Resource Use

UK throws away £12.5 billion of food a year

The average UK household throws away the equivalent of six meals every week, costing the nation £12.5 billion a year, a new report by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has found.

According to the report ‘Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK 2012’, released today (7 November), the UK has reduced ‘avoidable’ food waste (food that could have been eaten) by 21 per cent since 2007 – saving £13 billion up to 2012 – but still throws away 7.1 million tonnes (Mt) of food every year. Almost half of this, WRAP says, ‘goes straight from our fridges or cupboards to the bin’ without ever making it ‘onto our dinner plates’.

Buying too much food, a ‘lack of clarity’ around storage and labelling, and ‘over-estimating portions’ were found to be three of the most common reasons attributed to food wastage, which WRAP estimates costs the average UK family (with children) around £60 a month (up from £50 a month in 2007).

Report findings

The research, carried out by Exodus Research, Ipsos-Mori and Resource Futures, updates WRAP’s 2007 report ‘The Food We Waste’, and examines what foods are wasted most, how much food is wasted in UK homes, and how much that waste costs.

According to the findings, the top three foods thrown away uneaten are bread, potatoes, and milk – with 24 million slices of bread, 5.8 million potatoes and 5.9 million glasses of milk wasted daily.

Chicken is also one of the most commonly thrown away item of food, with research estimating that around 86 million chickens are thrown away each year, ‘despite being the nation’s favourite meat’.

£3.3 billion saved in 2012 alone

Looking to the positive, the report showed that the total amount of household food and drink waste has reduced by 1.3Mt to 7Mt since 2007, and ‘avoidable’ food and drink waste from 5.3Mt to 4.2Mt. Quantified in monetary value, the avoidable food waste saving for 2012 alone amounted to £3.3 billion.

WRAP says that the 21 per cent reduction in avoidable food waste is down to better awareness of food waste, as ‘millions of consumers’ are now ‘buying the right amounts, storing and freezing foods to keep them fresher for longer and making more use of leftovers’.

The report also highlights that consumers are now ‘more aware’ of how to store and use their food thanks to local authority initiatives, better food packaging, and advice from anti food-waste campaigns, such as Love Food Hate Waste.

Specifically, it highlights several examples of how retailers have tried to help consumers reduce food waste, such as: Marks and Spencer’s ‘Fresher for Longer’ initiative (which aims to change the way people perceive and use packaging that food is sold in); Sainsbury’s ‘Make the Most of Your Roast’ campaigns (which suggested leftover recipes); and Warburton’s and Kingsmill introduction of smaller loaf sizes.

Opportunities for industry

However, the rate of reduction has slowed in recent years. Although food waste has dropped by 21 per cent since 2007, the report found that it ‘could be possible to reduce avoidable household food waste by a further 1.7 million tonnes a year by 2025’.

WRAP has identified the following areas as being key ‘opportunities’ for industry to reduce food waste:

  • making ‘clearer date labels, storage advice and freezing guidance’, as just under half of avoidable food and drink was classified as ‘not used in time’;
  • having longer shelf-lives for food, ‘giving people longer to eat what they buy’;
  • selling smaller meat and fish pack sizes and more ‘fresh for freezing’ portion packs to reduce the amount of meat and fish thrown away. According to the report, this is an area where there are the ‘greatest opportunities’ for improvement, as there hasn’t been a reduction in meat and fish over the last five years.

It is hoped the new research will ‘enable WRAP and its partners to develop more effective solutions to help consumers reduce the amount of food thrown away, saving money and reducing the impact on the environment’.

Collaboration needed to reduce food waste

As such, WRAP’s Chief Executive Officer, Dr Liz Goodwin is now calling for a “major combined effort” from retailers, brands, governments, and consumers to work together to reduce food waste.

She said: “Consumers are seriously worried about the cost of food and how it has increased over recent years. Yet as WRAP’s research shows we are still wasting millions of tonnes and billions of pounds.

“The UK is leading the way in tackling food waste and the 21 per cent cut is a terrific achievement by millions of people who have taken action, saved money and helped safeguard our natural resources. However, there is so much more to go for, and I believe we should be going for it.

“Research by WRAP shows that if we all make a major combined effort to act now, we can save up to £45 billion by 2025. It won't be easy, but what a prize if we achieve it. I commit that food waste will remain a top priority for WRAP, and we will be pleased to work with those who share my aspiration."

The call was echoed by Resource Minister Dan Rogerson, who said: “Cutting avoidable household food waste by 21 per cent is great news but there is still more to do. Everyone has a role to play in reducing food waste and we want to see businesses helping consumers to waste less food.

“Cutting waste and driving business innovation will help to build a stronger economy. We will continue to work closely with food retailers and manufacturers to achieve this goal.”

21st Century food waste “disgraceful”

Environment Ministers from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland also welcomed the findings, with Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead highlighting that around half of Scottish households now have a food waste recycling service following a £20 million investment from the Scottish Government to help local authorities roll out food waste collections.

Northern Ireland Environment Minister Mark H Durkan added that it was “disgraceful” that so much food was still wasted, made “even more unacceptable” as millions of people suffer from poverty, malnutrition and hunger.

He said: “Although progress has been made in reducing food waste we cannot be complacent; we must all act to eradicate this smear on our lifestyles. I see tackling food waste as a key priority for my department. The recently published Waste Management Strategy will provide a range of measures to reduce food waste, from the proposed introduction of food waste restrictions for landfill through to actions within the Waste Prevention Programme.”

Read WRAP’s ‘Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK 2012’.