Food Waste

Published Wednesday, September 2, 2015

This Commons Library Briefing Paper describes the scale and implications of food waste, and sets out industry and other responses to tackle it.

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How big is the problem of food waste in the UK?

It is estimated that the UK produces 15 million tonnes of food waste annually—UK households produce almost half of this.

Avoidable household food waste has reduced by 21% since 2007 but the average UK household still throws away the equivalent of six meals per week. It is estimated that wasted food could cost each household £250-£400 per year.

Other sectors contributing to the total amount of food waste include: farming/producers, manufacturing, hospitality, retail and schools. However, the complexity of the food chain means that sources of food waste can be difficult to identify and quantify accurately. The UK is leading the way in collecting robust food waste data but on-farm data needs to be improved and the Government has commissioned further research in this area.

Implications of food waste

Food waste has a range of social, economic and environmental implications.

Social implications

Food poverty, and a rise in food bank use, has brought the issue of food waste to Parliament’s attention. This reflects the growing public interest in how much food is wasted and redistributed to those who need it. For more information, see Library Briefing Paper on Food Banks and Food Poverty.

Environmental implications

Food waste has a damaging effect on the environment, primarily in the form of associated carbon emissions from transportation and methane emissions from landfill. Globally, approximately 70% of water is used for food production (direct and indirect use).

Economic implications

In 2007, WRAP estimated that food waste costs each household between £250 and £400 a year.

In the hospitality and catering sector, food waste costs arise from unsold meals and disposal costs. WRAP estimates that food waste costs this sector around £3.5 billion a year (equivalent to 1.3 billion meals).

The responsibility and costs for collection and disposal of food waste is borned by local authorities. Local authorities collect 4.6 million tonnes of food waste every year and they estimate disposal costs for this to be £115-£200 million per year.

Food waste policy

Current UK waste policy is mainly driven by the EU Waste Framework Directive. Food waste is being considered as part of the EU’s revised circular economy package, due by the end 2015. For more information on the circular economy, see Library Briefing Paper on Household Recycling in the UK.

Within the UK, food waste is a devolved issue. Defra has published a National Waste Management Plan for England which includes commitments relating to food waste. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have equivalent waste strategies, which have similar themes but diverve in terms of specific targets and approaches. 

For example, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, regulations require food waste to be collected separately for anaerobic digestion rather than landfill. In England most food waste is sent to landfill.

Voluntary approach

The Government has emphasised that the UK is recognised as "a world leader in food waste prevention through the work of WRAP" and favours voluntary approaches to reducing food waste. Initiatives are mainly championed by WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) which is part funded by the Government and Devolved Administrations.

Work includes the voluntary “Courtauld Commitment”, where stakeholders along the food chain sign up to successive food waste reduction and prevention targets. Phase 3 of the Courtauld Commitment runs until the end of 2015; Phase 4 (Courtauld 2025) is expected to start in 2016 and is currently being developed by WRAP.

Meanwhile, in France, a voluntary commitment on reducing food waste has recently been agreed with supermarkets (Aug 2015) and a legislative proposal obliging supermarkets to donate unsold food to charity is being considered.

Initiatives to tackle food waste

In addition to Government initiatives, there are also initiatives at sector level which are detailed in Section 4 of the Briefing Paper. Examples include:

  • Producers: gleaning unwanted crops after harvesting so food is not wasted;
  • Manufacturers: recovering and recycling food waste into animal feed or renewable energy;
  • Manufacturers / Retailers: surplus food redistribution;
  • Schools: cooking meals to order and improving the dining experience;
  • Hospitality: voluntary Hospitality and Food Service Agreement to cut food and packaging waste;
  • Consumers: LoveFoodHateWaste campaign raising awareness of the need to reduce food waste alongside information about practical actions which can be taken.

Parliamentary interest in food waste

Examples of recent actions in Parliament in relation to food waste include:

  • A joint proposal (July 2015) by 16 national parliaments to the European Commission (initiated by the House of Lords in the UK) invites the Commission to adopt a strategic approach to the reduction of food waste within the EU when tabling the new circular economy package.
  • Westminster Hall Food Waste debate (July 2015): that this House has considered tackling food waste.
  • The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s report, Food security: demand, consumption and waste (January 2015) called for Defra to appoint a Food Security Co-ordinator to spur a step change in the redistribution of surplus food to those in need.
  • The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty suggested in its Feeding Britain report (Dec 2014) that re-distributing and using surplus food would be the ‘next big breakthrough’ in eliminating hunger in the UK.
  • The House of Lords EU Committee report on EU food waste, Counting the Cost of Food Waste (April 2014) highlighted a need to maintain momentum on EU food waste reduction and obtain more accurate data.

Commons Briefing papers SN07045

Authors: Emma Downing; Sara Priestley

Topics: Agriculture and environment, Food, Waste management

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