In November, the government publicly rejected recommendations from a group of senior MPs on the best way to tackle food waste. Philip Simpson discusses why this move is yet another unnecessary setback for the UK
Nearly six months on from the submission of food waste reduction guidelines from the environment, food and rural affairs committee, DEFRA finally published its response to this challenging report. A lukewarm response at best, two key recommendations were rejected – the adoption of a national food waste reduction target (which would bring the UK in line with the EU), as well as the requirement of all large food businesses to publish their waste figures.
While government antipathy towards food waste reduction is nothing new, such a public dismissal of a credible proposal is hugely concerning, especially in the run-up to next year’s release of the environment strategy.
Although England has continued to steer clear of legislation, our food waste figures are quickly spiralling out of control. We need to act quickly to identify and implement a solution. For this, the government must play a driving role.
The uncomfortable truth
According to the latest insight from WRAP, an estimated 14.8 million tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK every year – the majority of which is destined for landfill. While this seems a mere drop in the ocean when we consider that 1.3 billion tonnes is wasted worldwide, our national volume is still equivalent to more than 40 times the weight of the Empire State Building – a startling statistic!
More worrying still, according to insight from the Local Government Association, more than 60% of this volume is said to be entirely avoidable. In essence, we are wasting £17bn every year to dispose of completely edible food.
At ReFood, we believe there’s a better way. Rather than landfilling resources, we advocate following the waste hierarchy to maximise value from what most people consider ‘rubbish’.
Working with businesses nationwide, we collect more than 400,000 tonnes of food waste every year, recycling it at our three UK AD sites and generating enough renewable energy to power 36,000 homes. By exporting power directly to the grid, we turn waste into a resource. The whole process is incredibly efficient – both financially and environmentally – which makes food waste recycling up to 46% cheaper than traditional landfill disposal.
If we were to realise zero food waste to landfill, in 2020 we could generate over 1.1tW of energy, 27 million fewer tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, return over 1.3 million tonnes of nutrient-rich fertiliser to farmland and save the public sector over £3.7bn – all while reducing our national reliance on landfill. Food waste recycling solutions are therefore not simply a nice touch, but must play a critical part in our national waste strategy.
Although the benefits are clear to see, there is currently no legislation in England banning food waste to landfill. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are, however, ahead of the trend and already realising significant benefits.
Wales, for example, is already leading the UK in terms of implementing waste reduction strategies. Since introducing mandatory separation and recycling processes, domestic food waste across the country has already decreased by 12%, with household waste output now lower than the rest of the UK by nearly 10%.
Now a global leader in food waste reduction, the Welsh government has aspirations for further improvement. Earlier this year, in fact, new plans to halve food waste in the country by 2025 were announced, making it one of the world’s most ambitious government target.
Unfortunately, England still relies on voluntary agreements and best practice examples from the private sector to tackle an ever-growing mound of avoidable waste. While initiatives such as the Courtauld Commitment have seen specific sectors make impressive progress, we need a clear target to work towards.
In my opinion, EFRA’s two recommendations – adopting a national food waste reduction target and making it mandatory for all large food businesses to publish their waste figures – were both sensible and considered. Recommendations that were based on a long and thorough process of evidence-gathering and consideration, with the committee hearing from charities, supermarkets, and experts in the field of food waste.
Ignoring the findings and avoiding the issue seems blinkered at best. The research is out there, business buy-in is clear, infrastructure capacity is available and the economic argument weighs up. When you add into the argument declining landfill capacity, increasing taxes and the requirement to streamline local authority spending, it seems ludicrous to continue our historic relationship with traditional waste management.
We need to move forward, and fast, before food waste becomes an issue too large to handle. I implore DEFRA to reconsider the recommendations and look to the future, rather than clinging on to the past.
Photo by Nick Saltmarsh