Last year, a project called Small Change, Big Difference took a striking photograph. In the shot, vegetables spill from a London flat window in comical plenty. Gourds and carrots have claimed the pavement in front of the house. Two green bins are choked with cauliflowers and potatoes and rockmelons; the front doorsteps are hidden beneath oranges and leeks and brilliant red cabbages. The door is ajar, accommodating even more vegetables beyond.
This seemingly incredible volume of food - clearly meals upon meals upon meals - represents the amount of food wasted by just fourteen average London households in a year: 3.75 tonnes. It certainly made me think of the potatoes I’d thrown away recently, with sprouts so long they resembled bleached coral reefs. It made me remember the last piece of cake we couldn’t quite finish in time, mould freckling its underside; a punnet of disintegrating raspberries; the half pint of milk forgotten in the fridge over a holiday weekend.
In some ways, Small Change, Big Difference's project was nothing new. We’ve known food waste is a major issue for years. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) at the UN suggests food waste is responsible for a full 8-10% of global carbon emissions - and that ⅓ of all the food produced (about 1.3 billion tonnes) never makes it into people’s mouths. Food waste is recognised as a big enough issue to be the focus of a Sustainable Development Goal: target 12.3 aims to halve global food waste per capita at retail and consumer levels by 2030. In the UK, under the Courtauld Commitment, we are aiming to cut food waste by 20% by 2025.
Defra has poured time and funds into reducing food waste and raising awareness of the issue. Earlier this year, for instance, it announced £1.15m of funding to help organisations in England come up with ways to cut food waste. But perhaps its biggest contribution has been in funding the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the initiative behind the Love Food Hate Waste campaign.
Thanks to such efforts, as well as private-sector waste-slashing initiatives like OLIO and Oddbox, food waste has fallen by 7% per person in the UK in three years. Between 2015 and 2018, total household food waste levels fell by 480,000 tonnes - and at a rate greater than that over the previous five years, according to WRAP figures. But total UK food waste - from households, businesses, and the supply chain - still sits at an unpicturable 9.5 million tonnes. The emissions associated with this waste total 5% of all UK territorial emissions, and the land required to produce this wasted food would be equivalent to an area larger than Wales.
The takeaway here is surely not just that we need to cut food waste further, but that doing so is difficult. Given that over half of the UK’s food waste comes from households rather than businesses or the supply chain, we need a change in ordinary people’s behaviour - something any psychologist will tell you is a push. We need to make food waste reduction easy, in multiple ways: by teaching people to store food correctly and not overbuy, by educating consumers about best before dates, by providing free recipes for using up those cauliflower stalks and potato peelings, by popularising compost.
These initiatives, and more, are underway. But even if we reduce food waste by half by the FAO’s 2030 goal, there will still be unavoidable materials we need to deal with. There will be eggshells and coffee grounds and banana skins. And despite all the best intentions - the meal-planning, the marketing, the zero waste cooking - there will be avoidable forms of food waste that are unlikely to be avoided: the last forkfuls of an uninspiring meal; a well-intentioned lettuce browning in the fridge.
The best way to make use of this waste, as Tim Elsome, general manager at FM Bioenergy, explained to me, is to process it in an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant. Food waste can be turned into both a renewable energy source and a nutrient-rich fertiliser through anaerobic digestion - the breakdown of organic material by microbiology in oxygen-less conditions.
“From an environmental perspective, it is undoubtedly the best way to treat organic waste,” said Elsome. “If you’re not treating that waste in an AD facility, it goes to landfill, where it breaks down and releases methane. In a facility, you can capture that methane and use it as an energy source - but in landfill, it just goes into the atmosphere and acts as a greenhouse gas many times worse than carbon dioxide. By treating waste using AD, you’re not only preventing methane wreaking havoc in the atmosphere, you’re also displacing fossil fuel-generated power. It’s a no-brainer.”
There are almost 600 AD plants in the UK, according to the National Non-Food Crops Centre UK, experts in the bioeconomy. But AD is not yet the default end-point for all food waste in the UK. The question is, why not?
Parts of the UK excel at recycling food waste recycling. I spoke to the Welsh government, famously the best in the UK for its household recycling programme - and third in the world, behind Germany and Taiwan. Wales collects food waste separately each week from 99% of its 1.4 million households. The majority is treated at AD units and turned into biogas and fertiliser, and the government’s website also provides clear instructions for home composting, which it encourages. “Eliminating waste has been a priority in Wales for some time,” Hannah Blythyn, deputy minister for housing and local government in Wales, told me. “You will find a food caddy in virtually every kitchen across the country.”
How did Wales get here? According to Blythyn, it took a combination of government investment, community education, and close work with all 22 Welsh local authorities. Crucially, the government has provided £23 million in ring-fenced funding to local authorities for food waste collections, and awarded contracts to support Welsh AD facilities. It has also introduced statutory recycling targets to incentivise councils: currently, Wales is aiming for a 70% household recycling rate by 2025, and zero waste by 2050.
“By working closely with local authorities and through engaging with them we have been able to roll out recycling models which are not only efficient but will help them achieve our ambitious recycling targets,” Blythyn explained. “Wales is a small country, with good networks, and we have used this to our advantage.”
Additionally, the government funds WRAP Cymru. “[WRAP works] with businesses in Wales not just to help them reduce food waste but to seize the opportunities that can come from products usually considered waste and turn them into an additional income stream,” said Blythyn. Recently, for instance, WRAP supported a Pembrokeshire berry farm in using its waste berries to create fruit syrups. WRAP’s Welsh Love Food Hate Waste campaign also targets consumers, offering recipes to use up odds and ends, and tips for storing food to make it last.
These initiatives work alongside the government’s eco-schools programme, which provides resources to 90% of Welsh schools to help educate students about the importance of reducing food waste. Plus, the government makes it easy for citizens to do their bit, providing all residents with kitchen caddies and most households with free liners, and restricting residual waste collections so people are more likely to use their food waste bins. “Every household in Wales has played its part,” said Blythyn - key to solving the problem, given that households produce most food waste.
Despite its gains, the country is not getting complacent. The country plans to halve food waste from 2006/2007 levels by 2025, five years ahead of the Sustainable Development Goal target, and introduce a legal requirement for separate food waste collections from businesses come 2021.
“We know that there is much more to do,” Blythyn told me. “Evidence tells us that 50% of residual household waste is made up of materials that could be recycled but currently go to landfill or incineration. Approximately half of that is food waste.”
Not everyone is as proactive as Wales. London is the worst area in the country for landfilling food waste, with some cancels offering no separate collection at all, or a very limited one. When I reached out repeatedly to Wandsworth Council, my own local authority, and one which does not collect food waste, I heard nothing back. In fact, I couldn’t reach any London councils who don’t offer food waste collections for comment - something which seems telling. I suspect councils are aware of the importance of reducing and managing food waste, but lack either the funds or government incentives to act.
Still, the cogs are moving elsewhere. London’s Borough of Hackney, for instance, introduced street-level food waste collections and food waste collection trials for flats in March 2007. It now collects 4,400 tonnes of household food waste per year.
Ander Zabala, recycling manager at Hackney Council, told me that the main challenge has been participation. “It is very low in some areas, with the highest participation rates at 50% in some street properties,” he said. “The average is 30% participation in all street-level properties, and extremely low from flats at 10%.” Hackney has 110,000 households and around 50% of them are flats. There’s further to go.
His advice for local authorities looking to introduce separate food waste collections? Make it easy for residents. Hackney provides free compostable bin liners to encourage the separation of food waste in homes, like the Welsh government. Zabala also suggests implementing a scheme on a broader scale as soon as possible. “Our success story was in 2014/5, when we delivered a borough-wide food waste recycling campaign,” he said. “It increased tonnages by 25%.”
Ultimately food waste is now an “extremely important” part of the council’s recycling service. There is a lower gate fee per tonne associated with anaerobic digestion compared with incineration or landfill - so it saves the council money. Additionally, anaerobic digestion produces renewable energy, reducing the borough’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Is zero food waste to landfill achievable for the UK? Wales seems to think so. Blythyn told me the key was “strong and clear leadership and genuine partnership” - from supply chains all the way up to consumers. Wales’ government works productively with local authorities, investing and incentivising to make food waste recycling worth their while. It also prioritises educating consumers, the top source of avoidable food waste, and making it easy for them to dispose of scraps. In Wales, recycling food waste is the norm, thanks to government commitment, coordination between different stakeholders, and consumer involvement.
Now, more than ever, this is food for thought for the UK’s other governments.