Biffa advocates for expanded food redistribution in new circularity report

Report by WSP describes a framework for identifying resource efficiency opportunities, including two million tonnes of food waste avoided by 2029.

Aerial view of worker standing by apple fruit crates in food factory warehouseA new report published by Biffa has proposed an ambitious target for food redistribution as part of a broader framework for assessing circular economy opportunities. The report, The UK Journey to Circularity, suggests that 'up to 2 million tonnes of food waste could be avoided by usage of redistribution solutions within the next five years'.

Written by consultancy WSP, the report introduces what Biffa describes as 'a new approach to circularity research and analysis, creating a framework which can be applied to specific resource streams, but also scaled to whole sectors or individual products'. This framework aims to provide a structured method for identifying barriers to circular practices and potential interventions to overcome them.

The report's standout claim relates to food redistribution. It states: "The largest opportunity for food loss and waste comes with the expansion of food redistribution. This could prevent food from entering the waste stream in the first place, with up to 2 million tonnes of surplus redistributed as a result."

Carla Brian, Head of Partnerships at Biffa, commented on the need for investment to enable this: "Existing infrastructure capacity to handle upcoming changes in how food waste is collected and handled is insufficient, so needs expanding. Transport, reverse logistics, sorting, cleaning and storage capacity will be necessary if opportunities for food redistribution are maximised."

The report advocates that the Company Shop Group (part of the Biffa Group), which is a national redistributor of food products, works ‘directly with manufacturers and retailers to help prevent food from becoming waste where possible'. In 2023, Company Shop Group reportedly 'redistributed over 45,000 tonnes of food and drink products that otherwise would have gone to waste'.

The framework proposed by Biffa consists of several parts:

1. Situational analysis: This includes market data assessment, case studies of existing circular practices, and identification of barriers preventing change.

2. Potential interventions and their impacts: The report uses a visual representation to plot interventions based on their area of effect, implementation time, and potential impact.

3. Conditions for Success: These are grouped into four key enablers - infrastructure, legislation, behaviour, and investment.

While Biffa presents this framework as a 'new approach', it appears to be more of a comprehensive integration of existing circular economy concepts rather than a whole new methodology. The framework essentially brings together multiple factors influencing a product's lifecycle when designing waste management systems.

The adapted PESTLE analysis used in the report (Environmental/Social/Ethical, Economic/Financial, Institutional/Legal, Technological, Market, Behavioural) is a modification of the standard PESTLE framework, tailored to focus specifically on circularity issues. This adaptation allows for a more targeted analysis of barriers and drivers related to circular economy practices.

In terms of food redistribution, the report suggests several enhancements to existing food schemes. Notably this includes:

  • Expansion further up the supply chain
  • Increased focus on business-to-business opportunities
  • Implementation of digital solutions for selling unsold food
  • Improved speed and efficiency through better logistics and tracking methods

The report states: "Accelerating redistribution logistics systems and better tracking methods for food products, for example, through the use of RFID tags or inclusion of more information in barcodes, so food that would otherwise become waste can be redistributed quickly and effectively; helping to redistribute short shelf-life food and minimise food waste within redistribution systems."

While these suggestions aren't new, in advocating them, Biffa is pushing for a more systematic and tech-enabled approach to food redistribution.

Beyond food redistribution, the report also considers the future of plastic packaging, calling for a shift towards reusable packaging: "Moving away from single-use plastic packaging towards reusable packaging, especially in food contact (FCM) applications, could contribute towards reducing both plastic packaging waste, through removal of products from the supply chain, and food waste, by allowing consumers to only purchase what they need."

The report makes several recommendations for both government and industry.

For government:

  • To follow through with implementing separate food waste collections from households and businesses
  • Introduce reporting to gather detailed data on food loss and waste across the entire supply chain.
  • Consideration of separate collections for fats, oils, and grease from households

Brian highlights the importance of legislative changes: "Legislative changes to food waste collections will generate data that clarifies the size of the UK's food waste problem. Most data currently relies on estimations. Food systems reporting (such as mandatory reporting for businesses and development of a clear food hierarchy) would allow for better understanding of where and how food loss occurs and waste is generated, enabling development of targeted circular activities."

For industry:

  • Standardisation of plastic packaging to improve recycling opportunities
  • Increased use of recycled content in plastic packaging
  • Development of infrastructure for food redistribution and reusable packaging systems

The report also emphasises the need for behavioural changes. It suggests that altering consumer expectations regarding the visual appearance of food could significantly reduce waste by diminishing the demand for 'perfect' fruit and vegetables. Furthermore, the report proposes that better matching of supply to demand would encourage consumers to purchase only what they need. This could be achieved through measures such as selling more loose produce and eliminating sales tactics like 'buy one, get one free' offers.

"There's a direct link between infrastructure and investment, but supplementary investment in areas that aid understanding of the impact and effectiveness of change -- like food waste reporting systems -- will also identify opportunities for change and make implementation easier," added Brian.

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