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Does the UK need a law to stop the ‘needless expense’ of food waste?

The economic, social and environmental impact of food waste in the UK is to be investigated by MPs, after Parliament’s environmental select committee today (11 July) launched an inquiry into the matter.

Does the UK need a law to stop the ‘needless expense’ of food waste?
The inquiry will look at the effect of food waste in the consumer, retail and hospitality sectors and examine in particular how voluntary initiatives, like the Waste & Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) Courtauld Commitment, can help to reduce food waste and whether legislation is needed.

Food waste is a growing problem in the UK with approximately eight million tonnes produced in these ‘post manufacturing’ sectors.

According to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee, which has chosen to carry out the inquiry, 60 per cent of this waste could potentially be avoided to create an annual saving of £16 billion. According to research quoted by the committee, the average family spends £700 on food that is later wasted each year and the 200,000 tonnes of food waste produced by the retail industry costs it £0.65 billion annually.

In addition to the financial impacts, research quoted by the committee estimates that the production, distribution and preparation of food generates greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, with household food waste in the country contributing 17 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent every year.

On launching its inquiry, Chair of the EFRA Committee Neil Parish MP said: “Despite the progress made reducing food waste along the supply chain, the amount of reusable, recyclable food that we throw away in the UK is still staggeringly high.

“Of the estimated seven million tonnes we discard from our homes each year, nearly half is edible. Not only does this have an impact on the family purse, but the environmental cost is equally heavy. We will be asking what more can be done to reduce food waste and this needless expense to our households.”

How effective are voluntary measures?

The committee will focus on the impacts of food waste on consumers, retail and hospitality sectors and local government, and therefore the manufacturing and agricultural industries will not be included. As the first step of the inquiry, the committee is calling for written evidence, answering the following key questions:

  • What is the economic, environmental and social impact of food waste in England?
  • What measures could be most effective in reducing food waste by retailers, the hospitality sector, local government, and consumers? These can include redistribution, recycling and recovery, and improved packaging and labelling.
  • What proposals are necessary to further reduce food waste?
  • How effective are existing voluntary initiatives in England, and is there a need for legislation?
  • What are the comparative approaches to reducing and managing food waste in the devolved nations, and across Europe?

The committee has asked for online written submissions no longer than 3,000 words by 13 September 2016. 

The role of the EFRA, which is a cross-party group chaired by Conservative MP Parish, is to analyse expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and its associated public bodies.

Reducing food waste

Many factors contribute to the generation of food waste. In the supply chain, these include quality standards and product damage, while in the home, busy lives, difficulties in food management and not realising the value of food are common causes. Food waste is becoming a more prominent public concern, and calls have come from the UK and Europe to do more ways to reduce the amount we produce.

France and Italy both recently passed laws regarding food waste, and one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals seeks to halve per capita food waste around the world by 2030. Several UK-based companies have also joined Champions 12.3, a coalition that is seeking to inspire and mobilise action towards the UN’s goal. To this end, last month, the World Resources Institute, which formed the coalition, released a global framework that would help businesses and governments more consistently measure food waste and develop concerted action against it.

In June, moreover, the EU’s Committee of Regions called for the introduction of a minimum food waste reduction target of 30 per cent by 2025 to combat ‘food insecurity’. The European Council also called for better food waste monitoring to understand the scale of the problem.

While reduction initiatives are taking shape, just 40 per cent of the UK’s food waste created after the farm stage is unavoidable, according to WRAP. Less than 20 per cent of the nation’s food waste is recycled, leading to last week’s release of WRAP’s industry-designed five-point national Food Waste Reduction Action Plan, which seeks to help food waste recycling in England reach its environmental and financial potential.

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