The fight against food waste: lessons from the UK

Food wastage is one of the ills of modern globalisation, fuelling climate change and flying in the face of the food insecurity becoming ever more of an issue in developed (as well as developing) countries. Foodsharing start-up founder Amira Aleem brings attention to just a handful of civil society campaigns aiming to redress the balance in the UK.


A selection of the kind of food thrown away on a daily basis by households, grocery stores and restaurants. © bigbutpretty / Creative Commons license

In an era recovering from one of the worst economic recessions of our lifetimes, the need to reduce and reuse has become increasingly important. Yet, the UK alone wastes an estimated of 7 million tonnes of food per year, much of it avoidable. A combination of factors including stringent cosmetic standards, food safety laws and retail negligence means that this enormous quantity of food ends up wasted – a huge environmental problem and a crushing waste of money. It is a figure that is especially ironic given that an alarmingly large number of Britons are turning to emergency food aid, as food poverty increases.

This level of food wastage costs the economy £12.5 billion annually. Since throwing away food involves a waste of all the resources that went into growing, producing, packaging and transporting the food, the long-term environmental effects are disastrous. Breakdown of food propagates climate change by increasing levels of methane in the atmosphere – a gas 25 times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. It also leaches nutrients into the soil when dumped in landfill, which in turn can contaminate groundwater resources.

Foodcycle volunteers prepare a nutritious, vegetarian meal from food surplus. © NCVO / Creative Commons license

Thankfully, there is heartening news in the rise of recent interventions springing up across the country. Local initiatives such as Foodcycle are brilliantly redirecting surplus food from supermarkets to produce cooked meals for the local community. The several Foodcycle hubs across England have given rise to a conscious community of volunteers who are actively involved in ensuring that there is an avenue for food waste to be channeled to. Charities such as Fareshare, which operates nationwide, are also involved in collecting food from local restaurants and cafés and ensuring they are distributed to local community centers, homeless shelters and churches. They operate on the principle that if in theory food is good enough to sell then it is good enough to be donated. In Leeds, The Real Junk Food Project is responsible for intercepting large amounts of food waste and ensuring that it is produced into meals to be served at their new Pay As You Feel Café – a model that hopes to be replicated across the country. Their work builds on previous more informal channels such as the foodsharing network, which have long been paving the way for individuals to share excess food.

The slow but steady rise of the private sector in tackling issues of social concern across the world has begged the question of whether or not there may be a new way to look at the social sector and the problems it faces. Bill Drayton of Ashoka has advocated for the concept of a Hybrid Value Chain – a way in which businesses develop solutions to social problems. In a new kind of thinking that topples conventional wisdom about altruism and capitalist markets, there is evidence for a push from the private sector to creatively produce premium products from food that would otherwise go to landfills. For example, social enterprises such as Snact that produces dried fruit jerky and Rubies in the Rubble, a brand for specialty chutneys and jams have made viable commercial enterprises from using surplus food in creative new ways. In doing so, they are taking the first steps towards demonstrating that surplus food has value and can be converted into something consumers will willingly purchase and consume. In effect, they are proving that there exists a market for the excess produced by an essentially wasteful food market.

However, both social businesses and charities – while important – do not tackle the issue of household waste. It remains a fact that an overwhelming amount of food waste comes from individuals. The UK’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign is a fantastic resource of information with tips and tricks to help manage avoidable food waste. The best amongst these tips include buying loose vegetables and fruit rather than pre-packed portions and maintaining proper fridge temperatures so that food stays fresher for longer. It also advocates for users to plan meals in advance so as to shop for ingredients that can be used for multiple meals and gives practical information on how to store and package food long-term. The website also hosts recipes crowd-sourced from the community with ideas to use up the most bizarre of leftovers creatively and tastily. It is worth looking at their advice for decoding food labels to increase the shelf life of products and ensuring that perfectly good food is not winding up in the bin.

Despite the leaps and bounds of progress that has been mad, there is still much to be done if we are ever going to reach environmental sustainability and a world where waste – especially food waste – is seen as problematic. It requires food recycling to become more systemic and mainstream and the search is on for innovative ways to do this.

Adverts for the Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. © Phil Gyford / Creative Commons license


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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