Not so glorious food waste

13 July 2021

Last month, Resource Futures happily announced that Bristol had been awarded the status of Gold Sustainable Food City by the UK partnership programme, Sustainable Food Places. A team from Resource Futures contributed to the Award – alongside coordinating partners Bristol Food Network, Bristol City Council, Bristol Green Capital Partnership – by leading on food waste, one of the two ‘areas of excellence’ required for the submission.

On the back of this excellent news, I started to reflect on our other work around food waste, why it’s important, and what we still hope to achieve from our work in this area.

Why should we care about food waste?

Food is a huge part of everyone’s daily lives. As the most valuable energy and nutritional resource for our bodies, it’s even more of a shame that so much of it still goes to waste. WRAP estimates that, in the UK, households waste 69kg per person per year (excluding the inedible parts) and that a staggering total of over £19bn worth of food waste is wasted every year. But the solution isn’t just about recycling food waste. Modelling work undertaken during the Bristol Gold City accreditation bid further showed the value of preventing food waste over recycling. This research indicated that preventing food is:

  • Three times more effective for reducing water;
  • 60 times more effective for reducing carbon emissions; and
  • The only way to reduce marine eutrophication impacts.

On a global scale, it’s been estimated that if food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) after the US and China. If as a planet, we were to suddenly stop wasting all food, we would eliminate 8% of our total emissions. So, without labouring over too many upsetting facts and figures, what’s being done about it?

Action on food waste

The Sustainable Development Goals has a specific target on food waste (Indicator 12.3.1 – Global Food Waste and Loss) stating:

“By 2030, halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”.

In policy, England has committed to SDG 12.3.1 in its Waste and Resources Strategy (2018) and Scotland has set an ambitious food waste reduction target for a 33% food waste reduction by 2025 on 2013 levels. Forthcoming Government legislation will also introduce mandatory, weekly separate food waste collections across England by 2023. This was a hot topic for the 2021 National Food Waste Conference in March, at which my colleague Katie Powell and I were speakers. Take a look at my event takeaways.

For businesses and the food sector, the voluntary Courtauld Commitment 2025 has a target for a 20% reduction per person in food and drink waste associated with production and consumption of food and drink in the UK. Over 156 UK organisations are currently signed up to the Commitment which also commits to a reduction in impact associated with water use and stress in the supply chain and a 20% reduction on greenhouse gas emissions associated with production and consumption.

For households and local communities, food waste awareness and action is on the rise. WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign is the most recognised it’s ever been with 22% of people recalling seeing the Love Food Hate Waste logo in the past year. In addition, 75% of UK citizens have seen or heard information on food waste in the past year.

Pandemic impact on action and awareness

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on awareness and action on food waste prevention and food redistribution, having posed significant challenges to food production, supply and consumption.

Activity around food redistribution became more important with increasing levels of food insecurity and poverty across the UK. The Courtauld 2025 food surplus network was updated and WRAP created the Emergency COVID-19 surplus food redistribution resource hub. Recent figures from WRAP indicate that £280m worth of food was distributed in 2020 and it’s estimated the food redistribution potential is still double this figure.

In Bristol, the Food Waste Action Group (FWAG), coordinated by Resource Futures, set up a Food Redistribution Group to increase collaboration between food redistribution organisations, with plans to provide a hub for redistribution data in the city. It also hopes to provide businesses with simple resources to better understand which redistribution organisations to approach with offers, ensuring Bristol food stays in Bristol.

With such action being taken, what’s stopping us from achieving our global and national targets and eliminating food waste once and for all?

Mindset over food waste

At a recent event on ‘Supporting net zero through a circular economy’, Ellen MacArthur, Founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, was asked what she thought the biggest challenge was for achieving a circular economy; her response was “mindset”.

Could this also be true for food waste? WRAP has found that only 39% of us make a strong link between food waste and climate change. In attempt to change this, WRAP launched a new food waste prevention brand – ‘Wasting Food: It’s Out of Date’ – to help citizens make the link between wasted food and climate change.

That said, the pandemic seems to have had a positive impact on our attitudes to food and food waste. WRAP conducted a number of food waste behaviour studies over the 2020 lockdowns and found that almost four in five UK citizens (79%) undertook additional food management behaviours during the spring lockdown. These behaviours endured as lockdown eased. It’s expected these behaviours were driven partially by an anxiety around going food shopping and people were therefore more mindful about the food they had at home. Also, with increased time at home, there was more time to cook and care about the food being eaten.

This highlights the importance of context. In addressing food waste, it’s not enough to look at the individual behaviours of householders or organisations, we must also understand the social, material and infrastructural influences. Resource Futures has made this context integral to its approach in tackling food waste and uses tools such as the Scottish Government’s ISM tool (individual, social, material) to deliver effective campaigns that work with mindsets to enable improved positive behaviours on reducing food waste.

Resource Futures and food waste

Resource Futures has delivered a number of projects on behalf of WRAP and Zero Waste Scotland with a focus on food waste reduction to enable the achievement of the ambitious food waste reduction targets across the UK. Our typical approach is a holistic one: gather evidence, provide insight and effectively engage key stakeholders to move food waste up the food waste hierarchy:

But what does this mean in practice? Let’s take food redistribution as an example. The aim of the hierarchy is to ensure that food never becomes waste in the first place. Food redistribution is the redistribution of ‘surplus’ food before it’s even classified as ‘food waste’. The more governments, businesses, organisations, communities and individuals can do around prevention and redistribution, the lower the carbon impact and the lower the environmental footprint of our food.

To deliver work on the food waste hierarchy, we have experts on topics ranging from behaviour change and communications to waste composition analysis and quantitative monitoring. Experience shows us time and time again that complex problems require holistic solutions, and these holistic solutions are exactly what we aim to find.

Over the years we’ve delivered numerous projects around food waste to address and move food up the food waste hierarchy. Starting from the bottom and working our way up the hierarchy:

  • Disposal: Our waste composition analysis work with local authorities enables us to work out what is currently headed for residual waste, thus enabling local authorities to identify where specific materials, including food waste, can be moved up the hierarchy.
  • Recovery: Our Waste Services Optimisation team help local authorities model new and existing collection services to maximise food waste recovery that is cost, logistics and carbon efficient. This is key to local authorities in England who are preparing for weekly, separate food waste collections to become mandatory in 2023.
  • Recycling: Our Behaviour Change team work on identifying levers to encourage more sustainable behaviours. For example, using waste composition data we can identify key demographic groups where greatest behavioural improvements around food waste are feasible. By aligning these groups with population demographics, we are able to identify potential targeted intervention strategies and messaging styles to encourage people to move up the hierarchy.
  • Reuse: We manage the Community Action Group network in Devon, supporting community groups to drive waste minimisation at a local level. Activities such as apple days, composting workshops and surplus food café’s help increase skills and confidence at a grassroots level and nudge people to reconsider food and it’s place on the hierarchy.
  • Redistribution: Our work with Zero Waste Scotland on food redistribution mapping has allowed Zero Waste Scotland to identify opportunities for food redistribution across Scotland and identify appropriate partnerships to maximise such opportunities.
  • Prevention: The work in Bristol to achieve Gold Sustainable Food Place accreditation clearly demonstrated the importance of food waste prevention over recycling. Working with key food stakeholders across the city to drive forwards the prevention agenda will form a critical part of our focus over the next few years.

The vision

At Resource Futures, we believe in a world where resources are used sustainably. If campaigns and programmes to address food waste are designed holistically, with the objective of moving food waste up the food waste hierarchy, this vision around food can be achieved. If we can also understand our relationship with food and the attitudes, environment, tools or behaviours that result in food waste, we can get much closer, sooner, to eliminating food waste.

If you’d like to know more about our work on food waste, or how Resource Futures can support your organisation on tackling food waste, please contact