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What is food waste?

There is no legal or universally accepted definition of “food waste”. In the UK, the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) defines food waste as food and inedible parts sent to one of several waste disposal destinations:

  • anaerobic digestion/codigestion
  • composting/aerobic processes
  • incineration/controlled combustion
  • land application; landfill
  • sewer/wastewater treatment
  • not harvested/ploughed in (for crops)
  • other (including unmanaged disposal).

How much food is wasted in the UK?

WRAP estimated that in 2021, total food waste in the UK amounted to 10.7 million tonnes (Mt). By weight, most food waste comes from households (60%), followed by farms (15%), manufacturing (13%) hospitality and food service (10%) and retail (2%).

However, there is less certainty about the scale of on-farm food waste because it is more difficult to measure. This is partly because food waste from farming is subject to the uncertainties of the natural world (such as the impact of weather on crop yields) and changes in consumer demand.

The value of the edible parts of household food waste (including waste to the sewer and home composting) in 2021 amounted to £17 billion. This is equivalent to £250 per person each year, or £1,000 for a family of four.

Environmental impact of food waste

Food waste contributes to climate change and environmental degradation in two ways; through release of gases (such as methane) from its breakdown in landfill and through waste of the energy and resources required to produce wasted food. Reducing food waste would mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

WRAP estimated that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with wasted food and drink in the UK accounted for approximately 18 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2021 and 22. The foods that led to the highest greenhouse gas emissions from households were meat and fish, followed by whole meals, fresh vegetables and salads, and dairy and eggs.

Food waste reduction targets

Waste policy is devolved.

In England, there are no mandatory food waste reduction targets. The UK Government supports voluntary initiatives, including the Courtauld Commitment 2030, which is delivered by WRAP working with industry and the devolved administrations. This commitment aims to help the UK deliver on its commitment under Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, which is to halve food waste by 2030.

The Scottish Government has set out an ambition to reduce per person food waste in Scotland to 33% by 2025, compared with a 2013 baseline.

The Welsh Government’s Beyond Recycling strategy (2021) included a target of reducing avoidable food waste by 50% by 2025, relative to a 2007 baseline, and a reduction of 60% by 2030.

Northern Ireland aims to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 target to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030.

Actions to tackle food waste

There are various strategies and campaigns designed to reduce food waste across the supply chain and at household level. These include:

Food waste collection

As waste is devolved there are different requirements for households and businesses for food waste collection throughout the UK.

In England, there are currently no mandatory requirements for local authorities in England to collect food waste from households, although many do offer this service.

However, the UK Government intends to introduce consistency in household and business recycling in England, including a separate food waste stream. These plans will require local authorities (in their capacity as waste collection authorities) to offer a weekly collection of food waste from households. All non-household municipal premises in England will have to arrange for the separate collection of food waste, but they will not be required to have weekly collections.

The new rules are expected to apply in most local authorities in England from 31 March 2026 for households and from 31 March 2025 for non-household municipal premises.

All local authorities in Wales provide a household weekly food waste recycling service.

The Scottish Government states that 80% of households in Scotland have access to food recycling collections.

All councils in Northern Ireland offer a household food waste collection.

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