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Food waste facts

What is food waste?

There is no legal or universally agreed definition of food waste, so making direct comparisons between recorded or estimated food waste volumes can be problematic.

As a guide, one definition commonly used in Europe and the UK (from the FUSIONS project) is “any food, and inedible parts of food, removed from the food supply chain to be recovered or disposed of”.

The European Commission has committed to developing a common methodology and indicators to measure levels of food waste across the European Union in 2016.

Reasons for food waste

Food waste arises throughout the food supply chain for a variety of reasons. For example, at the early stages of agricultural production, crops may be grown but never harvested or crops may be harvested but wasted due to demand fluctuations or damage.

However, there is very little data relating to on-farm food waste and the UK Government has commissioned research into this area. Stakeholders are also carrying out more work in this area.

Further along the supply chain, the concept of waste becomes more familiar. Examples include: storage and manufacturing spoilage and spillage; supermarkets with surplus stock; and food left on plates in restaurants or thrown away in the home.

How much food waste is there?

Research published in 2016 shows that 10 million tonnes of food and drink is wasted in the post-farm gate food chain each year in the UK and 60% of that could be avoided.

The highest proportion of this food waste (around 7 million tonnes­–or 70%) was produced by households. Around 1.7 million tonnes of food waste was produced by the manufacturing sector; followed by the hospitality sector (around 0.9 million tonnes). The grocery, retail and wholesale sectors (which include supermarkets) wasted around 0.25 million tonnes.

Impacts of food waste

The overall cost to the UK of food waste each year is £17 billion, of which £12.5 billion is the cost to households. To look at this another way, the cost of food waste to an average household is estimated to be £470 per year.

Food waste also has environmental impacts (primarily in the form of greenhouse gas emissions and water use) and links with social issues such as food poverty.

More information on food poverty is provided in the Library Briefing Paper on Food Banks and Food Poverty.

Food waste policy and legislation

The UN Sustainable Development Goals were agreed in September 2015 and include a target to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030.

UK waste policy is mainly driven by the EU Waste Framework Directive. This incorporates the waste hierarchy, in which waste prevention is the priority, followed by re-use/redistribution; recycling; recovery and disposal as the least preferred option. As waste (including food waste) is a devolved matter, each Administration in the UK has its own waste strategy.

There are currently no mandatory food waste reduction targets in the UK, but Scotland has plans to introduce a target of 33% reduction by 2025. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, certain businesses are required to present food waste for separate collection; and, in Wales, 99% of households are provided with separate food waste collections.

Voluntary initiatives

The UK Government currently looks to voluntary initiatives, rather than a regulatory approach, to deliver food waste reductions. UK-wide voluntary initiatives are led primarily by WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), supported by funding from Defra, the devolved Administrations and the EU.

Examples of current WRAP initiatives include:

  • Courtauld 2025: a 10 year voluntary agreement targeting food waste across the food chain.
  • Love Food Hate Waste: a consumer campaign to enable individuals to make decisions on food purchasing, management and consumption.

In addition, there are a number of food redistribution organisations and food banks working to save and redistribute surplus food, as well as numerous corporate initiatives run by individual companies, such as the supermarkets ‘wonky veg’ ranges.

Proposals for change

There have been a number of reports and recommendations on the issue of food waste in recent years. For example:

The EU Circular Economy Package

The EU Circular Economy Package was announced on 2 December 2015 and includes a number of proposals on food waste and food donation.

Proposed legislation

Kerry McCarthy MP introduced the Food Waste (Reduction) Bill to Parliament on 9 September 2015. This included a requirement for large supermarkets, manufactuers and distributors to reduce their food waste by no less than 30% by 2025.

The 2015-16 session of Parliament has ended and the Bill will therefore make no further progress.

Commons Select Committees

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee have made a number of recommendations relating to food waste, including in relation to separate food waste collections and funding for WRAP, in their reports on:

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched a new inquiry into the economic, social and environmental impact of food waste in England on 11 July 2016.

All Party Parliamentary Group

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger has published a number of recommendations relating to food waste in recent reports, focusing on redistribution and using surplus food.

Lords Select Committee

The House of Lords EU Committee report on EU food waste, Counting the Cost of Food Waste (April 2014), made a number of recommendations relating to EU and UK policy on food waste, including a recommendation that fiscal measures should be assessed at EU and UK level.

Further information

More information on household recycling (including food waste) is available in the Library Briefing Paper on Household recycling in the UK.

More information on food poverty is available in the Library Briefing Paper on Food Banks and Food Poverty.

More general information and background on the SDGs is available in the Library Briefing Paper on the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda.

More information and commentary on the EU proposals is set out on the Library Briefing page on the EU Circular Economy Package.

This paper does not discuss the impact of the EU referendum result. For information on the potential impact on waste policy, please refer to Section 7 (Environment – Waste) of the Library Briefing Paper on Brexit: impact across policy areas.

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