A study published this month finds that the UK is the worst-performing European country in terms of food waste, while its leading waste-reduction charity, Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), saw its government funding cut 38 percent last year.
Published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the study examined data from six EU countries to analyze the water and nitrogen resources lost through consumer food waste. Nearly 80 percent of all food waste is "avoidable" according to the findings, and 16 percent of all food that reached its EU consumers was thrown away. In total, the EU countries under study wasted about 22 million tons of food annually and the UK was the worst offender: households there waste roughly 6kg of food each week (however, as a WRAP representative pointed out via email, the report is based on data from 2007, and since then, a 21 percent reduction has been made in avoidable household food waste in the UK).
Despite recent efforts to promote sales of “wonky veg” from grocers such as Asda, produce and cereals accounted for the bulk of the avoidable food waste, the study found — in part because they tend to have a shorter shelf life. But meat waste has a greater impact on nitrogen and water resources.
"In some ways it's good that this waste is 'avoidable,' because it means we're able to do something about it," said Davy Vanham of the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, who led the work. "A lot of food is still 'good' but is thrown away when it passes its sell-by date."
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Vanham continued, “Theoretically, zero avoidable food waste is a possibility for EU consumers. This would not only save a lot of money for the consumers themselves, but also for local authorities, which have to pay for food-waste collection and treatment. In addition, this would not only save a large volume of water and avoid losses of reactive nitrogen, but it would also preserve other natural resources such as phosphorus, land and energy.”
The study’s results came after UK waste charity WRAP announced in its annual report earlier this year that its income for 2014/15 was down to £40.7m from £66.3m the previous year, due primarily to “reductions in central government grant funding.” WRAP reports its government income was over 40 percent less than the amount indicated for 2014/15 after the 2010 Spending Review. Therefore, the organization focused on reporting value for money received rather than on its absolute impact.
The enterprising charity may still be viable despite funding cuts: WRAP reported that for every £1 of funding spent on priority programs, it leveraged £2 of external contributions. “Together, this investment in resource efficiency of £400 million resulted in benefits to society worth £2.3 billion, an almost five-fold return on total investment and a nearly 20-fold return on the initial funding,” reads the report.
In recent years, WRAP has published in-depth studies putting food waste in the UK and around the world in perspective. In 2013, it found UK households waste $11b worth of food each year, or seven percent of overall annual sales. More recently, a WRAP report concluded an increase on product life of just one day across a range of grocery items could prevent roughly 250,000 tons of food waste each year. And in March, in partnership with Iglo Group, Europe’s largest frozen food company, WRAP launched iFreeze, a campaign providing advice on how freezing can minimize food waste and save money.