Carrot or stick?

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

Getting retailers to redistribute unwanted food, and consumers to waste less, is under the spotlight, but England is unlikely to force businesses and households to separate food waste for recycling and, while some are jealous of Scotland’s upcoming landfill ban, others believe more regulation would be wrong. David Burrows reports

Earlier this summer, Diane Abbott, the Labour MP and candidate for London Mayor, tabled an early day motion to Parliament. In it, she called on the Government to “introduce legislation to ban supermarkets from throwing away food approaching its best-before dates and instead make it available to charities and food banks”. So far, 102 other MPs have lined up to support her.

Food waste regulations are very much a la mode, and it’s thanks to a councillor in France.

Arash Derambarsh kick-started the plans to force French supermarkets over 400 sq m in size to pass edible food that would otherwise be wasted to redistribution charities.

Anything unfit for consumption should head to animal feed processors, composting sites or anaerobic digestion (AD) plants. “I have been insulted and attacked and accused of being naive and idealistic, but I became a local councillor because I wanted to help people,” he told The Guardian.

More widely, his proposal has proved extremely popular – not surprising given that it ticks both environmental and social boxes as food waste piles up and the reliance on food banks increases.

Using reported figures, around 355,000 tonnes of food waste could be diverted from landfill if the legislation is introduced as France targets a halving of food waste by 2025. But supermarkets account for just 5% of France’s food waste – how will it cut out the other three million or so tonnes?

Indeed, in all the fanfare surrounding the initiative on both sides of the Channel (the UK also has a similar petition that has attracted almost 183,000 signatures), there is an argument that the spotlight has fallen on the wrong part of the supply chain. “The seven major UK supermarkets throw away 1.3% of total food waste,” says British Retail Consortium environment policy advisor Alice Ellison, noting that this sum (200,000 tonnes) excludes any redistributed products.

Will legislation have any effect?

Ellison also contests whether introducing this retailer-focused legislation would have any impact at all.

“One of our members with stores in France says the law has been completely misinterpreted here. Our [UK] members don’t landfill food waste so if this [the French law and Abbott’s proposal] is about banning landfill then most UK retailers do that anyway.”

Though RWW understands that at least one of the major supermarkets does landfill some food waste, there is little doubt that most is now diverted from holes in the ground. However, only a tiny proportion of the surplus food generated by the industry is currently redistributed.

“Although retailers may be quick to point out that food waste in the retail sector accounts for just 2% of [the total], we must remember that this still amounts to 500 million meals,” says Harriet Parke at waste management consultancy Eunomia.

The importance of redistributing edible food is not in doubt and there is clearly work to be done at retail level. But the big question is whether this is a chance to go even further on food waste.

An amendment to Abbott’s motion highlights “the need for government urgently to develop and implement a cross-departmental strategy to reduce food waste and support food redistribution further up the supply chain too”.

Only three MPs – Jo Cox (Labour), Zac Goldsmith (Conservative) and Caroline Lucas (Green) – have supported this amendment so far. Given that 50% of all food waste occurs between the field and the store, many are hoping the focus on manufacturing will intensify when the issue is debated in Parliament. WRAP figures suggest that food manufacturers create 3.9 million tonnes of food waste, but at the moment it seems that it’s cheaper for them to send it to AD or for composting than to redistribute it. “We shouldn’t have to pay more to keep food as food,” says Mark Varney, director of food at food redistribution service FareShare.

Varney wants to see the Government introduce more incentives for those companies that prioritise redistribution over treatment (which arguably they should be doing under the EU’s waste hierarchy and national waste regulations). “It’s not reasonable to ask businesses to be charities so the Government has a responsibility to ensure the hierarchy makes sense,” he says.

Defra seems to be aware of the situation and is currently investigating how much of the food currently wasted in the grocery supply chain could be prevented, redistributed or used in animal feed. The department has commissioned WRAP, together with the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), to “gather more granular estimates of surplus and waste” in the food supply chain. The results are expected by the end of the year. The Government is also keen to communicate its determination to unite businesses, trade associations and redistribution organisations to deliver actions that help the sector reduce food waste, including through increased redistribution.

Courtault Commitment

A few days after Abbott’s motion was tabled, the 10th birthday of the Courtauld Commitment was celebrated. The voluntary agreement to reduce food waste in the grocery sector has 53 signatories which, according to Defra, “represents over 90% of the grocery market by sales”. To date, 2.9 million tonnes of waste has been prevented. “[Courtauld] allows businesses to deliver tangible resource efficiency and associated economic benefits without the burden and cost of regulation,” says an FDF spokeswoman.

More recently, a sister agreement for the food service and hospitality sector emerged, with signatories saving £10 million in the first year.

Oliver Rosevear, energy and environment manager at Costa Coffee, insists that encouraging food businesses to regulate their own waste is “one of the most effective methods in ensuring long-term change”.

However, a total of £724 million could be saved across hospitality and food service businesses by reducing food waste, so £10 million appears small fry. Voluntary agreements certainly have their critics. Jenifer Baxter is head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. She says the agreements have “worked to an extent”, with some supermarkets having improved procurement and waste recycling and management processes. “However, the evidence shows that society is as wasteful as when they were created and, without greater awareness from consumers of the value of resources, it is unlikely this will change. Food is cheap and therefore disposable,” she adds.

Challenging task

Encouraging consumers to waste less is becoming a difficult sell. The British Retail Consortium’s Ellison says supermarkets are well aware of their responsibility to reduce food waste throughout the supply chain – from manufacturing and production to householders. A recent survey of 20,000 Asda shoppers found that 85% feel the retailer should be helping them to reduce waste.

Some retailers have been doing so, with smaller pack sizes, fewer multi-buy options for fresh produce, improved packaging and recipes using leftovers.

Many have also worked with WRAP on the acclaimed Love Food Hate Waste campaign.

WRAP’s goal is to halve food waste by 2025 (France has the same target). However, the organisation’s chief executive Liz Goodwin has admitted previously that the pace of progress is slowing, and it’s perhaps no surprise that this has coincided with swingeing cuts to her budget in recent years. It’s not easy to change the behaviour of a few million people on a shoestring – something that councils know only too well.

“Since local authorities stopped communications initiatives around recycling, as part of austerity measures, there is limited to no opportunity to engage with the public and achieve behavioural change,” says Philip Simpson, commercial director at food waste recycling and waste management service ReFood.

“There is also no policy [in England] that will provide the stick to make households and businesses separate food waste for recycling.”

The Abbott motion, if made law, would provide a stick for businesses – especially if it were extended to manufacturers as well as retailers. But should the proposal go further and cover householders too?

Simon Musther, head of commercial operations at Biogen, believes it has to. “Instead of tinkering with the small amounts produced by retail and other sectors, proper government legislation to enforce or encourage local authorities to provide food waste collection services is the only action that will provide a sizeable change,” he says.

Doing it the Scottish way

Scotland is taking this approach and, according to Simpson at ReFood, it is “the most workable”. Many in the AD sector would (unsurprisingly) agree with him. “Running an efficient AD facility requires a predictable stream of food waste and, under current regulations, this can be difficult to achieve, with many AD plants across the country failing due to poor-quality inputs,” says John Casey, MD for the energy division at Biffa.

Casey notes the positive impact that Scotland’s new regulations to separate food waste at business level have already had: a 13% increase in employment in its AD sector and a 9% increase in available feedstock tonnage. Next year this will be extended to households too as the country moves towards a landfill ban in 2021.

A step too far?

The idea of a ban on landfilling food waste has received plenty of support, but there is a realisation in the waste sector that it isn’t going to happen in England.

“In an ideal world I’d like to see a ban on sending food waste to landfill, but I know that this is probably a step too far for government,” says Neil Grundon, deputy chairman at Grundon Waste Management.

Some still argue that with Landfill Tax there is no need for further regulation. “Landfill bans are symbolic rather than practical,” says Dan Cooke, director of external affairs at Viridor. “The Landfill Tax is working exactly as it was intended to. I’d always have to question the knee-jerk reaction that we need more regulation.”

The chances of anything happening soon are slim. The news from France and Abbott’s subsequent motion here may have thrown the spotlight on food waste regulation, but this is a government with a laissez-faire attitude to the topic. Indeed, the only time the Conservatives mentioned waste in the run-up to this year’s general election was to criticise Labour for proposing a landfill ban on food waste that they claimed would cost £475 million.

“While it’s encouraging to see steps being taken in France to tackle food waste at retail level, we must consider what measures are more appropriate and will have the most impact on reducing food waste in the UK,” says Eunomia’s Parke. “Tackling food waste must be a priority, and is something the Government urgently needs to get to grips with. We need to approach food waste by looking to the top of the food waste hierarchy and to consider the entire supply chain.”

Do we need to regulate to reduce, redistribute and recycle?

“To kickstart this process and begin to change the public’s mind-set on food waste, local authorities should be encouraged to segregate food waste and support these efforts through public engagement campaigns so that people understand why it’s an important issue.” John Casey, MD, energy division, Biffa

“We believe a voluntary approach works because it allows businesses to deliver tangible resource efficiency and associated economic benefits without the burden and cost of regulation.” Food and Drink Federation spokeswoman

“The industry has to do more to regulate itself and we’d support the introduction of a programme to reduce food waste, combined with a best-practice education campaign in order to help reduce elements such as poor purchasing and stock control.” Neil Grundon, Grundon Waste Management

“Food waste collections are vital to improve recycling rates and realise the maximum value of this resource through anaerobic digestion. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all making positive progress on this front, but England is lagging far behind with only about half of local authorities offering any form of collection.” Matt Hindle, Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association

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