Embarassing caddies?

This week two things happened on food waste policy. The EU set a legally-binding target of 30% food waste reduction by 2030 as part of the revised Waste Framework Directive, while DEFRA announced that there wouldn’t be a target for England.

Conversations about food waste often start with the supermarkets – but though there’s some waste in retail, it’s around 4% of the total, with households accounting for about 70% and the rest split between food manufacturing and the hospitality sector. Some UK supermarkets have squeezed waste further, with the best performer having only 0.8% of food unsold and of that less than a quarter ending up as waste. That makes business sense.

At the same time, redistribution to charities has gone up 6 fold since 2015, amounting now to about one kilogram per year for every person in the UK. There’s limited scope for that to grow much further – and real questions about dignity and choice for people reliant on this source of nourishment.

So what’s going on at home? Less waste overall, it seems, with WRAP estimating a reduction per household of around 30% of avoidable food waste in the 12 years from 2007-2018. Waste dropped further during lockdown for understandable reasons but crept back up afterwards. If these figures are right, then something must be working. At the same time, UK avoidable food waste per person at 68kg is much higher than market leaders like Austria and the Netherlands.

The 30% reduction in avoidable waste is no small feat – and we know the next 30% will be harder to achieve. On top of the broad-brush campaigns much more granular work is needed, especially by local authorities working in schools and communities.

And this is about values too. Food’s been sanitised. That’s a good thing – we have much less disease from contaminated food. But we can get too caught up on cleanliness and perfection, thinking we’re doing the right thing throwing away food that looks a bit rough or with a label which says it’s past its date. We get that icky feeling and we feel better when it’s down the sink or in the bin or the caddy (often in a ‘compostable’ bag which doesn’t compost… but that’s another matter!) The tide may be turning. Some supermarkets are removing use by dates from milk – we’re now being asked to trust our highly evolved and sensitive noses.

Changing how we perceive food is crucial, but it won’t take us all the way. In order to make real progress, we need to normalise saving what’s too good to waste and composting of the rest – in workplaces, at universities, on the telly. And we need to make it a collective effort. A rural food waste ‘measure and reduce’ project knew they were making progress when children started bringing their caddies in on the school bus so they could go in the community composter.

So where next in Scotland? We’ve got a longstanding target of 33% food waste reduction across the board by 2025, but there’s been little reporting against that target.

First step? Get people round the table to do some fresh thinking together about how to do better. And as pre-reading, look at the plan just produced by our neighbours in Wales – ambitious targets, good data and a clear plan.