The UK’s food waste challenge is on the agenda for retailers, organizations and charities across the nation.
According to statistics from The Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) and confirmed to Produce Business UK by press officer Ian Palmer, the total value of food wasted in the UK in 2015 was estimated at £20 billion — or £307 per person per year — with around £810 thrown away by the average UK family annually. Registered UK Charity WRAP works with governments, businesses and communities to analyze resource efficiency and to find solutions to some of the food-waste issues hitting the country.
Come the Christmas season, food waste escalates, particularly in produce sections, according to UK food waste recycler ReFood, with 172 tonnes of sprouts and 848 tonnes of roast potatoes alone chucked away every season.
Produce Business UK talked with two experts from different positions in the industry to get deeper into the UK’s waste basket: Karen Todd, manager of the zero waste programme at Asda, and Philip Simpson, commercial director of ReFood.
Accepting the challenge
Among other initiatives, Asda has committed to the UK's food waste reduction roadmap with a pledge to eliminate food waste by 50 per cent by 2030, using the principles – Target / Measure / Act. They have a zero-waste policy and look to reduce, reuse, redistribute or repurpose all waste, including food waste.
"We always start with reduction," says Todd. "For many years, we have talked about 'we hate waste of any kind.' In simple terms, waste is lost sales and increased costs, so reducing waste makes business sense as well as environmental sense. We have lots of ways we look to reduce waste, from sophisticated supply chain systems to the simple, yellow Reduced To Clear label.”
In terms of working with food redistribution organizations, she says, “We work with FareShare and other charities to help redistribute surplus food to those in need. We’ve worked with FareShare for over five years, and in this time in partnership with our suppliers, donated enough surplus food for over eight million meals for those in need. We also work with Company Shop and other approved asset recovery companies and other charities local and national.“
During Christmas specifically, Asda plans to hit consumers with many touch points, from reading materials to campaign advertising.
“All year, we use media such as the Asda magazine to provide hints and tips on food waste – 'love your leftovers, how to best store,' etc. — and at Christmas, we tend to increase the focus," Todd says. "This year, we’ll also be talking about our Fight Hunger Create Change campaign, helping to build FareShare and the Trussell Trust’s infrastructure, to take more surplus food and help reduce food waste."
While Asda likely contributes to influencing and educating consumer mindsets, ReFood considers the waste issue post-consumption, considering ways to repurpose the waste, which is stlll a major problem.
“Christmas, a time for families to come together and enjoy, also seems to be becoming a time for waste," says ReFood's Simpson. "More than a third of the Brussels sprouts in produced in the UK are harvested specifically for Christmas, despite a quarter of the population claiming to ‘hate’ the vegetable. If all the food wasted at Christmas was recycled into energy, we could power the average medium sized home for 57 years."
ReFood's sustainable plan for the future
ReFood disposes of commercial food waste through sustainable practises, converting waste food into green energy. They work directly with most major retail chains, including Waitrose, Iceland and Lidl; the hospitality industry, including Doncaster Racecourse and Yorkshire Wildlife Park; as well as with the National Health Service (NHS) and other hospital sites.
“We offer a safe, secure, closed-loop, end-to-end solution that improves companies’ green credentials, reduces their carbon footprint and helps save up to 50 per cent on food waste disposal costs against landfill," says Simpson. "Essentially, ReFood is a greener, safer and cheaper alternative to landfill.”
The “closed-loop process” Simpson describes means food waste is separated and processed, generating renewable energy and creating a nutrient-rich biofertiliser, called ReGrow. This food-waste recycling process guarantees biosecurity, full traceability and efficiency.
To process the food waste, ReFood works with anaerobic digestion plants to ultimately break down organic material into biofertiliser for farming and agriculture use. In terms of numbers, each of their sites has the capacity to process more than 1,000 tonnes of food waste every week.
“In the last 12 months, ReFood has displaced 93,822 tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of taking 18,297 cars off the road; created 104,544 MWh of power – enough to power almost 24,000 homes for one year; diverted a total of 203,963 tonnes of food waste away from landfill – which is apparently the weight of 515 jumbo jets,” says Simpson.
Although Asda doesn’t work specifically with ReFood, Todd expresses shared sentiments on their view regarding landfill. “We do send some waste food not fit for human consumption to animal feed or anaerobic digestion, but we have a strong zero food waste to landfill policy.”
Contributing factors to food waste
There are many factors that contribute to food waste. Todd says weather, on-shelf
on-shelf availability, changing eating and shopping patterns, and seasonality all play a part.
Simpson at ReFood says "wastage occurs through all stages of the supply chain, starting from harvesting and production, through to processing, food retail and consumption.”
So which produce items — and processes — are helping to add fuel to the fire in terms of waste?
“The growth of prep fruit and veg is interesting — in some ways it saves waste, in other ways it can increase waste due to shorter shelf lives," Todd says. "The plastic argument is an interesting one. There is a really fine balance to achieve between reducing plastic packaging without increasing waste, which we know would happen if we just stripped all the plastic off. Our approach has been to work product-by-product, testing and analysing the impact removal would have – so for example we’ve removed plastic wrap from whole swedes, but will keep it on cucumbers based on shelf life analysis. What we are looking for are alternatives to plastic that can do the same job but have a better environmental impact, which is something we’re working with Leeds Beckett University on.
"Reviewing the end-to-end supply chain to identify where waste occurs is increasingly important. My colleagues in IPL (our wholly own sourcing arm), have been involved in some very interesting work on shelf-life studies, marginal land, specification.”
Simpson at ReFood says he sees the waste increase more as something seasonal but also connected to trends in prepared foods.
“Food consumption is seasonal, so it is natural that food waste would follow similar ebbs and flows," he says. "For example, Christmas sees an increase in produce such as sprouts, and potatoes being wasted, whilst in the summer it’s fresh salad products — cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce. In recent years, there has been a significant rise in convenience foods, such as pre-cut vegetables; it is only natural that food waste trends mimic consumer trends.”
Future initiatives in combating food waste
In terms of the future from a retail perspective, Todd points out that one of the biggest challenges of food waste in the country has been between food waste and availability, where customers expect full shelves and lots of choices every time they visit a store. To change this trend means to change customer shopping habits. “Shopping habits are changing faster than ever. All of these things I see as having an impact in the future,” she says.
Todd also says Asda has been following a reduction and redistribution path for many years. “We have segregated our food waste from non-food waste for nearly 10 years and have used anaerobic digestion for a number of years."
Asda's three-year, £20m partnership with FareShare and The Trussell Trust on the Fight Hunger Create Change campaign has also paid off, "investing in the infrastructure and essential services at these charities, to make fresh food the norm in foodbanks and enabling them to lift one million people out of food poverty," says Todd. "As part of this, we’re also guaranteeing we can donate surplus food from our stores to local charities.”
ReFood’s future initiatives have mainly been encapsulated in their Vision 2020 plan, which is aimed at changing government legislation to ban food waste from landfill.
“Every year, the UK produces almost 20 million tonnes of food waste," Simpson says. "The clock is ticking, and in just a few short years, our current landfill sites will be full. Vision 2020 is ReFood’s solution to this ever-growing problem. Through it, we aim to change government legislation, ban food waste from landfills and have all waste recycled.”
Part of Vision 2020’s strategy is to save millions of pounds at every stage of the food chain, create more employment opportunities, help to put back important nutrients in the land and offer chemical-free fertilizers for UK farmers. Companies partnering on Vision 2020 include Waitrose, Reynolds Food Distribution, Ferndale Foods, and Savoy Catering and Hospitality.
Aside from the Vision 2020 program, ReFood also has some education programs in place so that people from the community can learn about the importance of food waste.
“We aim to educate the public so that people of all ages understand the importance of recycling food waste," says Simpson. "By sharing good recycling practices, we can impact and make a difference in local communities.”
One of the challenges Simpson highlights is not just the lack of education for the community, but also the lack of education some businesses have in sending food waste to landfill. “It not only impacts the environment but is also costly and outdated. The cost of sending food waste to landfill can be 50 per cent higher than disposing of it via anaerobic digestion. Our primary aim is to educate, whether it’s industry professionals of members of the public.”
To achieve that goal, ReFood has set up a series of lesson plans to inspire and educate pupils on the benefits of recycling, all of which are available for free on their website.
“We work hard to support the next generation with our green solutions," says Simpson. "By striving to lower costs, remove food waste and eliminate unnecessary emissions, we offer institutions a greener, safer, cheaper alternative to landfill. We work with local councils, communities and even schools to spread the message about food waste prevention. We also aim to work with the food manufacturing and retailing sector to promote zero waste tolerance, encouraging the industry to consider portion size, packaging and packaging reuse incentives. Ultimately, we want to see an industry-agreed timetable for this ban, with changes introduced in a swift, yet manageable fashion.”
The Vision 2020 goal aims at greehouse gas emissions reduced by 27 million tonnes, £12 billon saved by householders, £3.7 billion potential saving in the public sector, and more than 1.3 million tonnes of valuable nutrients returned to the soil per annum.
For Asda, their ‘early adopter’ signatory to the world’s first food waste reduction roadmap created by IGD aims to halve food waste by 2030, as well as increase transparency around it.