UK Waste Mountain Reaches New Heights
The phenomenal amount of food and drink thrown away is costing the country UK£17 billion (A$36.7 billion) a year, says a new report from Wrap, painting the first complete picture of the scale of Britain’s waste mountain, which hit 18.4 million tonnes last year. This includes food, drink and excess packaging discarded by households, distributors, retailers and manufacturers, adding up to a carbon cost equivalent to an extra 12.4 million cars on British roads.
By Nina Lakhani and Susie Mesure in The Independent (5 April 2010):
Households, not retailers, produce the bulk of food and drink waste.
The phenomenal amount of food and drink thrown away in Britain is costing the country £17 billion ($36.7 billion) a year, at a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the longest recession on record.
A new report paints the first complete picture of the scale of Britain’s waste mountain, which hit 18.4 million tonnes last year. The figures, which include food, drink and excess packaging discarded by households, distributors, retailers and manufacturers, will increase pressure on the British 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 tonnes every year, at a cost of £12 billion. This is two-thirds of the country’s total waste mountain. Manufacturers are the next worst offenders, wasting 5 million tonnes annually, with retailers wasting 1.4 million tonnes and a further 100,000 tonnes 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, Goodwin said there is a lot of potential to reduce manufacturing waste. Some efforts were 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 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 £50 million to publish details of waste prevention strategies, spelling out 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 tonnes of food in 2008 – barely down from 291,300 the previous year.
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 tonnes by the end of this year. In addition, they are trying to reduce packaging waste by 5 per cent.
The carbon cost breaks down as 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, from food and packaging waste in the supply chain, and a further 26 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, from household waste.
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.
Costing: £17 billion ($36.7 billion) a year.
Size: 18.4 million tonnes.
Households: * 11.9 million tonnes of waste annually. * £12 billion annual cost.
Carbon cost: * 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from food and packaging waste. * 26 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, from household waste.