Should Local Authorities be helping to wage war on food waste?


Public pressure to cut food waste is mounting, and this has driven major businesses into action. From supermarkets to sandwich chains, big brands are vowing to reduce the volume of fresh produce that gets thrown out every day.

But should this responsibility rest solely with retailers and manufacturers – or can Local Authorities help communities to win the war on food waste? Let’s look more closely at how councils can help their residents to improve disposal methods, as part of an effective regional recycling strategy.

Attitudes to food waste are changing

For some years now, a grass-roots movement to reduce the volume of rubbish that households are generating has been gathering momentum. As part of this, food waste has been placed in the spotlight.

Over 10 million tonnes of unwanted food and drink is thrown out each year in the UK, and DEFRA experts say that 70% of this waste could be avoided. The impact of this excess refuse on the environment is significant, with food waste generating more than 22 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Major supermarkets have listened to both public and central government concerns, and pledged to halve their volume of discarded food by 2030. They are experimenting with various techniques to achieve this reduction, for example:

  • Lidl has a policy not to include ‘best before’ dates on fruit and veg
  • Sainsbury’s has changed its labelling to advise that many products can be frozen up until their sell-by date, rather than on the day of purchase
  • Waitrose has said it will donate unpurchased fit-to-eat items to those in need, accompanying its plans to cut down on excess plastic packaging
  • Morrisons has pioneered both ‘wonky’ veg and bargain ‘soon to expire’ veg promotions, to ensure more fresh produce is bought and used

But commercial campaigns only solve half the problem. Almost 7 billion tonnes of the UK’s annual waste produce comes direct from households, with DEFRA noting that 13% of all food and drink purchases are discarded – costing the average family more than £500 each year.

Fighting food waste on the home front

While it’s up to individuals whether they eat something or throw it away, more support can be provided by Local Authorities to improve the way rejected produce is disposed of and repurposed. Less than half (44%) of UK households currently have access to food waste recycling services, so there is a massive opportunity for councils to make such initiatives more widespread.

In order to make food recycling successful, however, there are certain things that waste management teams need to consider. Firstly, education will be required around what type of produce can be put into recycling bins, with councils potentially offering different receptacles depending on the end purpose.

For example, fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells can all be turned into compost and used in the home. Raw and cooked meat and fish, dairy products, rice, pasta and baked goods cannot, but these can still be collected by Local Authorities and recycled using a process known as anaerobic digestion.

Helping households distinguish between the two methods not only encourages more people to repurpose unwanted food; it channels a percentage of it back into the home via compost, reducing the volume of waste that needs to be collected during recycling rounds.

At the same time, better food waste education cuts down on examples of contamination, which improves processing at the recycling plant and ensures as much rejected food as possible is converted into something useful – such as eco-friendly electricity.

A successfully marketed scheme can significantly impact how households dispose of rubbish. For example, when Wokingham council introduced separate food waste recycling, over 66 tonnes of unwanted produce was collected in the first week alone. Considering that 30% of refuse thrown out in the borough prior to the scheme’s introduction was food, strong uptake markedly reduced the amount of rubbish being put out on general collection days.

Introducing food waste collections without increasing budgets

There are currently no legal requirements for councils to offer separate food waste collections, but waste management teams are realising the positive impact that adding this service can have on both their relationships with community, and the environment.

Many Local Authorities want to add food waste to their list of recycling collections, but feel they cannot afford to launch and manage schemes cost-effectively within their current budget.

This is where waste management technology can make a huge difference to the resources available, as it enables refuse collection teams to make more productive decisions about how rubbish and recycling is handled in their neighbourhood.

For instance, using a municipal waste management system empowers council teams to make smarter round planning decisions – basing routes on actual availability of staff and vehicles, and in-the-field reports on the volume of rubbish put out for collection. All commands are digitised, cutting down on paperwork and admin time, and the data generated during every round can be collated and analysed to enhance waste management services.

These iterative improvements will enable Local Authorities to run all types of refuse collection services – from general household rubbish to bulky waste and recycling – more effectively, freeing up budget to introduce new services such as food waste collection.

Working together to clamp down on food waste

By looking more widely at the way waste management services are run, regional councils have the opportunity to improve the way members of their locality dispose of unwanted items – giving many households the recyclable food waste collections they so keenly want.

This, hand in hand with the pledges that major supermarkets have made, will help to tackle the UK’s food waste problem, ensuring we are being more responsible for what happens to produce that’s no longer fit for consumption.

Whitespace Municipal is a market-leading waste management platform, already helping hundreds of Local Authorities to innovate their approach to waste management. 

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