07 April 2010

Our £17bn Waste Mountain: Annual Bill For Throwaway Britain

Excerpt from The Independent, 4 April 2010

'The phenomenal amount of food and drink thrown away in Britain is costing the country £17bn a year, at a time when the economy is still struggling to emerge from the longest recession on record.

An astonishing new report paints the first complete picture of the scale of the UK's waste mountain, which hit 18.4 million tons last year. The figures, which include food, drink and excess packaging discarded by households, distributors, retailers and manufacturers, will increase pressure on the Government to accelerate its long-awaited plans to slash waste.

Wrap, the Government's recycling body that published the report, said the environmental cost is compounding the economic impact. The carbon cost of all that wasted food and drink is equivalent to an extra 12.4 million cars on British roads...

The report underlined that households produce the vast bulk of food and drink wasted in Britain, throwing away 11.9 million tons every year, at a cost of £12bn. This is two-thirds of the country's total waste mountain. Manufacturers are the next worst offenders, wasting five million tons annually, with retailers wasting 1.4 million tons and a further 100,000 tons getting lost during the distribution process.

In response to government pressure, retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer are all trying to send less waste to landfill to meet EU targets and avoid hefty fines. Critics believe this focus on landfill is diverting retailers from exerting pressure on suppliers to cut waste throughout the supply chain.

Liz Goodwin, chief executive of Wrap, said the survey would help to focus attention on where the most food and drink are being wasted. But she warned that retailers and manufacturers had to work together to have any hope of reducing the vast vats of unused food and drink, and piles of excess packaging. "We need to improve communication between various parts of the supply chain. For example, if retailers talk to their suppliers, we will be able to get the best outcomes," she said.

While the big numbers concern household waste, Ms Goodwin said there is a lot of potential to reduce manufacturing waste. Some efforts were already working, she added, pointing to a Waitrose initiative to throw away fewer bananas. "Getting them to recognise the need for customers to accept more cosmetically imperfect fruit meant less than 3 per cent of its bananas got wasted in 2008, down from 40 per cent in 2002."

Wrap has also commissioned a number of so-called "food maps", which Ms Goodwin said would spell out exactly where food was being wasted along the supply chain. One example concerns onions: millions were being thrown away because they were not all standard shapes and sizes. "Sainsbury's has now added misshapen ones to its Essentials line, which has had a massive impact," she added.

MPs want the Government to force retailers and manufacturers to reveal how much food their businesses waste annually. They are also calling for retailers with annual sales greater than £50m to publish details of their waste prevention strategies, spelling out their targets to reduce each type of product. Although Wrap also recommended that companies measure waste so they could track their progress in reducing it, the Government last month said it would "not be logical" to isolate retailers.

Wrap's report, written by the consultancy firm Oakdene Hollins using data compiled by the services group DHL, makes the best estimate to date of the amount of food that supermarkets waste. Extrapolating figures from an analysis of one retailer's skip suggests grocers threw away 232,200 tons of food in 2008 – barely down from 291,300 the previous year.

Another shocking example of waste includes a biscuit factory that lost 20 tons of biscuits for every 100-ton batch that it baked. A further six tons were lost throughout the process, including 2.4 tons wasted by filling the packs with more than the stated weight.

The report urged manufacturers to focus on cutting the amount of waste they produce, rather than coming up with imaginative ways to avoid sending rubbish to landfill, which is expensive and environmentally questionable. It admitted this would require companies to overhaul their existing cultures.

But with the cost of inertia so high, Wrap questions whether companies can afford to ignore the findings. "Seventeen billion pounds is a large sum of money to waste and we need to reduce it, especially when times are hard. This is something that businesses will want to do to save money," said Ms Goodwin...

Retailers and manufacturers are also working with a London-based charity called FareShare, which redistributes food to those in need. But the report pointed out the tonnages involved were still only a fraction of the total problem with around 3,000 tons redistributed in 2008.
Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, recently wrote to all major UK supermarkets, urging them to provide more support to FareShare, including giving suppliers their "explicit permission" to redistribute supermarket own-brand products.

Ms Goodwin said organisations such as FareShare have a role to play in reducing waste, but she added: "We should be focusing further up the supply chain, to ensure retailers have the right amount of food on their shelves and they are not stocking too much."

The carbon cost breaks down as 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent, from food and packaging waste in the supply chain, and a further 26 million tons of CO2 equivalent, from household waste. A spokesman for the Carbon Trust, which campaigns to cut carbon, said: "Helping people to understand the carbon footprint of the food they buy, cook and throw away is critical to help us all to lead lower-carbon lifestyles. Waste is just one source of carbon emissions from the food we eat."...'

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