An ambitious "War on Waste" campaign to tackle Britain's mountains of food-based rubbish with a range of radical new measures is to be launched tomorrow.
The programme will scrap "best before" labels on food, create new food packaging sizes, build more "on-the-go" recycling points and unveil five flagship anaerobic digestion plants, to harness the power of leftover food and pump energy back into the national grid. The government hopes that its plans will reduce the 100 million tons of waste the country produced last year, which included 20 million tons of food waste and 10.7 million tons of packaging waste.
On Tuesday, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, will announce plans to dispense with "best before" labels, in an attempt to reduce the estimated 370,000 tons of food that is thrown away despite being perfectly edible. The latest government research into food labelling showed that the British are very cautious when it comes to eating anything that has passed its "best before" date: 53 per cent of consumers never eat fruit or vegetables that has exceeded the date; 56 per cent would not eat bread or cake; and 21 per cent never even "take a risk" with food close to its date.
"One of the things we found in our research is that confusion over date labelling is one of the major reasons for throwing food away. Often people don't realise the difference between 'best before' and 'use by'," said Richard Swannell, director of retail and organics at Wrap, the Government waste watchdog. It is working with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and leading retailers to get rid of the "sell until", "display until" and "best before" tags, which confuse customers, causing them to throw away edible food.
"It is an issue that we want to address, but there has to be a balance, as we have to protect consumer safety," said an FSA spokesman. "Not eating out-of-date food is one of the simplest ways of preventing food poisoning."
Ahead of the launch, Mr Benn said: "It's time for a new war on waste. It's not just about recycling more – and we are making progress there – it's about rethinking the way we use resources in the first place.
"We need to make better use of everything we produce, from food to packaging, and the plans I'm setting out over the next few days will help us to achieve that. We all have a part to play, from businesses and retailers to consumers."
The minister added: "Too many of us are putting things in the bin simply because we're not sure, we're confused by the label, or we're just playing safe. This means we're throwing away thousands of tons of food every year completely unnecessarily. I want to improve labels so that when we buy a loaf of bread or a packet of cold meat, we know exactly how long it's safe to eat."
On Tuesday, the Government will also unveil plans for dealing with packaging, including increased glass collection from pubs, clubs and restaurants, a huge expansion of "on-the-go" recycling points for aluminium cans, and new packaging sizes for supermarkets.
In addition to tackling food waste and packaging, the Government will reveal plans to use the waste we do produce as fuel. Tomorrow Mr Benn will announce the location of five new anaerobic digestion plants, built with the help of £10m in state funding. The facilities compost waste in the absence of oxygen, producing a biogas that can be used to generate electricity and heat.
Mr Benn said: "We need to rethink the way we deal with waste – to see it as a resource, not a problem."
The UK produces 100 tons of organic waste a year. If processed anaerobically this would produce enough energy to power two million homes, or Birmingham five times over. Anaerobic digestion plants are widely used across Europe, and are already being used by high street retailers such as Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer to tackle their food waste.
Michael Warhurst, senior waste and resources campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "This should be happening across the country, instead of councils still putting money into building incinerators. They are the technology of the past – this is the future."
Don't read the label: 'If it looks old, cook it for longer'
Edmund Luxmoore, 39, from London, hates waste and never pays any attention to "best before" dates:
"I get most of my vegetables from the supermarket near my house, picking up bits and pieces throughout the week. I get the heavy stuff delivered. We plan meals, making lots of lists. I like to cook and we make curries and lots of other dishes.
"I'm a vegetarian, and I suppose if I was eating meat I would be more wary about eating off food, but a dodgy potato probably isn't going to do much, is it? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Just look at it and see if it's OK: if it looks a little bit old, cook it for longer.
"I totally understand the difference between the 'best before' and the 'use by' dates. I've certainly got friends who will bin just about anything. Money used to be a factor in not wasting stuff in the days when I had a lower income but now it's just a personal choice. I intensely dislike waste – I think that is a family tradition. My dad used to make us stop the car by the side of the road to pick up plastic bags and clean up the countryside!"
Cautious eater: 'I don't want to poison my mother'
Julie Andrew, 48, from Wakefield, is nervous about eating food that is even approaching its "best before" date:
"I must admit that I'm a bit wasteful. I throw things away when they are near the date. If it's in the fridge and it passes the best-before date I throw it out, even if it's just one day over. I always check both the 'best before' and 'use by' dates in the supermarket and know the difference, but when I get home I just throw things in the bin if they pass any date on the packaging. I do end up throwing out a lot – day-old yoghurts or the end of Flora pots. If I have meat and it looks at all suspicious, I put it straight in the bin.
"With ready meals I worry about the date too and if I've had them in the freezer too long I chuck them out. I had food poisoning once and since then I've been more careful. I try to not be as wasteful because I know there are starving people out there, but I just like to know the food we eat is OK. I live with my mother, who's in her 70s, and I don't want to poison her."