Is Britain’s Food Waste Problem Actually Getting Worse?

New figures from waste research company WRAP reveal that UK household food waste has increased since 2012. But are the stats truly representative of what we’re putting in the bin?
January 13, 2017, 6:09pm
Photo via Flickr user allispossible.org.uk

Whether it's chucking half a loaf of mouldy bread or scraping limp pad Thai into the bin because you ordered too much takeout when you were drunk and hangry, we're all guilty of wasting food. And earlier this week, new figures from waste research company WRAP claimed to show exactly how much we throw away. They revealed that since WRAP's last report on British household waste in 2012, the amount of food chucked by Brits has increased.

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WRAP says that food waste fell by 15 percent between 2007 (when the company started publishing data on food waste) and 2012. But since 2012, that progress has stalled. WRAP estimates that UK homes wasted 7 million tonnes in 2012 and the latest set of figures, which bring us up to 2015, show that the amount has increased to 7.3 million tonnes.

READ MORE: Why Most of Us Just Don't Care About Food Waste

WRAP also calculated how much of this could be classed as avoidable food waste, which it defines as "the food that could have been eaten" (e.g. that time when you made too much pasta and really should have saved the leftovers for the next day). The figures show that in 2012, avoidable waste totalled 4.2 million tonnes but in 2015, the number increased by 5.1 percent to 4.4 million tonnes.

That means that in 2015, each UK household threw £470 straight into the bin.

While the UK has come a long way in not wasting food (WRAP stresses that food waste from homes has fallen by one million tonnes compared to ten years ago), why have we fallen back into bad habits? Is it true that we just don't care about food waste or are simply blissfully ignorant about the amount we chuck?

It could be a bit of both.

Speaking to MUNCHIES, a spokesperson for WRAP explained that the company found a disconnect between people's awareness of food waste and what actually goes on in their own home. They said: "Around 60 percent of people simply believe they waste either no food, or hardly any. But the fact is the average UK home throws away a quarter of a tonne of food each year—500 meals worth."

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And the economic climate hasn't helped. The report states that "up until 2013, economic conditions were conducive to household food waste prevention: food prices were increasing and wages (in real terms) decreasing."

But this has changed.

"Between 2013 and 2015 we saw changes in economic factors that can influence our behaviour. For example, food prices were lower after 2013, which was great news for us all but it meant the financial incentives to avoid food waste were less," said the spokesperson. "Without this added financial pressure on our pockets we all felt a bit easier financially, and that had an impact on the amount we wasted."

This view is echoed by Tristram Stuart, food waste campaigner and founder of Toast Ale, an enterprise that turns surplus bread into beer.

Stuart tells MUNCHIES: "We know that economics has a big impact on food waste and when food prices are high, people waste less. In the context of decreasing food prices and increasing affluence, food waste awareness campaigning has had a positive effect because the figures haven't gone up as much as they should."

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Food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart. Photo courtesy of Feedback.

He continued: "It would have been good to keep it down even further, I don't deny that, but it's not as bad as it seems."

He suggests that the figures might not be as bad as they appear.

"A reservation I have about this particular set of data is that it's a compositional analysis," says Stuart. "What that means is that no one is looking into people's bins. No one is actually looking at what's in there and separating out the avoidable food waste from the unavoidable i.e. 'That's a banana skin and that's a sandwich.' This data set does not distinguish between those two things."

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Stuart has a point. The 2012 WRAP study involved physically raking through consenting households' bins to measure the amount of food in there. Researchers also asked households to keep a diary to measure food that was washed down the drain, fed to pets, and put in home compost bins. The latest set of numbers, however, use waste composition studies alongside waste collection figures from local authorities to estimate how much food waste could be classed as "avoidable."

"Let's imagine a hypothetical scenario where people started buying a lot more fresh produce and preparing it at home. They've massively reduced their food waste but because they're preparing more fresh food at home, they've got more vegetable peel etc," says Stuart. "It would look like their food waste has gone up but in fact their food waste has gone down significantly."

While we wait for further figures on Britain's food waste problem, is it too late for us to turn things around based on WRAP's current report?

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Screenshot of food sharing app, Olio. Photo courtesy of Olio.

It's worth remembering that the data released this week only captures food waste up to 2015 and it was during 2016 that the war on waste really stepped up a gear. From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall launching a major television campaign to the rise of dumpster-diving supermarkets and Tinder-style food apps, food waste awareness was far more present in the public arena.

Tessa Cook, co-founder of food sharing app Olio, told us that since launching the scheme nationwide at the start of 2016, she had seen an increased interest in the issue of food waste.

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"We're so proud of the fact that we've been joined by over 120,000 users and 8,000 volunteers in our first year," she says. "It feels as if we're tapping into a very common frustration which is that it just feels wrong to have to throw away good food, when someone living nearby would love to take it off your hands."

READ MORE: Why It's 'Phenomenally Easy' to Solve the World's Food Waste Problem

Last year also saw supermarket Sainsbury's launch their Waste Less Save More research campaign in the Derbyshire town of Swadlincote, looking into what methods actually work when it comes to getting people to waste less.

Campaigner Stuart suggests this could be an effective way to evaluate the best methods to reduce food waste nationwide. He says: "What would also be interesting would be to try specific things in specific places so you can see truly aggregate what's had the effect. Then you can go away and do that everywhere."

Or, you know, seeing as the price of your weekly shop is probably going to get more expensive care of Brexit, WRAP's theory that you'll waste less food if you're paying more for it could be put to the test.

With a Europe-wide initiative launched last month with the aim of halving every country's food waste by 2030, the UK has every reason to get back on track.