Swadlincote: The UK's first 'Food Waste Town'

Since January this year, the market town of Swadlincote has been testing out ideas for preventing household food waste, with £1 million in investment from Sainsbury’s. Libby Peake visits the town to see how it’s all going

Food waste has been a priority for those of us in the resources industry for some time now. The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) launched its Love Food, Hate Waste campaign way back in 2007, and for nearly a decade has been highlighting the environmental and (perhaps more significantly to the average consumer) financial impacts of all the good food that householders waste in the UK.

But, despite some notable successes (Love Food, Hate Waste claims to have helped consumers save ‘£13 billion by not buying food that would otherwise go to waste’ and says that between 2007 and 2012 avoidable food waste decreased by 21 per cent), the amount of food we waste as consumers is enormous, and has gone from 6.7 million tonnes in 2007 to more than 7 million tonnes today. This means that the average household wastes £470 a year on uneaten food, rising to £700 for a family with children – the equivalent of putting around £40-60 of food in the bin rather than our bellies every month.

A number of high-profile national and international campaigns and legislation drives (including a UN commitment to halve food waste around the world by 50 per cent by 2030) have food waste in their sights, and added to those is Sainsbury’s Waste less, Save more campaign. The initiative was launched after the retailer found its customers wanted help in preventing waste, with a ‘key motivation’ being a desire to save money. Sainsbury’s has committed £10 million over five years to help households tackle food waste, and the first year, and first £1 million, are being spent in Swadlincote, a former coal-mining and pottery-making town of roughly 36,000 in South Derbyshire.

When I visit the Sainsbury’s superstore not far from the centre of the small market town, Debbie Clark, the chain’s Waste less, Save more Manager, explains the logic behind choosing Swadlincote as its ‘Food Waste Town’: “We decided we wanted to do something really significant… and there’s a lot of things we could have done, a lot of things other people have done, but there’s no one-size-fits-all, and that’s when we arrived at this idea of trying to do lots of things and incubating them using a town as a partner.” Around 200 towns applied for the £1 million funding, with Clark saying that the judges – from Sainsbury’s, WRAP and Hubbub – were unanimously impressed by the strong network of organisations willing to work on the project in Swadlincote, and by “the absolute enthusiasm… and the acknowledgement that this is bigger” than the town itself.

For now, there seem to be plenty of interested parties in Swadlincote, with Gillian Coates, Business & Recycling Manager at South Derbyshire District Council, telling me that, what with 40 organisations – from the county council to the local voluntary services organisation CVS and Transition groups – keen to be involved, “we had the devil’s own job to get the bid down to the size it needed to be to fit the criteria”.

Residents of the town are currently able to recycle food waste through a combined green waste service, though Coates admits that the council doesn’t tend to collect much food waste through the service (five to 10 per cent of the bins’ contents), adding that “we know that there is a lot of food waste going into the residual waste stream”. Asked if the town would consider launching a separate food waste collection (which tends to highlight the problem of food waste and, consequently, reduce it), Coates explains that, in the current financial climate, and with the complexities of funding for English councils, it’s not something South Derbyshire could consider at the minute. The cost of launching a separate food waste service can run to several millions, and was not within the scope of the Sainsbury’s funding, though Coates insists the current initiative “is better because it’s taking a step back to prevention, higher up the hierarchy”.

A shot from inside the Bosch 'smart' fridge being trialled by 20 households in Swadlincote

And since the initiative launched here in January, a large number of food waste-prevention activities have been trialled, including fridge thermometers that were given out en masse during the project launch, bin stickers to remind people not to put food waste in bins that were being distributed as we spoke and cooking demonstrations to use up commonly-wasted items from TV chef James Strawbridge. And there are other initiatives; Coates reels off quite the list: “We did a lot during the launch week, getting people signed up to it, sharing tips and all the basics. We’ve set up an active Facebook community page, where people can contribute ideas.

"We’ve been working with the CVS, and we’re developing a community fridge… to allow people to share perishable items that are in-date. We’ve got the Olio [food sharing] app in the area, [and] we’ve had to extend the drop box scheme for that to cope with demand. We’ve got the schools involved. We’ve got a team of food saver champs who’ve been in place for about six weeks now. They’ve been out and about talking to the community, on doorsteps, finding out what sort of food people are throwing away... We’ve got smart fridges now in 20 properties in the area [with cameras] that allow people to see what’s in their fridge from any location... We’ve got six households that we’ve been working very closely with.” Clark adds that these six households are a key “ethnographic group” that they’re working “really closely with and drill[ing] down into what the barriers are, what the problems are” (more of which in a moment). 

A key part of the initiative seems to be the work with schools, and I catch up Kate Allies, Environmental Development Manager at South Derbyshire Council, and Andy Chalmers, a teacher by trade who is planning and trialling food-waste prevention activities for the local schools. The message from them is also that food waste is prevented by a multi-pronged approach, and there’s no “one single thing that’s powerful enough on its own”. Chalmers explains the programme: “We have a three-step approach. The first step is the audit [where they determine where most of the food waste from a particular school originates from, be it plate scrapings or fruit waste, for instance]. The second one is the store tour to give kids a flavour of what Sainsbury’s are doing. And the third is the most important because it’s the intervention – so it’s all the different things that we can do – it’s formal lessons, it’s lunchtime or afterschool activities, it’s eco games. It’s all fun stuff, but carefully chosen, and tied in with learning objectives. And of course, different age groups need different teaching as well. So, the more you get into it, the more complex it is… I think by the end of this, what we’ll have is a resource, either on the website or a memory stick, that we can give to other areas that schools can access, and there will probably be 20 or 30 different ideas or activities or lessons that they can use.”

The kids of Swadlincote – or of the four schools the team has worked with so far – seem to have been particularly taken with a local magician who performs food-waste related tricks, and Allies assures me that “it’s not just that they remember the tricks, it’s that they remember the lessons the tricks refer to”, adding that the children seem to remember key points long after they first learn them, be it through a school assembly or at a campfire cooking session to use up food that would otherwise be wasted. Both stress the importance of followup activities, with Allies noting: “I think there’s a lot to be said about embedding a lot of the concepts of marketing to education, so that you’ve got the same message being received by different forms and different media.”

Swadlincote: The Food Waste Town
The Winnow app, used to weigh and determine the value of food waste by six Swadlincote families, being demoed

And one of the benefits of getting children onboard with such a project is that they will then take the message home to their parents, who Chalmers notes are often not yet fully engaged in waste prevention. Allies adds: “If [kids have] been engaged in understanding what the issues are and understanding the problem, then that’s an easy switch to go home and say to the parent, ‘I don’t think we put our peelings in the bin.’ Or, ‘We could eat that.’ Or ‘If you chop that up, we can put it in the freezer.’”

This is something that resonates with one of the test families that I visit, the Chapmans, who have six children between the ages of seven and 16. Even before getting involved with Waste less, Save more, the family seems to have been quite efficient at not wasting food, with the number of household occupants – including dogs, cats, chickens and worms in the wormery – meaning very little food ever made it to the bin. The mother, Paula, explains that the project activities have meant that “the kids got really into it, it made them a lot more aware”.

The activity that seems to have had the biggest impact is the weighing of food waste. The Chapmans, along with the other trial families, were given Winnow scales – the first time they’d been used in a domestic setting – to determine as accurately as possible the value of the food they were throwing away. Chapman explains how it worked in her household: “You had to segregate your waste into different categories and then weigh it and record it – so was it gone-off vegetables or had you bought too much or cooked too much or was it peelings – and the app on the iPad told you how much is wasted. It was quite shocking. [One of her daughters] Micha’s awful – I make everybody a fruit smoothie before they go to bed at night, and she never finishes, and I weighed it and it was 15p, and I thought, ‘That’s not too bad.’ But when you do it every single day, it adds up to loads at the end of the year, it’s ridiculous. It does make you very conscious.” That 15p a day, for the record, equates to nearly £55 over the course of a year, and by cutting out waste like that, and making more of their own food, the family of eight now spends just £50 on groceries every week (down from £100 before the project started)! (Clark explains that weighing food meant “all the [test] families reduced their food waste, and the average was by 68 per cent”, an undeniably impressive figure.)

Members of the Swadlincote test families receive cooking lessons from James Strawbridge (including Paula Chapman, centre, next to Strawbridge)

The Chapmans have got so enthused by the idea of preventing food waste that, Paula explains, “we did get quite experimental”, “juicing everything”, using onions skins as dye, candying orange peel and baking egg shells before grinding them to serve them back to the chickens in the place of grit. The hardest thing they’ve tried to deal with, perhaps, was the banana skins, which they didn’t want to just put on the compost heap, instead trying a banana peel smoothie (“horrible, truly disgusting”), a banana skin tea (which only son Shaun liked) and banana skin pickle (“like an Indian pickle that you serve with your poppadoms”). Paula concludes: “That was quite cool – trying to think about if the things that you just assume are waste, are they really waste, or could you actually do something with them?” Some others involved in the project at Swadlincote have been equally experimental, with Sainsbury’s employee Rebekah Muldowney telling me she’s heard (via a WhatsApp chat group set up for interested parties) of people freezing a whole week’s worth of sandwiches for a family, and someone else who’s been saving all her vegetable peelings to make vegetable peeling crisps (which might not be to everyone’s taste!).

This article was taken from Issue 85

For the less experimental, the Swadlincote project also has plenty more to offer in terms of food waste reduction ideas before the year is up: Coates explains that the council will continue working with schools and at events and at street parties, including an event to be held in the Sainsbury’s store for 1,000 people “on the basis that 1,000 is how many the average family could feed a threecourse meal for with the amount they waste over a year”. Clark adds that Sainsbury’s is in the process of identifying 50 households to take part in the ‘Zero Waste Kitchen Challenge’, which will see each participant receive a home consultation and £100 to spend on products to help with planning, storage and cooking. She adds that they’ll be looking into vacuum packing technology to use in the home, as well as potentially herb-infused paper to prevent waste, and will perhaps try to develop packaging that changes colours to help indicate food safety (something that was tried with Tupperware, but participants said didn’t quite work with leftovers).

An interim progress report was imminent at the time of my visit, and the ultimate aim is to reduce waste by 50 per cent in Swadlincote over the course of the year and then, in Clark’s words, produce “a kind of blueprint that we will share with councils and retailers – anyone that’s interested”. Most other places are unlikely to have anything like the level of funding Swadlincote received (though Sainsbury’s will be spending £9 million more over the following four years), but it is hoped that some of the effective interventions found to work in Swadlincote will be relatively low cost. “No one’s got the answers to this yet”, Coates concludes. “We’ve got very down-to-earth people in Swadlincote and they’re not going to come around and tell you something’s really good if it’s not – you will get the truth from them.” 

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