Tackling food waste: Something politicians can agree on

This op-ed first appeared in The Hill on March 10. 

By Liz Goodwin

From my vantage point in a village in the English countryside, party politics in America are certainly eye-catching. The question for any leader looking to break a stalemate is, what areas of common ground can be found? To my mind, there’s a really clear option.

One would hardly call politics in the United Kingdom tame, and yet one area where our government has found agreement and seen real results is reducing food waste. Nearly 10 years ago, few people in the UK (or elsewhere for that matter) were focusing on food waste as a critical social, economic or environmental issue. Myself and my colleagues at the nonprofit organization WRAP recognized that the amount of food households, restaurants, grocers and others were throwing out was probably sizeable. So, in 2007 we began measuring what edible food was being needlessly thrown away. 

We found that 8.3 million tons of food and drink was being wasted each year, costing the average family with children over £700 ($856) a year. With hard figures in hand, the national government, local authorities and leading companies quickly got on board with starting a nationwide initiative to cut household food waste – the Courtauld Commitment with retailers as wells as a consumer-facing campaign.

Retailers took a number of steps, for example streamlining date labels to help consumers better understand when something was unsafe to eat versus just past its prime. We launched the “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign to help home cooks know about portioning, how to re-use leftovers and other tips for making good use of the food they purchased. The government also monitored progress over time.

From 2007 to 2012, the UK spent £26 million ($32 million) on its efforts, which resulted in an astounding 21 percent reduction in avoidable food waste from households. A new report now shows that this national investment paid off. Over the course of the five years, households saved £13 billion ($16 billion) in avoided purchases of food that otherwise would have been thrown out, and local governments saved £86 million ($105 million) in avoided waste disposal costs. Even though it was a period of economic downturn, the return on investment was still 250:1!

While the national government largely footed the bill and households largely reaped the benefit, it’s important to remember that the money government spends is funded by taxpayers. Our elected officials are tasked with making smart use of publicly paid-for investments. Reducing food waste, as it turns out, puts money directly back in taxpayers’ pockets.

I know governments don’t necessarily look at things in that way. Policymakers strive to balance their budgets and must prioritize spending across a range of economic, security and social needs. It means some tricky decisions have to be made.

That’s not an easy feat, but the benefits of tackling food waste are so far-reaching that they’re a good justification for spending a relatively small amount to deliver financial savings for households. Those savings can be used for family and personal needs, making a significant difference to tight budgets. It’s worth also remembering that more than 42 million Americans are considered food insecure – all while 30 to 40 percent of the food supply is wasted.

The environmental benefits of curbing food waste can’t be overstated, either. The UK’s success was equivalent to taking 1.4 million cars off the road, saving 400,000 Olympic-sized pools of freshwater, and avoiding the need for an agricultural land area about the size of Delaware.

There’s also growing awareness globally of the importance of tackling food loss and waste. The United Nations set a specific target as part of its Sustainable Development Goals to halve global food waste and reduce supply chain waste by 2030. In 2015, the U.S. government established its own goal to halve food loss and waste inside its borders.

To meet these goals, we have to up our game. There’s just no reason for so much good, edible food to go uneaten. Indeed, the business and environmental case for keeping food out of trash cans is becoming increasingly clear.

Liz Goodwin is senior fellow and director at Food Loss and Waste at World Resources Institute.