The remains of the day: As Tesco faces up to the facts, what does the future hold for food waste?

Measuring profligacy is the first step to taking measures against it


Alicia Lawson, Director at Rubies in the Rubble, responds to Tesco's aim to become a global leader in preventing food waste. Rubies in the Rubble is a London-based social business which makes chutneys and preserves from perfectly good yet otherwise discarded fresh produce.

Newly revealed data from Tesco has confirmed that in the first six months of this year, nearly 30,000 tons of food went to waste from its stores and distribution centres. We’ve all heard the shocking facts on food waste, but this is the first time the data has come from a supermarket itself.

So plaudits to Tesco, for making the first move in what will hopefully become a race to transparency amongst the big players. Measuring food waste is the first step to taking measures against it, and for the first time we’re starting to see food waste ranking high on the supermarkets’ competitive agendas.

When Asda became the first supermarket to make a ‘zero waste to landfill’ pledge, in October 2006, it was only a few months before the others followed suit. Now that standard is a basic expectation, and such narrow definition of ‘waste’ has expanded to include non landfill material, as well as the waste up and downstream of the supermarkets’ own stores. It’s a wide-ranging problem which stretches the length of the supply chain and includes farmers, packers, importers and distributors, and of course retailers and consumers.

I co-run a company called Rubies in the Rubble, a food brand which makes premium food products from some of this perfectly good otherwise discarded fresh produce. Over the last few months we’ve seen a concerted effort from Tesco to expand the discussion about food waste and work with social businesses like ourselves - to help achieve their target of becoming global leaders of food waste.

Today’s half year report reveals that 1 in 5 bananas are thrown away, and 40% of apples: hence the very real need for products – like our chutney – that make a point of preserving short-lived foodstuffs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Tesco's study is equally keen to point out that the vast (and yes, 7.5 million tons a year is vast) majority of food gets wasted in our very own homes.

So who’s to blame, and what’s the root of the problem?  With the existence of the supermarket model, is this waste not inevitable? We demand increasingly lower prices, yet huge, year-round supplies of produce, presented in plentiful abundance. An empty shelf is a sad shelf; we want value as well as diversity; aren’t we all to blame for a system driven by volume and economies of scale?

Collaboration is essential. We’ve already seen what happens when food waste gets shunted along the supply chain, leaving consumers lumped with multipack ‘bargains’. Tesco have now announced – admirably – that they plan to end multi-buy promotions on those large bags of salad that so frequently go to waste in the back of our fridges.

So instead of shifting the blame, this study looks like an exciting first step to actually solving the problem and admitting that we all have a responsibility to address it. Of course, good habits start at home. Going back to old habits of meal planning, weekly shops, and eating in season, will go a long way, paired with supermarket support to introduce smaller pack sizes and storage options.

It’s also a question of attitude. I’ve seen 15 pallets of bananas (that’s 15 tonnes) get sent to the dump because they arrived into the country as single pieces of fruit, rather than bunches of 4 or 5. These actions are customer driven, because it’s the single bananas that get left on the shelf at the end of the day. That’s something that we as consumers can easily change.

And, with more transparency in the supply chain, we can vote with our shopping baskets. Publically available information such as Tesco have today published will give consumers the choice of shopping with a food waste agenda.

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