Food Wastage: What’s going in our bins and down our drains?

You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that over 10 million tonnes of food and drink is still wasted in the post-farm gate food chain each year in the UK. This has a value of over £20 billion every year and is associated with around 22 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG). Of these 10 million tonnes, 60% could be avoided, and only 1.8 million tonnes is currently recycled.

At First Mile, we began our food waste service in 2011. We now recycle over 2 million kgs of food waste every year, which in turn is converted into renewable energy and nutrient-rich fertiliser.

The Government’s latest waste strategy reinforces the need to find landfill alternatives, and to do so quickly, with its new challenging target of “working towards eliminating food waste to landfill by 2030” – only a decade away.

To highlight the stark reality of the amount and types of food wasted in the UK, we launched a nationwide survey and carried out desk research using a variety of consumer and tradesources. The results of our habits are quite astounding.

Food shop waste

Sources suggest that the average British household spends £4,753 over the course of a yearon food shopping. Our research also found that most carry out one main food shop each week, usually taking place in a major supermarket, which equates to a weekly spend of £91.40.

With tempting marketing techniques in-store and short shelf-life dates on products, it’s no surprise that 64% of Brits have some element of weekly food wastage. On average, Brits waste 8% of their weekly food shop, costing around £7.54 each time. Geographically, the largest group of food wasters can be found in Manchester, followed by those living in Belfast and then London.

When it comes to the most commonly wasted items, we found that bread and other baked goods were the most likely to be tossed into the trash (34%), closely followed by fruit and veg (26%) and salad (25%).

Dairy items such as milk (19%), yoghurt (11%) and cheese (10%) are also regularly thrown away, most probably due to their low life spans, with 60% of the population adhering to best-before dates in one way or another.

On a positive note, 36% of Brits claim that they have never wasted any food from their big food shop - suggesting that they don’t like to throw away any items that could instead be eaten.

Delayed decomposition

So, what happens to all this food we throw out each week? Un-recycled items that are removed by refuse collectors are driven to landfill sites, where they are tipped onto huge mountains of rubbish and left to rot. Different types of food take varying times to decompose.

We tested the public’s knowledge on this and found that many were drastically underestimating the time food items take to decompose.

Most respondents (73%) estimated that fruit waste, such as apple cores and banana peel,would take a week to decompose. However, in reality, they take around one month to disintegrate. Orange peel lasts up to six months, but almost two thirds (64%) estimated that it would breakdown within one month or less. When it came to guess the decomposition duration of a head of lettuce, all the participants were shocked to find that they can last for as long as 25 years!

As for those food packaging items that accidentally get thrown into the bin, the decomposition times are dramatically longer. A tin can, used to house soup or baked beans, takes around 50 years to degrade in a landfill site, where as an aluminium alternative can last for up to 200 years.

Plastic bags are being phased out of supermarkets and stores for a very good reason – on average they can take anywhere between 500-1000 years to disappear. As one of the longest-lasting man-made materials, it is estimated that a single glass bottle can take up to 1 million years to decompose in the environment! Think about that the next time you thoughtlessly toss your pasta sauce jar into the regular bin.

Poor portion control

In total, 7.1 million tonnes of household food waste are produced every year. Of this amount, 70% - or 5 million tonnes - is food that could have been eaten, costing households £15 billion every year.

According to our research, when eating home-cooked meals and snacks, our research found that people leave approximately 6% of the food they cook on their plate. Pasta, rice and vegetables are the most common leftovers, mainly due to us underestimating the volumes of what we are making. Surprisingly, we found that this figure doubles to 12% when people are eating pre-prepared meals, suggesting that we can better judge manageable portion sizes when we are preparing our own recipes from scratch.

1.9 million tonnes of food are wasted by the food industry every year in the UK. Out of this huge total, 250,000 tonnes of this food is still edible - that’s enough to create around 650 million meals!

According to our research, when dining out or eating takeaways, an average consumer leavesapproximately 8% of the food they order on their plate, with 53% of them feeling that portionsizes served in these situations are too large. In contrast, 13% of diners feel that they are not getting a large enough plate-full at restaurants or from their chosen Deliveroo order.

Perhaps these people should pop over to their neighbour’s houses once finished to help outwith their leftovers!

Careless with cooking oil

We all need some form of oil to cook with. Whether we choose to use olive oil, sunflower oil or coconut oil, each home will pour 23ml of cooking fat down the sink every week – totalling 1.18 litres each year. When you look at this across 15 million national households, we are estimated to be pouring an astonishing 17.67 million litres of cooking fats down the drain every single year!

Those in the North East are renowned for wrongfully disposing of the most oil (62%), with those in the South East close behind (60%). With many local recycling centres offeringdisposal options for cooking fats and oils, there is no excuse to be pouring oil down the sink, which can have serious detrimental effects to local sewer pipes and drains.

Workplace wastage

During our research, we consulted with a range of office managers to discover how they manage food wastage in various situations in the workplace.

We found that, when it came to deciding on appropriate quantities when ordering food-related items for their workplace, most office managers opted to use a “per head” method. Decreasing quantities when there are less or more people in the office, such as holidays, having a system in place where there must be minimum quantity of items in stock before needing to replenish, and choosing items with long before-before and use-by-dates for office refreshments are other ways to ensure this is as accurate as possible and wastage is minimised as much as possible.

However, no matter how well planned, all businesses produce small amounts of food waste,like tea bags and fruit peelings. Fresh fruit (if badly bruised and deemed inedible), uneaten sandwiches and salads for meetings, and milk were found to be other common offenders for when there is an element of waste.

One of the respondents commented on how they manage the milk in their office:

“If milk isn't stacked properly in the fridge when we have a delivery i.e. newest to the back, then there's a risk that older milk will be left and go off. Also, we manage quantities delivered at quieter times, such as Christmas, and contact the supplier to lower the amounts. We would also try and give milk away to staff to take home if we anticipated that milk wouldn't be used before the use by date.”

Creative recipes to reduce waste

Bridget Lawless, a long-time volunteer at community canteens in South London, suggested included making stock out of off-cuts of vegetables:

“Vegetable off-cuts (such as the stem-end of carrots, stalks of kale, cabbage, cauliflower, onion ends, and general trimmings) can be used to make great stock! Get all your off-cuts together (go easy on the parsnips though, as their flavour tend to take over) and simmer in 2 litres of water until reduced by a third. Strain and store in a bottle (or old milk container) for a few days or freeze for later use”.

We also spoke to Tim Bouget from ODE | true food, who gave us a step-by-step recipe for chickpea and vegetable broth in spicy turmeric and tomato sauce:

“One of my favourite hearty “vegan” recipes that we use at cafe ODE. At home, it can be made simple and most importantly adapted to use almost any spice or vegetables you might have left over. Are you always left with some tinned baked beans or tomatoes? If so, this recipe is for you! Tinned chickpeas can also be used and of course the juice (aquafaba) can create a delicious egg free mayonnaise - just spice it up with a little turmeric or curry powder”

What you can do

It is evident that as a nation we need to cut down our food wastage and improve our knowledge on how to dispose of food-related items in the correct way. Being savvy about portion sizes, ordering less in restaurants, creating strict shopping lists and composting relevant food scraps are all simple ideas that all of us as consumers can use to reduce our personal food wastage.

For businesses, taking care to only order appropriate quantities of food-related items, as well as organising regular collections for any subsequent food waste, is a good place to start. Not only could you save yourself some extra cash, but you would also be doing your bit to reduce the huge amounts of waste ending up in landfill sites each week.

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