The UK’s Experience of Reducing Food Waste

Liz GoodwinBy Dr. Liz Goodwin, CEO of the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP)

These remarks were delivered at the Champions 12.3 side event held on May 25, 2016, at the second session of the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. You can view her full PowerPoint presentation here.

Hello and good afternoon everyone. I’m delighted to be here for this very important event.

Thank you World Resources Institute and UNEA for the invitation.

We all know that a third of all food produced globally is wasted. We all know that the cost of this waste runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. And we all know that the problems will only intensify as populations increase, the middle class grows, and fewer resources are available.

The question today is not: what is the problem? The question is: what are we going to do about it? And the good news is that it’s a question to which a positive answer can be found.

Reducing food waste is good for the economy, good for food security, and good for the climate.

I am passionate about the subject of food waste and as a champion of the UN Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste, I will do my utmost to mobilise action.

Let me tell you about the work we’ve done in the UK, where action has led to the reduction in the amount of food wasted in people’s homes by 21 percent over five years.

To achieve this took three ingredients: evidence, behaviour change, and collective action.

It was important to compile and analyse the evidence to help our partners build a case, seize opportunities, and overcome challenges. It was also vital that we understand where waste arises – if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

In 2007, WRAP put the issue of food waste on the map with our ground-breaking research ‘The Food We Waste’. This was a large piece of work involving asking people to keep diaries of what they did. We also looked into more than 2,000 bins and analysed what we found, from skins and bones to whole chickens still in their packaging and still in date.

It gave the first complete picture of what food was wasted in UK homes. We had data based on hard evidence. To this day there is nothing else quite like it in the world.

The research highlighted how much food was being wasted, why it was wasted, what was avoidable, and how much that waste cost. Our research showed that we wasted 8.3 million tonnes of food and drink every year. We wasted 37 million slices of bread every single day. We wasted 2 million tomatoes, and 1.7 million bananas (yes, whole bananas, not just the skins), again, every day.

In total, food waste generated in the home cost us nearly $20 billion and accounted for 5 percent of the UK’s water footprint.

So why was all this good food going to waste? Our research identified five key areas.

It showed that people weren’t planning their meals in advance and they weren’t looking in their cupboards, so weren’t making lists when they visited their local grocery stores. This meant they bought too much of the food they didn’t need, which was subsequently wasted.

The research showed that households were often confused about what packaging display dates meant, so threw away food that was still safe to eat.

Our research also showed that people were unsure how to store food, both when taking it home from the grocery store, and once they had used some of it.

When preparing meals the research showed that people were using more food than they needed – or wanted to eat. This led to leftovers, which then became waste because people didn’t know how to use the leftovers or didn’t want to use them.

Armed with this knowledge, we developed a behaviour change campaign that empowered people to act. Through our Love Food Hate Waste campaign, we showed consumers how to plan meals, store food correctly, and utilise leftover food – saving them money in the process.

But it wasn’t enough just to focus on the households, we also wanted to see action by the retailers and brands. So, we also galvanised collective action through a ground-breaking voluntary agreement that united organisations behind common sustainability goals.

The Courtauld Commitment, which is run by WRAP, brings together retailers and brands with common goals to reduce food waste in UK households. It does this by tackling food waste and its packaging, right the way through the supply chain.

The environmental and economic benefits to consumers, businesses, and the UK economy are considerable. In just the second phase of Courtauld (a three year period), the grocery sector delivered a 1.7 million tonne reduction in waste. This saved the sector $4.1 billion.

I don’t believe it’s possible to visit a supermarket in the UK without seeing an innovation or a change inspired by WRAP’s work – whether that’s a change in pack size, different packaging, advice on storage, clearer labels, or tips on cooking.

So, what’s the position now? We’ve reduced avoidable food waste by 21 percent – but that still means that the average UK household is throwing away the equivalent of six meals a week. The biggest things we are wasting continue to be bread, fruit and vegetable, and milk – and the figure which always shocks me is that we throw away 86 million chickens every year.

Where do we go from here? Well, we’ve developed and grown the Courtauld Commitment.

From being solely about reducing waste, the next chapter, Courtauld 2025, which we launched recently completely re-thinks the way we value food. It does this by tackling new areas to include waste water, pre-farm gate, and the hospitality sector.

Courtauld 2025 is a 10 year plan – so this is not about short-term thinking. And most significantly, achieving its targets will keep us on track to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal to halve food waste.

We are sharing this learning and our experience with others

Through the REFRESH project, we are piloting the Courtauld 2025 model in four European countries and China. The REFRESH pilot countries are already talking about linking their agreements to the delivery of Sustainable Development Goals 12.3.

We are also in discussions regarding a voluntary agreement for South Africa as a result of a UNEP and WRAP pilot model.

These projects are a testament to the increasing understanding of the benefits of a voluntary agreement approach in tackling food waste. As our international work to engage businesses in action to reduce food waste flourishes, so too do our behaviour change campaigns that are targeted directly to consumers.

We have licensed our Love Food Hate Waste campaign in a number of other countries, for example in Canada and Australia. We expect this trend to continue in other cities and countries in the near future.

Working with UNEP and the FAO through the Think Eat Save campaign, we have produced guidance to help nations reduce food waste, and piloted the approach in different nations. This work provides guidance to governments, local authorities, businesses and others on designing effective food waste prevention programmes.

We are also working with UNEP to develop major international flagship projects as part of the 10-Year Framework of Programmes for sustainable development and of course, we are working with WRI on a food loss and waste protocol.

But, of course we also know that how and why food is wasted will vary from nation to nation, and in particular between developed and developing nations. So where some approaches to tackle food waste are uniform, regardless of the country in question, there are variations in the precise actions that need to be taken to make the biggest impact.

That is why WRAP is today working alongside UNEP in countries such as Panama, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa to develop approaches that work in any context.

Regardless of the country in question, it is crucial to understand the issue by measuring how much food waste there is, of what types, and where and why it arises. Then, raise awareness of the issue and that the problem can be addressed, both amongst consumers and the food and drink supply chain. The next step is to set goals or targets for reducing food waste, linked to broader strategic aims.And of course, the Sustainable Development Goals are a perfect target to aim for.

It’s in the precise actions where differences should occur between developed and developing countries.Developed countries could focus on the policy levers, collective action of business, and strategies to reduce waste – similar to the work done by WRAP. Developing countries are better placed to consider food production, storage, and distribution activities.

WRAP has the experience and practical tools to help nations and the UN deliver on its 12.3 target and are only too happy to talk to anyone interested in finding out more.

Thanks for listening.