1. What is food waste?
Food waste, or food loss, is “food that is wasted, lost or uneaten”, which occurs at all stages of the food supply chain, including production, processing, transport, retailing, storage and consumption.
In fact, looking at the journey of 100 potatoes from the field to the plate, only 25 of which are actually eaten by consumers. The remainder are damaged or wasted on the field, in storage, during packaging and transportation, in the kitchen and on consumer plates.
According to the United Nations, food waste can also be defined as “any removal of food from the food supply chain which is or was at some point fit for human consumption.” The UN says that this is “mainly caused by economic behaviour, poor stock management or neglect.”
In the UK, food waste will then be thrown away as general waste, flushed into the sewer system via sink macerators or collected separately and turned into compost, farm fertiliser and biogas.
Raising awareness about food waste and the pressure it puts on resources such as water usage and livestock farming, is crucial if we are to decrease the carbon impact.
2. Where does food waste go?
In the UK, food waste is now often collected separately from general waste (see below how Westminster City Council Commercial Waste Services recycles food waste) and it can be treated in two ways:
This process involves combining food and garden waste, and using a tunnel or vessel to compost it in around six to eight weeks. Temperatures in these composting vessels reach up to 70 degrees Celcius to kill any harmful microbes. Typically, after one to three months of maturing, it can be used as compost, a soil conditioner.
This is an advanced and environmentally friendly way to treat food waste. During this process, microorganisms are used to break down food waste inside an enclosed tank in the absence of oxygen. As this happens, it releases biogas, which can be used to go into the gas grid or to generate electricity, heat and transport fuel. It also creates fertiliser which can be used in farming. Fact: food waste collected by Westminster City Council is treated via anaerobic digestion.
Despite these two treatment methods, unfortunately the mismanagement of food waste (for example, leaving food to rot in landfill sites) can lead to the release of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a gas with a very strong climate change potential. In fact, if we stopped wasting perfectly good food that can be eaten, it could immensely lessen CO2 emissions. This could be the equivalent of taking one in four cars off the road in the UK.
3. What causes excessive food waste?
From purchasing too much and wrongly storing or handling food, to complying with food safety policies during processing or preparation, there are a number of reasons why food might go to waste. Here are the top causes:
This happens when businesses in the hospitality and food service industry purchase too much food without consideration or planning as to how it will all be prepared or used for consumption. This results in the inability to finish the food or use it before expiration dates. In the event you have bought in excess, the best way to manage the surplus is to prepare and store the food correctly. This includes freezing it, drying meats or fruits and portion management.
2. Food delivery
Suppliers using heavy handling and inappropriate delivery methods can contribute to food being wasted. This includes food left on the street from the delivery truck and improper packaging which can lead to food spoiling.
3. Buying food close to expiration
Sometimes, businesses in the hospitality and food service sector will purchase food close to its expiry date to save on cost. Unfortunately, this leads to food having a short amount of time before going bad and ultimately goes to waste.
4. Over-preparation in hotels and restaurants
In hotels and restaurants, either more food is prepared than can actually be consumed, or they present visitors with too much food on their plates, consequently causing leftovers to go to waste. With it becoming more common for people to eat out, (35% of British people do it at least once a week), uneaten food, such as potatoes, fries, bread, and garnishes such as salads, account for one-third of all food waste from the hospitality and food service sector in the UK.
5. Food safety policies and processing
During processing, if products do not follow a specific set of standards to meet food safety policies, then it is thrown away. This could be as simple as a small imperfection in the packaging or sizing of the food item.
6. Improper storage conditions
The way we store our food plays a big part in reducing food waste. For instance, leaving some items in a pantry when they should be refrigerated can have an effect on the shelf life. Certain types of fruits can also give off a higher level of ethylene, which causes other fruits and vegetables in proximity to ripen and spoil faster.
Some food items may even spoil before expiration dates due to improper storage conditions. As such, a first-in-first-out storage principle is a good system to implement. This prevents food from accumulating in the back of cupboards and fridges, going unused until they have expired or gone bad and need to be thrown away.
Confusion around expiration dates can see perfectly good food go to waste. When handled and stored correctly, food can actually be eaten days (bread), weeks (certain fruits such as apples), months (pasta, cereal, frozen food) or even years (canned food) after best before dates.
Find out more on Westminster City Council’s Food Team and how they are regulating food safety for Westminster businesses
4. How food waste affects climate change
Food waste is not simply an issue limited to one region or country, it is a problem impacting the entire world. When you waste food, you are wasting the resources that went into growing or producing it.
For instance, there are a number of resources which make up the production of lettuce, including fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, water and energy usage. The lettuce is harvested, using fuels for propulsion and transport. Next, it goes to the processing plant where it is washed, sliced, sorted and packaged. Often in this stage of production, water and energy go to waste because of rejected or spoiled lettuce. More energy and fuel are later used during its transportation to wholesalers and businesses. Throughout the entire chain of production, lettuce and the resources that go into producing it, are wasted due to improper handling and storage conditions. In fact, food waste causes us to waste over a quarter of the world’s water supply which is used to plant, grow and produce food.
Producing meat products requires the most water usage (10 times more than producing grain). If you throw out one kilogram of beef, this equates to wasting nearly 50,000 litres of water that was used to produce the meat. Pouring just one glass of milk down the drain results in close to 1,000 litres of wasted water.
When it comes to harvesting, transporting and handling food, (fossil) fuels such as diesel are needed to power the heavy harvesting, farming and warehouse machinery. Coldstores and food warehouses use significant quantities of electricity to operate and keep food at the appropriate temperatures. Energy use by hospitality businesses in Westminster preparing food is significant: it accounts for between 4 and 6% of operating profits. This means all of the energy put into the food production process is wasted when there is a significant amount of food loss.
Furthermore, when food is disposed of to landfill, it decomposes and releases methane. According to National Geographic, methane – a greenhouse gas – has more than 28 times the global warming potential on a 100-year timeline compared to carbon dioxide and is more than 80 times more powerful over 20 years. Improper disposal of food waste also attracts vermin and leads to sewer blockages.
Track, reduce and learn about combating food waste using The Guardians of Grub operational resources
5. Which country produces the most food waste?
Currently, Australia produces the most food waste, generating 361 kilograms of food waste per capita annually. The United States, Turkey, Spain and Japan all round up the top five. Additionally, the UK ranks 16th after Canada and South Korea, producing 74.7 kilograms of per capita food waste per year.
6. Which sector generates the most food waste?
The hospitality and food service sector (hotels, restaurants, pubs) is one of the biggest culprits for generating food waste. In the UK alone, nearly £3.2 billion worth of food is thrown out each year. Of the food that is wasted in the hospitality and food sector, carbohydrates, such as potato, bread, pasta and rice, account for 40%.
According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), “21% of food waste arises from spoilage; 45% from food preparation and 34% left on customer plates” in the hospitality and food service sector.
Here is a breakdown of how much food is wasted in the hospitality and food service industry in terms of cost and tonnage in the UK:
- Across the UK, England produces the highest amount of food waste compared to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland
- 920,000 tonnes of food is thrown away each year, ¾ of which could have been eaten. This weight is the equivalent of roughly 153,334 adult African elephants, the heaviest land animal on earth
- Restaurants: 199,000 tonnes of food waste each year (£682 million)
- Pubs: 173,000 tonnes of food waste each year (£357 million) Hotels: 79,000 tonnes of food waste each year (£318 million)
- Fast food restaurants: 76,000 tonnes of food waste each year (£277 million)
- Catering: 21,000 tonnes of food waste each year (£44 million)
Check out this WRAP infographic for more information on how much food is wasted in the individual subsectors of the UK’s hospitality and food service industry.
7. What steps can your business take to reduce and manage food waste?
Did you know 75% of all food that is thrown away is edible? To save money and reduce waste, it is time to cut down on the amount of avoidable food waste your business throws away.
What you can do:
1. Look beyond best before dates
According to WRAP, businesses in the hospitality and food service sector are encouraged to look beyond best before dates. When stored correctly, food is safe enough to be eaten days (bread), weeks (certain fruits such as apples), months (pasta, cereal, frozen food) or even years (canned food) after best before dates.
2. Measure food waste
Track and measure food waste in your business. Figure out exactly what is being disposed of and how often, whether there is any surplus food and manage it accordingly (i.e. reducing the amount of food presented consumers and monitoring how much you are ordering and stocking).
3. Set up internal food waste bins and posters
Make sure you’re correctly disposing of your food waste so that it can be collected and turned into compost via a dedicated food waste collection.
See here for more on how you should be fitting food waste bins into your business.
To ensure everyone in your business is doing their part to dispose of their food waste in the right way, ensure internal bins have the right stickers and posters. These provide you with all the information you need to separate your waste in the right way.
4. Use good storage conditions
Good storage conditions prevent food from spoiling. Use a first-in-first-out storage principle. This prevents food from accumulating in the back of cupboards and fridges, going unused until they have expired or gone bad and need to be thrown away.
5. Follow food waste programs
Follow WRAP’s national food waste programs. Whether you are in manufacturing, retail or hospitality and food services, they provide expertise and guidance on your food waste habits. Take it a step further and educate yourself with WRAP’s food case studies, which show how businesses have reduced waste and saved money.
6. Avoid leftovers
If you are running any hospitality, restaurant or catering operations, try not to order too much food. When a lot of food is left over and thrown away, find the cause of this surplus. Was the quality okay? Did you buy too much? Were portions too big? Was it stored correctly? Was something prepared that people didn’t like? Food waste is more environmentally damaging than plastic waste, so it is important you take steps to reduce it.
8. The benefits of reducing and recycling food waste
In 2016, the UN announced a united global effort to halve food waste levels by 2030. With this goal set into motion, a variety of environmental, economic and social benefits will develop from the significant reduction of food waste globally:
- Diverting waste from landfills and preventing the emission of methane into the atmosphere, therefore, decreasing pollution and improving air quality.
- Donating any food surplus to those who need it most, such as food banks or homeless shelters.
- More sustainable approaches to food production can decrease the wasted land use needed to manufacture this food. It is estimated that 1.4 billion hectares of land (28% of the total global agricultural area) is used to produce food that is later wasted.
- Produce fertiliser and power from food waste. Every year the food waste we deliver for anaerobic digestion produces enough fertiliser to grow the wheat needed for 580,000 loaves of bread. What’s more, any food waste that might have inadvertently ended in the general waste which Commercial Waste Services collects, is used to generate electricity and heat for 50,000 London homes every year. None of the food waste we collect ever goes to landfill sites.
- By reducing food waste, you are reducing the energy, costs and water usage it would take to grow, manufacture, transport and sell excess food. In fact, the amount of food wasted every year around the world adds up to £818.3 billion.
Want to learn more about recycling and how your business can improve the way it handles its waste?
We have created a guide that will explain how to identify your waste streams (including how to segregate, store and handle them), what recycling services are available to you and the importance of ensuring your waste collector offers you a flexible solution.
9. How can businesses dispose of food waste?
The poor management of food waste not only causes a loss of natural resources, but disposing of food waste also emits methane and other greenhouse gases if it ends up in landfill sites. These gases contribute towards climate change and cause health issues related to air pollution. High levels of air pollution has even been linked to conditions such as asthma, heart and lung disease, frail bones, dementia and bladder cancer.
Luckily, with proper waste management, you can play your part in disposing of your food waste in the right way. As we mentioned previously, your food waste can be collected via our dedicated food waste collection service.
Discover how J D Wetherspoon appointed Veolia, the UK’s leading resource management company and Westminster City Council’s waste management partner, to increase its recycling and divert all of its waste from landfill.
For hygiene and food safety reasons, food waste has to be stored and collected in closed bins. When it is left on the street in bags, it can lead to leaks, bad smells and staining on the pavement, which attracts vermin and rodents. Food waste is the main cause of contamination in other recycling streams, so ensure that it is properly segregated into your designated food waste bin.
More specifically when it comes to animal by-products and catering waste, there are different regulations to take into consideration.
Due to previous outbreaks of diseases among livestock, the Animal By-Product Regulations (ABPR) were introduced in the UK, making it a legal requirement to keep raw meat, fish and poultry waste separate when it is thrown away. Animal By-Product (ABP) waste cannot be disposed of as general commercial waste and it must never re-enter the food supply chain.
ABP waste includes animal carcasses, parts of animals, or other materials which come from animals but are not meant for humans to eat. It also includes catering waste (left-over food) produced by restaurants, takeaways, canteens and other food businesses.
Animal by-products require specialist handling and cannot be presented for collection in plastic bags on the street. They can only be presented in closed containers or bins. Failure to do so can lead to enforcement action being taken by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) or by Westminster City Council.
How do you handle and store your ABP waste correctly? Make sure to:
- Store waste in durable lidded containers
- Keep waste storage bins clean
- Store waste bins away from food handling areas
- Clearly label bins designated for ABP waste
Like in Scotland and Wales, over the next couple of years it will become a legal requirement for all food businesses in England to segregate their food waste from other waste streams and have it collected separately.
10. How does Commercial Waste Services recycle food waste?
Businesses such as restaurants, pubs and hotels are known to produce large quantities of food waste. Many Westminster businesses use our food waste collection service which ensures food waste is handled hygienically and sustainably.
Food waste is a valuable resource, so we ensure that all of the food waste we collect separately is sent for treatment in an anaerobic digestion facility where it is turned into fertiliser and renewable energy (biogas).
Click on the button below to view a map of where each of the waste streams that we collect end up, including information on the local facility and how the waste is processed.
What can be collected as food waste?
- Meat and fish leftovers, including boxes
- Eggs and all dairy products
- Vegetables and fruit, including peelings
- Bread, cake and pastries
- Coffee grounds and tea bags
- Flowers and floral decorations (not plastic or textile)
The benefits of using our food waste collection services:
- Our food waste service is a tailored service which works to a schedule that suits your waste collection needs
- We ensure all food waste is treated locally with the maximum benefit to the environment
- We use your compostable waste to produce 100% renewable energy
- Our food waste service includes all of the equipment you need to manage collections in a hygienic manner that is fully compliant with animal by-product regulations.
11. Is there progress toward reducing food waste?
Using the UK as an example, to work toward the United Nations’ (UN) goal of cutting food waste down by half by 2030, WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) put in place a Food Waste Reduction Roadmap for businesses to adopt more sustainable measures to manage and reduce food waste.
The roadmap asks businesses to implement a strategy which encompasses setting a food waste reduction target for their operations, measuring and reporting food surplus and waste, taking steps to reduce food waste within the business as well as using innovation to help suppliers and consumers reduce food waste. Several businesses from different industries are committed to the roadmap and are making strides toward significantly reducing their food waste.
The following are the top three industries making a difference:
Hospitality and food service sector
As part of the roadmap effort to measure and reduce food waste in the hospitality and food service sector, the Guardians of Grub campaign was launched in May 2019. This initiative encourages businesses to preserve food and give it a longer life (such as freezing), use food to its full value (e.g. using every part of an animal for meals) as well as keeping track and taking stock to avoid buying more than what is necessary.
Major restaurants and food chains have now shown a significant change in the way they handle food. For instance, Pizza Hut restaurants have experienced a 50% decrease in kitchen operational food waste since 2015. In addition, the food service provider BaxterStorey has also seen a food waste reduction of 41% (6,600 tonnes ) since 2014.
Check out WRAP’s progress report to see how these businesses are making a difference with their food waste levels.
See how the Sustainable Restaurants Association is making “sustainability part of the DNA of every foodservice business”.
Food retail sector
Large grocery retailers, such as Aldi, Asda, Boots, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Partners and M&S, are committed to the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap.
For instance, Co-op reported a 29% reduction in food waste between 2015 and 2018 while Boots has seen an 18% decrease. Food retailers are working toward reporting and publishing their food waste data in a consistent way, showing accountability in their reduction actions.
The combined efforts of four major retailers have even prevented 12,500 tonnes of food waste per year, which is worth nearly £40 million.
Here are some case studies on each mentioned grocery retailer to see how much they have cut down on food waste.
Of the producers and manufacturers committed to the roadmap, 40 have publicly reported food surplus and waste. This includes producers and manufacturers of fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry and fish, bakery cakes and cereals as well as dairy, frozen food and pre-prepared meals.
Those who are not sharing their data publicly are sharing the information directly with WRAP. Following the launch of the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap, producers and manufacturers have discovered several ways in which they can prevent food from being wasted. These initiatives include improving processes and staff training as well as finding new markets for materials.
Here are some case studies on individual producers and manufacturers and how they are taking strides to cut down on food waste.
12. Food waste facts
1. One-third of all food in the world produced for human consumption is not eaten.
2. 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted every year, which amounts to US$1 trillion dollars worth of lost or wasted food. This is the equivalent of £818.3 billion.
3. One-quarter of all wasted food could feed 795 million undernourished people around the world.
4. The average North American or European consumer wastes nearly 100 kilograms of food per year.
5. The food wasted by the United States and Europe alone could feed the world 3 times over.
6. Food waste generates 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
7. 25% of the world’s freshwater supply is used to grow food that is never eaten.
8. In developed countries, over half of all food waste occurs at home.
9. In the UK, around 700,000 tonnes of food surplus from manufacturing, retail, hospitality and food service is either being redistributed through charitable and commercial routes or being used to produce animal feed.
10. Preventing one tonne of food waste can save the equivalent of 4.2 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere.
11. The United States produces more food waste than the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Sweden combined.
12. Between 2010 and 2016, food waste contributed 8-10% of total man-made greenhouse gas emissions.