17 billion kg of fruit and veg wasted in the EU

EU households generate 35.3 kilogrammes (kg) of fresh fruit and vegetable waste per person per year, 14.2kg of which could be avoided, says a new study from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre.

According to national studies, around 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU, with associated costs estimated at €143 billion (£128bn). Fresh fruit and vegetables contribute to almost 50 per cent of the food waste generated by EU households; this is to be expected, as they make up approximately one third of total food purchases, are highly perishable (with parts like peel that are inedible) and relatively cheap.

However, the study found that avoidable waste could be reduced by applying targeted prevention strategies, and that the unavoidable waste, meaning inedible parts of the product, could be much more sustainably managed at the manufacturing stage and recycled for use in the circular economy.

EU households create 14.2 kilograms of avoidable waste per person every year

The results of this study could have implications for policies both on the prevention and the management of household food waste.

The model

The authors of the study came to these figures by creating a model to estimate the amount of avoidable and unavoidable household waste generated by EU households that consists of fresh fruit and vegetables. Unavoidable waste (waste arising from food preparation that has never been edible) and avoidable waste (food thrown away that was, at some point, edible) was calculated for 51 types of fresh fruit and vegetables in six EU countries (Germany, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and the UK) for 2010.

On average, every year, 17 per cent of fresh fruit and vegetables purchased by households in the EU ends up as unavoidable waste, while 12 per cent (14.2kg) is avoidable waste. In total, 29 per cent of all fruit and vegetables purchased by households every year is wasted (35.3kg per person).

The authors found large differences in the avoidable and unavoidable waste generated by the different countries due to different levels of wasteful behaviours (linked to cultural and economic factors) and different consumption patterns.

For example, while purchases of fresh vegetables are lower in the UK than in Germany, the amount of unavoidable waste generated per capita is almost the same, whereas the amount of avoidable waste is higher in the UK. Those countries whose citizens spend a higher percentage of their income on food were found to generate less avoidable waste.

The model proposed could help establish baseline practices, investigate the effects of different consumption patterns on waste generation, and estimate the potential for reuse of unavoidable waste in other production systems.

Measuring food waste

In May this year the UK’s food waste data – setting out how much food is consumed, recycled and wasted across the country – was restated using international standards of measurement. The new Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (FLWS) is a global measure, developed by a partnership of international bodies, with the aim of aligning food waste reporting across the world, enabling countries to compare their food waste data more easily and more effectively.

Although this EU study uses the terms ‘avoidable’ and ‘unavoidable’, the updated figures for the UK no longer categorise food waste as ‘avoidable’, ‘possibly avoidable’ or ‘unavoidable’. Instead, the UK will now split wasted food into two categories: ‘edible parts’ and ‘inedible parts’. In effect, this change combines ‘avoidable’ and ‘possibly avoidable’ food waste into one category, removing the indeterminate boundary between the two terms.

Food waste remains a critical waste stream. Earlier this year Defra opened a £500,000 Food Waste Reduction Fund to organisations working to increase the redistribution of surplus food in England. The fund was launched at a conference for the Courtauld Commitment 2025 – a voluntary agreement bringing together representatives of the food system to reduce food and drink waste by 20 per cent by 2025.

The fund is being administered by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), with grants ranging from £20,000 to £75,000 aimed at not-for-profit organisations that redirect surplus food from food businesses to charities providing meals for people in need.

This year’s Courtauld 2025 annual review revealed that 24 organisations joined the voluntary agreement in 2016/17, bringing the total number of signatories up to 156, demonstrating the food industry’s desire to tackle the issue of food waste.