Our £17bn waste mountain: Annual bill for throwaway Britain

The environmental cost of discarded food and drink is equal to an extra 12.4 million cars on the road
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The Independent Online

The phenomenal amount of food and drink thrown away in Britain is costing the country £17bn a year, at a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the longest recession on record.

An astonishing new report paints the first complete picture of the scale of the UK's waste mountain, which hit 18.4 million tons last year. The figures, which include food, drink and excess packaging discarded by households, distributors, retailers and manufacturers, will increase pressure on the Government to accelerate its long-awaited plans to slash waste.

Wrap, the Government's recycling body that published the report, said the environmental cost is compounding the economic impact. The carbon cost of all that wasted food and drink is equivalent to an extra 12.4 million cars on British roads.

Environmental activists leapt on the figures yesterday, which they said highlighted the Government's failure to focus on waste prevention. Julian Kirby, Friends of the Earth's resource use campaigner, said: "Neither the economy nor the planet can afford to foot the bill for the staggering level of waste in the UK food chain. There is not enough talk about prevention, which is where we need to see much greater focus from government and industry. The Government must act on this report across the food supply chain and end its own wasteful and costly obsession with incineration."

The report underlined that households produce the vast bulk of food and drink wasted in Britain, throwing away 11.9 million tons every year, at a cost of £12bn. This is two-thirds of the country's total waste mountain. Manufacturers are the next worst offenders, wasting five million tons annually, with retailers wasting 1.4 million tons and a further 100,000 tons getting lost during the distribution process.

In response to government pressure, retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer are all trying to send less waste to landfill to meet EU targets and avoid hefty fines. Critics believe this focus on landfill is diverting retailers from exerting pressure on suppliers to cut waste throughout the supply chain.

Liz Goodwin, chief executive of Wrap, said the survey would help to focus attention on where the most food and drink are being wasted. But she warned that retailers and manufacturers had to work together to have any hope of reducing the vast vats of unused food and drink, and piles of excess packaging. "We need to improve communication between various parts of the supply chain. For example, if retailers talk to their suppliers, we will be able to get the best outcomes," she said.

While the big numbers concern household waste, Ms Goodwin said there is a lot of potential to reduce manufacturing waste. Some efforts were already working, she added, pointing to a Waitrose initiative to throw away fewer bananas. "Getting them to recognise the need for customers to accept more cosmetically imperfect fruit meant less than 3 per cent of its bananas got wasted in 2008, down from 40 per cent in 2002."

Wrap has also commissioned a number of so-called "food maps", which Ms Goodwin said would spell out exactly where food was being wasted along the supply chain. One example concerns onions: millions were being thrown away because they were not all standard shapes and sizes. "Sainsbury's has now added misshapen ones to its Essentials line, which has had a massive impact," she added.

MPs want the Government to force retailers and manufacturers to reveal how much food their businesses waste annually. They are also calling for retailers with annual sales greater than £50m to publish details of their waste prevention strategies, spelling out their targets to reduce each type of product. Although Wrap also recommended that companies measure waste so they could track their progress in reducing it, the Government last month said it would "not be logical" to isolate retailers.

Wrap's report, written by the consultancy firm Oakdene Hollins using data compiled by the services group DHL, makes the best estimate to date of the amount of food that supermarkets waste. Extrapolating figures from an analysis of one retailer's skip suggests grocers threw away 232,200 tons of food in 2008 – barely down from 291,300 the previous year.

Another shocking example of waste includes a biscuit factory that lost 20 tons of biscuits for every 100-ton batch that it baked. A further six tons were lost throughout the process, including 2.4 tons wasted by filling the packs with more than the stated weight.

The report urged manufacturers to focus on cutting the amount of waste they produce, rather than coming up with imaginative ways to avoid sending rubbish to landfill, which is expensive and environmentally questionable. It admitted this would require companies to overhaul their existing cultures.

But with the cost of inertia so high, Wrap questions whether companies can afford to ignore the findings. "Seventeen billion pounds is a large sum of money to waste and we need to reduce it, especially when times are hard. This is something that businesses will want to do to save money," said Ms Goodwin.

The Food and Drink Federation claimed its members were committed to cutting waste. Andrew Kuyk, the umbrella group's sustainability director, said: "We take problems of waste extremely seriously and have a number of specific commitments on reduction. We are working with our members on initiatives to optimise packaging and reduce food waste, divert materials away from landfill to recovery or recycling and encourage consumers to waste less."

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said its members had cut packaging growth and helped customers to reduce waste by "providing consistent on-pack recycling information, improving recycling facilities and giving out free recipe cards".

More than 40 grocery retailers and manufacturers have signed up to government targets to help householders to reduce the amount of food thrown away by 155,000 tons by the end of this year. In addition, they are trying to reduce packaging waste by 5 per cent. "We can all do our bit to try to reduce the amount of food and drink being wasted," Ms Goodwin added.

Retailers and manufacturers are also working with a London-based charity called FareShare, which redistributes food to those in need. But the report pointed out the tonnages involved were still only a fraction of the total problem with around 3,000 tons redistributed in 2008.

Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, recently wrote to all major UK supermarkets, urging them to provide more support to FareShare, including giving suppliers their "explicit permission" to redistribute supermarket own-brand products.

Ms Goodwin said organisations such as FareShare have a role to play in reducing waste, but she added: "We should be focusing further up the supply chain, to ensure retailers have the right amount of food on their shelves and they are not stocking too much."

The carbon cost breaks down as 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent, from food and packaging waste in the supply chain, and a further 26 million tons of CO2 equivalent, from household waste. A spokesman for the Carbon Trust, which campaigns to cut carbon, said: "Helping people to understand the carbon footprint of the food they buy, cook and throw away is critical to help us all to lead lower-carbon lifestyles. Waste is just one source of carbon emissions from the food we eat."

As well as running its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which encourages families to use more of the food they buy, Wrap is urging manufacturers to consider using reusable packaging for their products, which consumers can refill. Few have shown willing to try this so far, although Asda is trialling a scheme in five stores to get customers to refill fabric conditioner bottles. But Rob Holdway, who runs the green consultancy Giraffe Innovation, warned that shoppers tended to shun such initiatives, which highlights the need for more action to be taken by manufacturers and retailers. "Consumer appetite for reusable systems seems to be very, very low," said Mr Holdway.

The Government has pledged to bring its proposals to cut waste in line with European Union targets by the end of this year. It has until 2013 to put a waste prevention plan in place, according to an edict from Brussels.

A waste-not-want-not mum: 'Sunday lunch is never just Sunday lunch... the following day, it's Sunday lunch soup'

"How bonkers would it be to come home laden with the supermarket shopping, and to dump one in every three carrier bags straight into the bin? According to one of my smarty-pants kids who's just 'done' food waste at school, that's effectively what we all do every week.

"Of course, we don't just throw the unwanted bags of shopping straight into the bin: no, we neatly decant it into the fridge first. Then we jettison it a week or 10 days later when it's past its sell-by date, terminally wilted or mouldy.

"Having a large family to feed (I've got four kids, and usually they've got at least a friend apiece on the premises, so any meal I cook tends to be for 10 or more) means I've got more incentive than most to make the contents of my fridge go as far as possible. I'm not saying I'm above those terrible moments of realisation when some food that was perfectly good when purchased has to hit the bin, but I do take great pleasure from making my weekly shop work hard, and in not throwing much away.

"Sunday lunch, for example, is never just Sunday lunch... the following day, there's invariably "Sunday lunch soup" (for which read all the leftover vegetables thrown into a big pot with some stock, itself very possibly the result of the chicken carcass), or the surplus mashed potatoes made into fishcakes or bubble and squeak.

"I take huge pleasure, too, in eking out the contents of an almost empty fridge to feed a large gathering. (Huge salads, with endless bits of vegetables thrown in, mixed with a couple of cans of tuna and some hard-boiled eggs, are an excellent standby for an oops-I-forgot-to-shop mother like me.)

Shopping on the day, as every good waste-not-want-not, clued-up, 21st-century citizen knows, is definitely the way forward if we're to cut out the chuck-out. It's tough going, unless you make it part of your keep-fit routine: I work at home, and I don't get enough exercise, so I try to see walking down to the shops to buy the evening meal as a good way to burn off calories.

"Another way forward, though probably less PC, is to simply ignore the sell-by dates (assuming the food isn't actually crawling out of the fridge). My father used to boast he'd never looked at a sell-by date in his life – and even though I once discovered him eating two-week-old double cream, I never recall him having food poisoning. Perhaps sell-by dates are past their sell-by date, and we should all go by my dad's method of checking food by looking at it and sniffing it. If in doubt, don't eat – but most of the time, it's going to be absolutely fine."

Joanna Moorhead

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