Urban Futures Salford Manchester. Research in the City

Working On Waste in Greater Manchester

The amount of food we waste in Europe and North America is the equivalent to all the food Africa produces each year. That was just one of the stark messages to come out of a Working on Waste debate in Manchester this week.

Another is that the food waste we create is, in greenhouse gas terms, equal to that produced from all cars.

Domestic food waste – 50% of wasted food in the UK comes from the home – costs the average household £470 a year, rising to £700 for families with children, a total of £12bn a year.

Households throw away seven million tonnes of food and drink each year, much of it perfectly edible.

Households throw away seven million tonnes of food and drink each year, much of it perfectly edible.

In Greater Manchester, like the rest of the UK, food waste has reduced since 2007 by 21% but each week the average household in the region still throws away the equivalent of six meals. That’s 420,000 tonnes of useable food ending up in our bins each year.

And the cost is not just financial. The environmental impact of wasted resources - water, land and human endeavour – is a heavy one too.

These are sobering statistics and it’s clear that action is required, but what kind of action and by whom?

A Working on Waste event, organised by research and training charity IGD, has gone some way to addressing the issue this week.

The city centre event was the second of three debates being held in three UK cities, Leeds and Slough being the others, on consecutive days.

Each day-long ‘Question Time-style’ debate was held at the HQ of a major retailer or manufacturer and featured a panel of guest speakers, all experts in their field.

In Manchester those experts included voices from the packaging industry, charity, retail and behaviour change.

The themes explored were:

  • Technical solutions versus behaviour change – where should companies focus their efforts?
  • The role of information versus education – where should support from companies be directed?
  • Should reducing household waste be seen as competitive or collaborative for companies?

The regional roadshow was highly successful in 2014 and the aim this year was again to gain greater insight and understanding into the whole arena of household food waste.


Unlocking new thinking

The Working on Waste campaign wants to continually unlock new thinking on how the food industry can help reduce that huge amount of waste.

The discussion focused initially on technical innovations and solutions that industry can implement to improve the shelf life of produce.

When it comes to intelligent packaging - packaging which senses and informs - split portion packs and zip lock bags are only the start.

The best inventive minds are working on features such as colour change panels activated by the chemicals produce gives off as it ages, packaging which automatically regulates oxygen ingress and carbon dioxide egress for pre-cut fruit and vegetables, self-heating and self-chilling packaging and thermochromic labelling. The problem, however, appears to be a lack of consumer information about such packaging.

Who could blame a shopper for believing that buying loose produce and transporting it home in brown paper bags is preferable to plastic wrappings? But this belief, according to the experts, is misguided.

Packaging can prolong the life of the foodstuff and, as long as the wrapping is recycled correctly, this will result in less food waste. And there’s the equation – the food waste result of rapidly perishing products compared to the environmental (and consumer) cost of enhanced intelligent packaging. The message that packaging is not always bad must be passed on to consumers, the debate heard.

Technology only goes so far. Food waste is generally an unintended consequence of well-intentioned behaviours.

But technology only goes so far. Food waste, it was suggested, is generally an unintended consequence of well-intentioned behaviours.

People have been urged for years to buy enough fruit and vegetables to ensure that they and their family members get their ‘five a day’.

As a government message it has successfully sunk into the nation’s psyche, but one of the results is, especially if families are doing a once-a-week shop, that much of the fresh produce is deemed inedible after a few days.

A brown banana here, some overly soft strawberries there, it all adds to the mountain of edible food that’s going into the bin.

The biggest sources of household food waste are bread, potatoes, milk and fizzy drinks. These items account for nearly a third (28%) of wasted food. Overcooking and failing to batch freeze is also cited.

The question was asked, will the growing change in buying habits away from the ‘big shop’ towards buying little and often, purchasing what we need for that day’s evening meal on the way home from work, help reduce waste?


Focus on retail

A major focus at the debate in Manchester was directed towards the food retailers. There seems to be an expectation that if retailers are going to make large profits from the consumer they need to stop over-selling and persuade us, the shoppers, that we don’t need to fill our trollies with items we’re likely to throw away. But is this counterintuitive to the big store bosses?

Of course, the question of supermarkets throwing away perfectly edible food at the end of the day is a vexed one. Many are now donating produce to foodbanks but the practice of marking down items before closing time was questioned by audience members. Are the stores over-forecasting? Why are so many items remaining unsold each day?

Better technical solutions at the point of sale was a recurring theme with the suggestion from the panel that supermarkets should stock their storage items in the food aisles instead of the household goods section. Parents are stressed, tired and busy and it is up to the retailers to make it easier for them to make the right decisions.

There is, it emerged, a need for a clearer, more coherent message regarding food waste. Consumers remain confused by labelling and use-by dates.

They want to know how long food really lasts but are unsure of how best to store items. They also devour cookery programmes and books by celebrity chefs, but tend to cook the same half a dozen meals each week. Will recipes urging people to use up leftovers have much of an impact?

Do we understand where it comes from and how much energy is expended to get food from the field to our forks?

As a wealthy country, do we value food, it was asked? Do we understand where it comes from and how much energy is expended to get food from the field to our forks?

Do we care enough? In 1965 £1 in every £4 of family income was spent on food, today that figure is £1 in every £10. The suggestion there is that all but the poorest in society can pretty well afford to throw away food but the environmental cost is largely misunderstood.

Whose responsibility is it to reduce food waste as a whole? Is it industry, schools or down to the government? And if the onus on changing behaviours lies with the government do we need information campaigns, a taskforce, incentivisation or even legislation?

The debate also considered whether there are actually any downsides to reducing household food waste. Would the ‘love your leftovers’ message result in increased obesity levels as people are urged to clear their plates?

How about the impact of the supermarkets’ profits if consumers reduced the amount they buy? Could this affect jobs in the future?

Despite this, one message that came across loud and clear from the floor:  we are collectively responsible for the stewardship of the earth’s resources for the future. And that is a responsibility that must not be shirked.

Visit the Working on Waste website here


Flickr image from Slice of Chic.

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