On 24 March 2021, Lord Palmer (Crossbench) is due to ask the Government “what plans they have to reduce food waste”.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3 aims to halve per capita food waste and reduce food loss by 2030. The UN estimates that global food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totalled 931 million tonnes in 2019. However, the UN has said that accurate global estimates of food waste are difficult to attain as “global food waste data availability is currently low, and measurement approaches have been highly variable”. The UK is reported as a country with high-quality data.

Food waste in the UK

According to the most recent report by the charity Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the UK produced around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in 2018. It is estimated that 70% of this total was intended to be consumed by people, with 30% classified as “inedible parts”. Broken down by sector, this waste was comprised of:

  • 6.6 million tonnes (70%) from households.
  • 1.5 million tonnes (16%) from manufacturers.
  • 1.1 million tonnes (12%) from hospitality and food service (HaFS).
  • 0.3 million tonnes (3%) from the retail industry.

WRAP estimated that this waste had a value of over £19 billion a year and would be associated with more than 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. It has said that of this waste, 6.4 million tonnes could have been eaten—the equivalent of over 15 billion meals.

The report then considered changes in food surplus and waste over time. WRAP said that there has been around a 15% reduction in total food waste between 2007 and 2018, with 11.2 million tonnes of food waste reported in 2007 compared to 9.5 million tonnes in 2018. It stated that this total included a reduction of household waste of 18%, with 8 million tonnes reported in 2007 compared to 6.6 million tonnes in 2018.

WRAP concluded in its report that the UK is currently on a trajectory to meet the UN’s SDG 12.3, assuming that the current rates of progress are maintained.

Impact of Covid-19 on household food waste

In February 2021, WRAP published the results of a series of surveys into UK adults’ attitudes to and behaviours around food waste during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Four surveys were undertaken in total (in April, May, September, and November 2020) and each had over 4,000 respondents.

Overall results from the surveys showed a decrease in reported levels of food waste. In November 2019, the self-reported level of the amount of food wasted was 24.1%; in November 2020 this had decreased to 18.7%. The lowest level of food waste, 13.7%, was reported in April 2020, during the first national lockdown.

In April 2020, 79% of respondents undertook new food management behaviours. These included:

  • 41% of respondents said they undertook more pre-shop planning than before, such as checking the fridge and cupboards.
  • 35% of respondents said they managed food better at home, such as checking use-by dates.
  • 30% of respondents started using up more leftovers.

The report said that respondents continued with these behaviours in the months following the first lockdown.

Initiatives to reduce food waste

UK Food Waste Reduction Roadmap

Launched in 2018, the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap is a joint initiative between WRAP and the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD). It consists of a series of milestones for retailers, food producers, manufacturers and hospitality and food service companies to meet in order to tackle food waste in the UK. According to a progress report published in 2020, 261 organisations have committed to the roadmap, including 16 retailers, 162 producers/manufacturers and 35 hospitality and food service businesses. WRAP estimates that these organisations are likely to generate around 1.2 million tonnes of waste in their operations each year.

In 2019, 45 businesses reported a total waste reduction of 17% (180,000 tonnes), equivalent to £300 million. By mid-2020, 171 organisations had provided evidence to WRAP that they were implementing the strategy of ‘Target, Measure, Act’. The Food and Drink Federation, which represents over 800 food and drink companies across the UK, has said that over 35 of its members have signed up to the roadmap and, of those, 34 have provided evidence that they have implemented ‘Target, Measure, Act’. The National Farmers’ Union welcomed progress against the roadmap, and said the farming sector had also taken steps to address food waste, such as improving agronomic and breeding techniques, investing in new harvesting and processing technologies and finding new markets for crops that do not meet supermarket specifications.


FareShare is the UK’s largest organisation that redistributes surplus food to charities and community groups, that then produce meals for vulnerable people. Its latest annual report for financial year 2019/20 outlined that the organisation supported 10,962 charities during the year, with 933,178 people accessing food provided by FareShare each week. The organisation managed 26,329 tonnes of food in 2019 to 2020, an increase of 26% from the previous year, which provided enough food to make the equivalent of 57 million meals, an increase of 23% from the previous year.

However, FareShare stated that their output represents only 1% of the 2.25 million tonnes of good-to-eat surplus food wasted in the UK each year.

Other campaigns

There are a number of initiatives and campaigns run by charities to tackle food waste across the UK, including:

What has the Government said?

The UK Government has said it is fully committed to achieving the UN’s SDG 12.3 to halve food waste by 2030.

Resources and waste strategy

In December 2018, the Government published its resources and waste strategy. The Government said that food waste was “morally wrong, environmentally damaging, and costs money”. It outlined steps that it would take to tackle food waste, including:

  • A £15 million pilot fund.
  • Consultations on annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses and on legal powers to introduce mandatory targets for food waste prevention.
  • A new food surplus and waste hierarchy.
  • Appointing a new Food Surplus and Waste Champion.
  • Supporting cross-sector collaboration through the Courtauld 2025 agreement.

Progress of the resources and waste strategy

In October 2018, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a pilot scheme would be set up to reduce food waste, supported by £15 million of funding. In May 2019, the first round of funding of £4 million was awarded to four organisations: FareShare, Company Shop Group, The Felix Project and Food Works Sheffield. The funding was to be used to help the organisations overcome barriers to redistributing surplus good-to-eat food. It was also announced that the next round of funding would focus on improving infrastructure for companies to redistribute surplus food.

In December 2018, the Government published statutory guidance for people or businesses that produce, carry, keep, dispose of, treat, import or have control of food and drink waste on how to deal with surplus and waste. The hierarchy consisted of nine options to tackle surplus and waste, starting with prevention and redistribution and only sending to landfill or sewer as a last resort.

In the same month, the Government appointed Ben Elliot, a British philanthropist, as its first Food Surplus and Waste Champion. It was announced that he would work with businesses and other stakeholders from across retail, food manufacture, hospitality and food services to motivate them to tackle food waste in their industries.

On 8 December 2020, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defra, Rebecca Pow, said that the launch of a consultation on introducing mandatory reporting by businesses had been postponed until 2021, due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food and drinks businesses.

Courtauld Commitment 2025

The Courtauld Commitment 2025, set up by WRAP and supported by the UK Government, is a voluntary agreement between organisations across the food system which aims to reduce per capita UK food waste by 20% by 2025. A progress report on the commitment, published in January 2021, outlined that a 7% reduction in waste per capita was achieved between 2015 and 2018. The report stated that the UK is currently on track to meet the Courtauld Commitment and that current initiatives “are working”.

Additional funding in response to Covid-19

During the coronavirus pandemic, Defra made £4.85 million available through the Resource Action Fund to set up the Covid-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant, which was administered by WRAP. The grant was used to assist surplus food redistributors in their activities during the pandemic.

In addition, in May 2020, the UK Government announced £16 million in funding for food charities. In response to a written question on charities, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Defra, Victoria Prentis, said that £1.8 million of this funding was used to support over 100 not-for-profit food redistribution organisations.

What have commentators said?

Feedback, a campaign group, has called for “scaling action up a level” by introducing regulations for businesses, rather than relying on current voluntary agreements.

It argued that whilst the UK has made “significantly greater progress than countries which lack both voluntary agreements and ambitious legislation”, there are some limitations to the Government’s current approach. It said relying on voluntary agreements can lead to:

  • Low participation rates.
  • Lack of transparency.
  • Slow pace of change.
  • Exclusion of waste at primary production.

Feedback stated that the UK has reached the limits of achievements through voluntary action. It called on the Government to intervene and introduce further incentives such as tax penalties, regulations and funding of primary production food waste measurements.

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Cover image by Gemma on Unsplash.