Leading article: Our throwaway culture


It is no secret that an obscene amount of food is wasted in our wealthy, throwaway, societies. But exactly how much? The Government quango, The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), estimates that some 6.7m tonnes of food ends up in British bins each year, despite the fact that half of it is perfectly edible.

In response, Wrap yesterday launched a new campaign to reduce this kind of waste. It coincides with a push by the Women's Institute to promote such apparently forgotten household management techniques as reusing leftovers and pre-shop planning.

This touches on environmental issues that this newspaper has consistently championed. The energy expended in producing and transporting this wasted food is enormous. And discarded food ends up in landfill where it produces copious amounts of methane. Difficult as it may be to believe, the food waste of the developing world is a contributor to climate change. The food and supermarket industries need to reform their practices. They should cease using spurious "best before" dates that are designed to encourage people to waste edible food. They should also refrain from flooding their stores with "two-for-one" offers that encourage people to buy far more food than they actually need. The resistance of the sector to such calls for moderation are of a piece with their slowness in responding to demands for them to cut down on excess packaging.

The Government should be treating this issue with a little more urgency too. A 1999 EU directive on waste obliges Britain to cut the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill by two thirds by 2020. Though the amount of waste dumped in this way has fallen of late, we are not on course to meet the overall reduction targets. The Government needs to push ahead with plans to allow local councils to penalise those who fail to recycle and reward those who compost biodegradable waste.

It would help enormously too if the Government taxed carbon emissions at an appropriate level. That would push up transport costs and thereby the price of foodstuffs. People would be less inclined to waste something for which they had paid a fair price.

But the particular issue of food waste is, at heart, a challenge for all of us as consumers. In the end, the state cannot force us to save and reuse leftovers. Nor can it compel us to put less in our shopping baskets.

Yet one major incentive for change surely already exists. We are paying £8bn a year for food that we do not eat. Each household could save up to £400 a year by being a little more thoughtful over how we use food. Cutting out this senseless waste makes sense for the bank balance as well as the planet.

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