Why households alone can’t fix the food waste problem

24th Aug 17 by Christina O'Sullivan

Waste is a symptom of our broken food system

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this blog

It’s easy to assume that the bulk of the British food waste problem lies in household bins. The most recent figures suggest that a whopping 71% of food waste, post-farm gate, occurs at the household level. If this is true, then surely the food waste movement should be focusing its efforts solely on household food waste.

So why does Feedback keep banging on about supermarkets? Because it really isn’t that simple. Let’s figure out why.

We’ll show you ours if you show us yours…

The figure above, as convincing as it sounds that 71% of food waste stems from households, comes from WRAP’s detailed study of household food waste which is compared with data provided by the supermarkets and other up-stream actors in the food industry.

The trouble is that no one really knows how accurate most of that industry data is because, at present, only Sainsbury’s and Tesco release their food waste data to the public and only Tesco show figures on supply chain waste – the waste that occurs up-stream at the level of farms and other suppliers. None of these sources of data include the waste of fish at sea or the waste generated in production overseas. In contrast to this, our research has consistently shown that suppliers in the UK and overseas waste a colossal amount of food because of supermarket practices such as strict cosmetic specifications and last-minute order cancellations.

Our gleaning network, which rescues food from being wasted on farms, last year alone rescued over 1 million portions of fruit and veg. WRAP estimates that 3 million tonnes of food are being wasted on farms in the UK every year, but these estimates are based on very poor quality data, to the extent that WRAP no longer uses this probable under-estimate.

How can we make conclusions on the source of the UK’s food waste problem with inaccurate data? The answer is we can’t, which is why we call on supermarkets to be transparent on their food waste across the supply chain.

Eternal abundance

If you’re like 95% of the UK population, the likelihood is that you visited one of the big four supermarkets at some point this week. Supermarkets dominate our experience of buying food, and their marketing practices have a bigger influence on what and how we buy and use food than you might think. Take their displays of fruit and veg, typically positioned near the entrance to the supermarket or the strategy of stocking the aisles with far more food than will be bought at any one time, giving the illusion of an endless abundance of food.

When supermarkets first opened in the UK people were afraid to pick up items and put them in their trolley for fear of being told off. Now we have the opposite problem; we can’t stop ourselves from picking stuff up! Supermarket marketing strategies cause us to over-spend and their own buying policies force farmers to overproduce.

So, food waste at home caused by buying more than you can get through – exacerbated by supermarket promotions and deals – is not a problem that occurs in a vacuum. Yes, we should all eat what we buy and only buy what we’ll eat, but we should also call on our supermarkets to take responsibility for their part in this waste equation.

We are all products of our environment and supermarkets have worked hard and poured money into developing an environment that indirectly encourages us to waste food. To tackle the consumer food waste issue, supermarkets should fund consumer waste analyses based on where people shop to highlight what supermarket policies reduce waste and which drive it. The harsh reality here is that, in-order-to achieve the implementation of these kind of initiatives to help reduce waste, external pressure will need to be put on supermarkets who ultimately benefit financially from over-purchasing and the inevitable associated food waste which comes as a result. That’s why we keep banging on about Supermarkets!

Waste is a symptom of our broken food system

Ultimately to truly solve the food waste problem, the way we buy food will have to undergo a radical makeover. Even Tesco, who has made a very public commitment to food waste transparency and reduction, saw its food waste tonnage actually increase last year year, coming to a staggering total of 59,400 tonnes of food that was never eaten. Why does waste keep going up even though Tesco are throwing money and resources at the problem?

The answer lies in our current food system, in which waste is a symptom of overproduction and where no single actor takes responsibility for the amount of waste resulting from this unsustainable system. You cannot uncouple the current supermarket model from waste, this is evident from the limited success of food waste initiatives by supermarkets with WRAP’s study showing that retailers have only managed to reduce their food waste by 15% from 2007 to 2015.

Our new model for a more sustainable food system emphasizes the need for more holistic thinking where, at both retail and consumption stage, food ‘waste’ is recognized for its true value, and can still realise its primary purpose – to be consumed – through innovative redistribution. This recovery of surplus (as well as avoiding overproduction in the first place) creates closed loops within the food system that are vital to ultimately tackling the status quo.

The current supermarket model can’t exist without waste. Pragmatism is required from supermarkets in order to both create a system that generates less waste and to create an environment that encourages consumers to do the same.


Please help us put pressure on supermarkets by sharing on Twitter here.


What can you do next?

Follow us on Instagram to see our work in action.

Follow us