Why are UK Households Throwing Away More Food?

February 22, 2017

Public, media and corporate awareness of the need to tackle food waste appears to be higher than ever, but evidence suggests that despite this growing awareness, efforts to cut household food waste in the UK seem to have stalled. Research published last month by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) revealed that not only did the UK government fail to reach its target for cutting household food waste in 2015, but UK households actually threw away more food per person than in 2012.

WRAP reports that the estimated figure for household food waste in 2015 was 7.3 million tonnes; this is up from 7 million tonnes in 2012 after a decade of steady decline. “It’s important to remember that as a nation we’ve come a long way – household food waste is down by nearly 1 million tonnes compared to ten years ago,” says a WRAP spokesperson, commenting on the findings. “But,” he adds, “We have identified a disconnection between people’s awareness of the issue of food waste, and what we do in our own homes. And this is a problem.”

Financial incentives

WRAP believes that economic factors may be influencing people’s behaviour when it comes to monitoring what they throw away. “Food prices were lower after 2013 and incomes started to rise, the reverse of the situation before 2013,” says a spokesperson. “This was great news for us but it meant the financial incentives to avoid food waste were less.”

Buy one get one free 

Saving money may be an incentive to cut food waste, but the lure of financial savings could also be leading people to buy more food than they really need. Buying in bulk generally offers better value, but when the principle is applied to fresh produce, it can lead to more being thrown away when consumers fail to use up the extra items. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) points out in its report on the retail industry’s contribution to food waste that UK supermarket chains are thinking more carefully about how promotions link to food waste, and many have been phasing out multi-buy offers.

However, The Grocer reported that at the third Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee inquiry into food waste in January this year, MPs cited examples of volume deals still being offered online, including on perishable goods such as dairy (Sainsbury’s, two for £3 on milk) and meat (Morrison’s, three for £10).

Alice Ellison, the British Retail Consortium’s Environment and Policy Adviser and author of the food waste report, thinks it’s too simplistic to automatically link these deals to consumer waste, as they play an important role in helping supermarkets to limit waste on the shop floor. “Retailers do use promotions occasionally to help them manage their own waste,” says Ellison. “This may be particularly relevant for ‘dark stores’, which are used to fulfil online orders and where the staged price reductions typically used in store (when products are nearing their use by or best before date) are not available.”

Vera Zakharov is Project Coordinator for the Love Food Hate Waste campaign in Brighton and Hove. She thinks that while things are moving in the right direction, more needs to be done to stop supermarkets encouraging wasteful attitudes. “I believe that highly perishable foods such as salads, dairy and meat products should not be sold via multi-buys, and commonly wasted foods like bread and potatoes should be offered in smaller packs,” she says. “People need support to make changes at home, and this help needs to come from everywhere, but especially from the place where they get most of their information about food – the supermarket.”

Complacency or denial?

Research by WRAP seems to show that although the British public are becoming much more aware of food waste as an issue, many simply don’t believe that they are contributing to the problem and consistently underestimate how much food they throw away. “We found that around 60% of people simply believe they waste either no food, or hardly any,” says a WRAP spokesperson. “But the fact is the average UK home throws away a quarter tonne of food each year – 500 meals’ worth.”

And it seems that just educating people about the issue of food waste is not enough to change their behaviour. A 2016 customer survey by Sainsbury’s revealed that while three quarters of people say they’re confident cooking meals from leftovers, nearly two fifths (37%) fail to use them nevertheless.

“The challenge is that changing lifelong habits is, well, challenging,” explains Zakharov. “People need routine reminders in order to keep up their improvements. Avoiding food waste is like building muscle – it’s easy to get out of the habit and slip back into your old ways.”

Test towns

In a bid to find out what measures can be taken to reduce the ‘food waste gap’, Sainsbury’s has dedicated £10m for a five-year programme to help customers throw away less food. This includes a £1m investment that was used to turn the town of Swadlincote in Derbyshire into a testing ground for novel ways to cut food waste.

A number of methods were trialled over the course of 12 months to reduce food waste, including food-sharing apps, smart fridges that can automatically upload photos of their contents so that owners can avoid doubling up on purchases, fridge thermometers so that people can check they’re storing food at the right temperature, and community engagement activities like cookery demos and sessions in schools.

Vanessa Odell is one of Swadlincote’s Food Saver Champions. She’s spent the last year working with people in the local community to trial new approaches to dealing with household food waste, and she says that one of the main lessons learned from the project is the importance of small prompts. “The free meal planners we gave away are a great example,” says Odell. “They stick magnetically to your fridge, so you’ve always got a prompt to waste less. It’s easy to slip into old habits, but these little reminders can bring waste-saving back to front of your mind.”

She also acknowledges the role that the younger generation can play in helping to influence their parents’ behaviour. “Elsewhere we’ve seen real success from those who’ve got the family involved,” she says. “Feedback has been that the kids find it fun, and enjoy getting their say in what meals are planned for the week. “

Future targets

Tech innovations and community education programmes may well play an important role in helping people to address food waste at home, but campaigners argue that changes need to be made at policy level before we can expect to see real progress being made.

Last month MEPs voted to halve EU food waste by 2030. The target, though not legally binding, calls on member states to dramatically reduce ‘farm to fork’ food waste, from point of production to the consumer. This is Rubbish, the British campaign group that petitioned for the introduction of the target, believes that though the aspirational goal shows governments are willing to deal with the issue, a legally binding agreement is necessary to effect real change.

Zakharov agrees: “I feel we need to set binding targets, as voluntary targets do not create enough pressure to address it fast enough. Likewise, the government needs to put more pressure on retailers and manufacturers to measure and evaluate their supply chain waste. Businesses insist that they welcome regulation if it is evenly and fairly applied, so let’s take them on their word,” she challenges. “It’s clear that business as usual is not enough to address the urgent issue of food waste.”

Photograph: Alpha

Kathleen Steeden

Kathleen Steeden is a freelance features journalist and editor. She writes mainly about food culture, sustainability, social action and travel (sometimes all at the same time), although her only real criterion for taking on an assignment is that it must be interesting.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food waste, food waste initiatives