Household food waste rising as restrictions relaxed
Self-reported food waste has returned to pre-lockdown levels according to data collected by the most recent UK Food Trends Survey, published today (23 August).
The research was conducted by the Love Food Hate Waste campaign – which is driven by environmental charity WRAP, tasked with changing public attitudes to food waste – and found that an increased amount of food is ending up in waste as restrictions are lifted. It also discovered that many people had gone back on the ‘positive food management behaviors’ that they had adopted over lockdown, which saw uneaten produce being diverted from disposal.
The campaign found that since the easing of lockdown restrictions in June and July, the amount of food wasted by the average household has spiked to pre-pandemic levels of 19.7 per cent. It also found that three in 10 people surveyed dispose of a quantity of refuse that would have them considered ‘higher food wasters’, up from 20 per cent in April 2020. This contrasts with the early lockdown era which saw a 43 per reduction in food waste from the pre-pandemic period of November 2019.
WRAP suggests that this increase in food waste is caused by two overarching factors: the abandonment of these previously referenced ‘positive food management behaviours’, and an uptake of eating out and ordering takeaways.
The former, WRAP states, is largely due to the return of time pressures post-lockdown. Skills that were taken up to reduce food waste - including freezing food; using up leftovers; batch cooking; and meal planning - are at risk of being dropped as we become increasingly ‘time poor’. The latter, WRAP asserts, has manifested itself in 7.6 of monthly meals consisting of either takeaways or out-of-home meals, compared to 6 in September 2020, when restrictions were still in place.
The campaign subsequently found a correlation between this shift in eating habits and an upturn in food waste levels, as produce intended to be eaten at home ends up going to waste after being replaced by out-of-home meals.
The Love Food Hate Waste campaign is now warning that habits need to be reinforced in order to maintain the work done across consecutive lockdowns to achieve this initial reduction in food waste, especially with COP26 fast approaching in the midst of stark climate change warnings from the IPCC. To acknowledge this threat, the campaign is issuing the slogan: ‘Wasting Food Feeds Climate Change’.
WRAP is calling for an increased number of businesses and signatories to opt into the Courtauld Commitment 2030, in order to help reverse this spike in self-reported food waste. The environmental charity aims to galvanise support from retailers; food producers and manufactures; local authorities; and community groups towards supporting the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, to aid the normalisation of these previously instilled ‘positive food management behaviours’, ensuring they are not limited to the confines of lockdown.
WRAP has also outlined a programme of behaviour interventions in order to notify the general public of the common triggers that cause food waste, including displaced meals caused by out-of-home eating, and the neglect of food management caused by time poverty. The charity is currently seeking partners to further develop these interventions, in preparation for the second annual Food Waste Action Week in March 2022.
Beyond this spike in food waste levels however, the survey found that public awareness of Love Food Hate Waste messaging has increased in recent times, with one in three of those surveyed stating that they had observed the logo. It also found that there is a wider public recognition of key produce logos that aid in the correct storage of food, including the ‘suitable for home freezing snowflake’ logo and the ‘little blue fridge’, used to prompt the refrigeration of food items that stay fresher for longer when chilled.
In spite of this, the number of people surveyed who believe that food waste is an important national issue has dropped from 89 per cent in recent years, to 76 per cent at present. According to WRAP, there is still ‘strong public agreement’ though that food waste is a pressing matter, with seven in 10 surveyed agreeing that minimising individual household food waste should be a top priority.
Sarah Clayton, Head of Citizen Behaviour Change WRAP, commented: “One of the few positives of this extraordinary time has been people taking up new habits that prevent food from going to waste.
“We’ve seen more people getting creative with their cooking; using up ingredients and leftovers. More of us have taken to checking cupboards and fridges before we shop, using our freezers and even batch cooking. And people tell us they have found these habits extremely helpful. But the return of busy lifestyles means we are falling back into our old ways, and that risks these key skills not being used. After the shocking news from the IPCC this month, it is imperative we remember that wasting food feeds climate change and most food waste happens in the home.
“Preventing food waste is one way we can all reduce the impacts our diets have on the environment, and fight climate change as individuals.”
Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow, said: “The last year has shone a light on the importance of using our resources more sustainably, and it is encouraging to see that we all wasted less food in our homes during this time.
“I am proud of the UK’s role as an international leader on tackling food waste. Between 2015 and 2018 we achieved a seven per cent reduction in waste per capita which marks good progress – but as we look to build back better there’s more we can all do to keep food on our plates and out of the bin.
“There are a few simple steps that everyone can take in our homes, from making a shopping list and storing food correctly to putting food that you won’t eat before the ‘use by’ date in the freezer where possible. By making these small, positive changes to our everyday lives, we can all make a real difference.”
Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport Michael Matheson, said: "Cutting food waste is a great way we can all make a difference in the fight against climate change.
“With the COP26 climate conference coming to Glasgow this year, there's never been a better time to take action. The Scottish Government is committed to cutting food waste by 33 per cent by 2025 – the first target of its kind in Europe – as part of our wider goal of ending our contribution to climate change. To help make that happen, we'd encourage people to maintain the positive habits they developed during the pandemic.
“By cutting food waste, you can lower the cost of your weekly shop while doing something good for the planet."