Food production contributes greatly to the UK economy but at the same time, as with any sector, uses resources and impacts our environment. Across the supply chain the production of food contributes 21% of the UK’s CO2 emissions and approximately 70% of the UK’s water footprint. It is estimated that out of the 10 million tonnes of food waste produced by the UK each year, approximately 40% is sent to landfill. With a target of sending 0% of waste to landfill by 2020, now is the time for us all to take responsibility and actions to address this.
Understanding food waste, how we manage it – both at home and in commercial or professional catering environments – and how we can recycle it is vitally important for the environment as well as for budgets. Broadly speaking, modern world demands lean towards that of a disposable lifestyle, but in order to sustain this we need to better understand how we can manage our food waste more effectively and help reduce this wastage and cost throughout the supply chain…
Food waste is divided into two categories; avoidable and unavoidable. Avoidable food waste refers to food once considered edible; for example bread, a chicken breast or a tomato. Unavoidable food waste refers to food waste never considered to have been edible, such as an egg shell or a banana skin. Studies suggest that, in the UK, 75% of food waste within the Hospitality and Food Service sector is avoidable and therefore addressable, the remaining 25% unavoidable.
As such, we have a large opportunity, both financially and environmentally to make a positive impact. By reducing food wastage there is also an associated financial benefit; as food waste reduces, so does the cost. The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) suggests that including the costs for labour, utilities and waste management, each tonne wasted has an associated cost of approximately £2,100, which equates to £0.22 per meal.
In the UK the cost of food waste across all sectors is estimated at over £17 billion annually (WRAP May 2016). Within the Hospitality & Food Service sector this amounts to £2.5 billion or 920,000 tonnes of food each year. As an average, 21% of this waste occurs due to spoilage, 45% during preparation and 34% once served to the consumer. Of the 920,000 tonnes of food waste produced by the Hospitality & Food Service Sector each year only 12% is recycled. The majority of the remaining waste, approximately 510,000 tonnes, is disposed of by sewer, incineration or landfill.
To better understand the management of food waste, it is important to understand the waste hierarchy, shown below. The waste hierarchy is an EU concept on which the UK’s waste policies are based. Its aim is to ensure anyone managing waste should first consider how waste can be prevented, then how it can be reused or recycled, and finally disposed of.
The most preferable stage of this hierarchy is the prevention stage, and this is shown below in green. It includes the reduction of waste produced in the first instance, but also includes redistribution of food for both people and animal feed. An example of this is the pulp that remains after sugar has been extracted from sugar beet; it is pressed to make high quality animal feed, and also includes finding other uses for food, drink and its associated packaging. Recently we have seen a food waste supermarket open in Leeds, selling food from supermarkets and other business that would otherwise have been thrown away and sent to landfill. Here, people are able to pay as much as they can afford or think is appropriate, and having a positive impact on the environment as well as society. This supermarket is part of an innovative initiative by The Real Junk Food Project.
The next stage as shown above in yellow is the recycling stage, which includes methods such as Anaerobic Digestion; this is a decomposition process, carried out by starving the organic (biodegradable) material of oxygen and using micro-organisms to break the material down. This process produces a biogas (a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide) which once fed through a heat and power unit turns the waste into renewable energy, so can generate electricity and heat on site or provide energy to the national grid. Biogas can also be used as a fuel and as bio fertilizer. This process is flexible, and research suggests more beneficial to the environment than any other method of recycling or composting. Composting is similar to Anaerobic Digestion and is a decomposition process which uses oxygen. The waste is broken down by micro-organisms such as fungi and turns it into compost that can be used as a fertiliser instead of using chemical fertiliser.
The recovery stage is shown in orange, and includes waste incineration from which the energy is recovered and used. The final stage is shown in red and refers to the disposal of waste, which is sent to incinerator or to landfill. From an environmental perspective this is the least preferable option due to the methane gas produced when waste is disposed of in this manner. An objective of UK government policy is to divert as much waste away from landfill and increase recycling. In recent years, due to the European Landfill Directive, UK landfills have been subject to a landfill tax, payable for any biodegradable waste put into a landfill. Therefore the less waste put into landfill, the greater savings for the UK taxpayers.
FAO studies have found that there is a noticeable difference between low income countries and medium and high income countries as to at which stage (spoilage/production, preparation and consumption) the majority of food wastage occurs. Generally speaking, in low income countries, food waste is greater at the production stage and during processing of food; whereas in medium and higher income countries, the majority of food is wasted during preparation. This may be attributed to our need to meet consumer needs by way of offering choice, full shelves and counters and stringent operating polices to meet quality expectations.
Whilst the percentage of food waste being recycled within the Hospitality & Food service sector is low, in recent years, figures show a significant increase in the amount of household waste we are recycling. DEFRA figures show that between 2014 and 2015 the recycling rate reached the highest on record, at nearly 45%, a steady growth from around 7% in 2000/1.
The tax introduced for sending waste to landfill was put in place to reduce the amount of waste being disposed of in this way and figures show this has been effective. The graph below demonstrates this and shows an increase in the amount of waste being sent for treatment, such as anaerobic digestion, a far more environmentally friendly method of waste disposal.