140,000 cars.
  • The amount of edible food waste produced in the UK alone each year would fill Wembley Stadium 8 times over.

These staggering statistics mean that, globally, food waste in itself has the carbon footprint of a major world economy. If fact, it would be the 3rd largest carbon footprint of any country on Earth, after the United States and China. Its greenhouse gas tonnage beats the entire output of the global commercial aviation industry an estimated 6 times over.

The United Nations has set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030, and the UK’s been playing its part in that. However, there’s still a considerable distance to go to make that goal achievable. The UK alone will need to cut its food waste by another estimated 1.8 million tonnes, with all but half a million tonnes of that reduction happening at the household level.

What we can do about it?

It’s easy to lay the blame for the problem, along with the responsibility for fixing it, at the doorsteps of usual suspects like farms, supermarkets and mass producers. However, it’s actually households that are the worst offenders, wasting more food per year than every business sector combined. This is despite the country’s general awareness of the need to limit climate change being at an all-time high. Right now, about 70% of UK households don’t believe they’re producing any food waste at all, while less than 30% understand how food waste relates to climate change pressures. The links between food waste and environmental damage haven’t been made clear enough – nor have the relatively easy adjustments that can be made to address the issue.

A typical UK household could cut their contribution to the food waste crisis, and save an estimated £500 per year, by following simple guidelines like:

  • Using food planners to work out what they need to eat healthily without over-buying.
  • Turning the fridge temperature down to 5°C or below to help keep food in good condition for longer.
  • Understanding the crucial difference between a “best before” date and a “use by” one. Those terms are not meant to be interchangeable.
  • Making better use of leftovers and getting into the habit of freezing what they don’t eat.

Surveys show that the public does have the desire to help address climate change at a household level. All it will take to convert that desire into meaningful action is to get the message out and close the persistent knowledge gaps.

Fighting food waste: business and innovation

If we’re asking families to think more deeply about their food use, then our focus on business needs to be just as fierce. Here as well, while we’ve still got plenty of ground to cover, innovative programmes are already having an impact. Sectors from food service and hospitality to retail and manufacturing are already redistributing about 700,000 tonnes of unneeded food through charities and commercial initiatives, the vast majority ending up as animal feed.

Not-for-profit organisation WRAP believes in tackling food waste at its source and offers a range of support for retailers, manufacturers, industry bodies and food service businesses to ensure that surplus food can be redistributed easily and effectively. Where waste can’t be prevented in the first instance, WRAP’s research has identified the potential for innovative solutions to redistribute the equivalent of 400 million meals per year. Their resource hub, action fund and other initiatives are designed to bring that ambitious target firmly within reach.

Innovation in action: the Food Loop App

As a product of Produced in Kent’s No Food Wasted forum, the Food Loop app is a powerful tool for connecting those with surplus food with those in need of it. With innovative use of technology driving the process, Food Loop is already being talked about as a game-changer in the push to reduce food waste in Kent.

Kentish Food and drink businesses are being invited to get onboard as “Food Loop Champions” for a pledge of £500 in support of the app’s initial year-long trial. Actual registration for the app, however, is free during this period, with Champions receiving a lifetime membership going forward. Floortje Hoette, Chief Executive of Produced in Kent, described the scheme like this:

“This is a chance for the county’s growers, producers, butchers, farmers and shops, restaurants and pubs to further reduce food waste and get food to those who need it. It’s also a great way to act on and feed into your business’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy.”

Food Loop is a unique business-to-business app, aimed at encouraging and enabling suppliers to be – in Produced in Kent’s own words – a “Force for Good”. It’s about building communities and a common understanding while providing accessible, practical solutions for some of the food sector’s most pressing problems.

While the crisis of UK food waste is severe, and its challenges considerable, it’s encouraging and inspiring to see the levels of innovation now being brought to bear against it.

If you're breaking through barriers and pushing back boundaries in your business, you could be due some valuable R&D Tax Relief. We can help you identify historic qualifying activity and get the credit for it. Call 01233 653002 to ensure your biggest ideas always bring rewards.