According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme, 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away in the U.K. each year — around one third of the total food produced.
The financial cost of food waste is high for households. WRAP estimates that if an average family avoided unnecessary food waste they'd save a whopping £700 per year.
The environmental damage is even more serious. The energy required to produce, store and distribute wasted food accounts for a huge proportion of greenhouse gases in the world's atmosphere. Tom Tanner from the Sustainable Restaurant Association told The Telegraph that "if food waste was a country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world."
In addition, once the wasted food ends up in landfill, it continues to be an environmental problem. As it degrades it gives off toxic methane, which is 25 times more powerful than CO2.
Household waste in the U.K. accounts for 7 million tonnes of food, while the food manufacturing industry accounts for a further 3.9 million tonnes.
The statistics look bad but there is a great deal that can be done by individuals to reduce their household waste. For instance the "best before" labels (as opposed to "use by" labels) on products refer to the window of time you have to enjoy the food at its best rather than safe food. It's possible that food will be perfectly good to eat after this date, depending on how it's prepared and how it has been stored. You can also investigate sharing food with neighbours and local businesses when someone has an excess through apps like OLIO. A simple strategy of not overstocking your fridge and store cupboard is also very effective for limiting waste.
We can also demand that large companies such as supermarket chains change their practices. Often supermarkets will deliberately overstock their shelves in order to avoid the possibility of shortages of customers' favourite products, according to Tristram Stuart, author of Waste. This means that more is produced than will probably be bought, by design.
Organisations such as WRAP are addressing commercial food waste by working with companies to help them commit to better practices. They emphasise efficiency, carbon reduction and recycling as part of the food manufacturing process. Their website explains that it's better to prevent waste when producing and consuming food in the first place but there are potentially many avenues to limit the harm of waste, such as repurposing products or disposing of them in the most responsible way possible.
Further avenues for reducing waste can also be donating food that's still edible to charity. There are currently some legal issues involved in doing so. If, for instance, donated food ends up causing food poisoning the company that donated it may be held liable. However the U.K. could enact legislation similar to the U.S. that does not hold donors responsible for potential damages caused by donated food, as long as it was donated, according to The Guardian, "in good faith."
A petition is currently in progress to compel large U.K. companies to donate all unsold food. This would copy France's move last year to require all large supermarkets to either give unused food to charities or to repurpose it as animal feed.
It's common sense to only make what we will need and to give any surplus to someone who will use it. The idea of reducing the toll on the environment when we can and using what we have in the most useful way is so simple. Incorporating these values into our practices, however, has turned out to be surprisingly challenging. But there is hope for change.
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