Working in hospitality, promotions and events has some benefits. Despite demanding customers, long hours and demeaning work, the freebies make it worth it. I’ve had Michelin starred meals on shift and endless bags of excess stock to take home. But what happens to all the food that isn’t claimed? And is this even a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the UK food waste problem? In fact, hidden away in kitchen bins all over the country, over seven times more waste is thrown away by households than in hospitality.
According to the UK government’s Food Statistics Pocketbook 2016, 10 million tonnes of food are wasted per year, approximately one quarter of the total purchased. 75% of the 920,000 tonnes of food waste from the hospitality sector, 60% of the 7.3 million tonnes from households and 50% of the 1.7 million from food manufacture were avoidable – meaning they could have been consumed. This avoidable food waste (5.98 million tonnes) could feed another 2.82 million people. The following table helps to contextualise this figure:
|Approx. population||% below poverty line||Number in poverty||Life expectancy||Year|
|Central African Republic||4.34m||62||2.69m||46.2||2008|
The environmental impact of food waste should also not be underestimated. The 4.4 million tonnes of avoidable household waste produce 19 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, which is the equivalent of flying the population of the Central African Republic to the UK and providing them with household energy for 2 years! (family size data, carbon emission comparisons, flight carbon footprint calculator)
But we all know we shouldn’t waste food; “Don’t you know there’s children starving in Africa?” commonly declared when someone can’t quite finish their food, exemplifies how much we know it. So, why is food still wasted? I propose two key problems in the food production chain that lead to waste.
Reason #1: Capitalist economies push people to purchase more food than they need, to drive economic growth
Modern industrial practices have vastly increased food production, leading to a surplus of food (food produced exceeding demand). This has lowered food prices, leading to overstocking and over purchasing. Food is always displayed to excess in supermarkets, cafés and restaurants, as this is considered attractive and increases sales (source).
A study on food waste behaviours in lower-middle-income families in Brazil further exemplifies the almost-fetishism of bountiful food. It described the “good mother identity” – a desire of the matriarch of the family to provide abundant food to the whole family. One woman interviewed said she cooked for her sons whether she knew if they were coming home for dinner or not.
A lack of planning of meals and food shopping can lead to more waste being produced. This can partly be explained by increasing burden on women who are still socially expected to provide three meals a day for the whole family, whilst also holding down a job. Impulse purchases and seemingly-easy multi-pack discounts can lead to unwise purchases which will go unused or unfinished.
Reason #2: Food waste is not processed sustainably
In the UK, the waste hierarchy is a legal framework that guides food waste disposal for businesses. Unfortunately, most food waste ends up at the bottom (least preferable) end of the hierarchy, in landfill. This leads to the production of methane (CH4), which produces 21 times the amount of global warming effect than CO2.
WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) recommends redistribution of food waste as first preference. This has been increasingly seen in the UK with the explosion in use of food banks over the past few years. However, this does little to combat the large proportion of fresh food waste, as only non-perishables are accepted for food banks. In Abu Dhabi, the Red Crescent (aligned with the Red Cross) identifies suitable untouched food waste from food service establishments, carefully packages it and delivers it to families in need. In 2012, 175,000 meals were distributed in this manner. This means that fresh and cooked food can be redistributed, tackling waste and not just surplus.
Next in line in the hierarchy is livestock feed. In China and South Korea, food waste is used as pig-feed. And whilst this is in practice in the UK, many foods (such as meat) are not fed to pigs due to safety concerns. The Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE or “Mad Cow Disease”) scandal in the 1990s means that UK officials are apprehensive about what is fed to livestock, but BSE is not transmittable via pigs, poultry or fish. In China and South Korea, mass production of pig feed from food waste has led to reduced costs for farmers, better quality meat and reduced environmental impact. However, if this were to be enacted in the UK, it would demand a far better food waste collection infrastructure. As, despite a 95% rate of collection in Wales, the figures for Scotland, England and Northern Ireland stand at 95%, 34% and 4% respectively (source).
Conclusion: radical change is needed
The Courtauld Commitment is a voluntary commitment for the UK grocery sector, implemented in 2004 by WRAP. It has had some successes, particularly in the commercial sector. However, progress is slow, and reductions in household waste have stagnated. Redistribution of food to people in need has increased, although this is likely to be due to the increased demand from food banks in a time of austerity, and is not necessarily to be celebrated as a success.
I believe that radical policies and laws need to be enacted on big supermarkets to ensure that food waste is sufficiently reduced. For example, in France, it has been made illegal for supermarkets to throw away edible food. Large supermarkets should be legislated to help to take responsibility for food waste. Restrictions on over-stocking, bulk-buying discounts, more helpful food labelling and raising awareness of food waste could be implemented.
Additionally, I believe that with the correct tools, people would be willing to reduce their food waste. For example, the level of council food waste collection in the UK is abysmal. All households should have access to composting facilities, whether personal, community or council-owned. Education of consumers and of future consumers (i.e.: children) regarding how to know if food is safe to eat or not, effective meal planning and preparation and reducing waste could be carried out by supermarkets and councils.
There has been promising progress, illustrated by WRAP. However, the current economic system which chases growth at any cost will always be at odds with attempts to achieve sustainability.