Cracking our war on waste. An Op-Ed by Amy Nguyen
Perusing the aisles in the run up to Easter, one can’t help but feel pensive when encountering the mountains of mini eggs and chocolate delights produced by confectionary corporations. Symbolising new life, the tradition of Easter eggs seems somewhat void of meaning due to the increased commercialisation and over marketing of this holiday with their encasing in PET plastic. With the mass food and packaging waste occurring in the UK, simultaneous to the rise in poverty and inequality, this article explores the contrasting trajectories of our abhorrent throw away culture next to the destitution facing many UK households and how initiatives like the Felix Project are pursuing the mission of rebalancing this disparity.
The commercialisation of holidays and festive periods has created spikes in the patterns of waste in our country. Large corporations with their purchase incentives in the guise of advent calendars and Easter eggs lure customers into buying items they don’t really need which are seismically smaller than they appear at first glance.
Last year, it was reported that of Britain’s top 10 best-selling Easter eggs, one third of their weight was packaging. Not only is this an unnecessary use of material resources but is essentially deceiving customers. Whilst the 2018 worst offender was Thornton’s Classic Large Egg with 152g/418g subsisting of packaging (36%) it was closely followed by the more luxurious Lindt Lindor Milk Chocolate Egg totaling 28.1%. The best of the bad bunch was Cadbury’s Twirl Large Easter Egg weighing in at 18.8%. As the UK produces over 11.5 million tonnes of packaging waste annually, most of which finds a home in landfills ready to be incinerated, this calls for our attention.
The contemporary landfill situation is under pressure and exacerbated by a pending Brexit which incurs the high probability that the country’s waste will be halted at the borders and subject to additional tariffs. This could see us having to dump 10,000 tonnes more rubbish per day into our own landfill sites. Such a figure is disconcerting considering that if the country continues disposing of rubbish at the same rate by 2025, London, the East of England, the South East and South West will have no remaining landfill capacity. One should also bear in mind this is regardless of whether discarded packaging is recycled or not.
Our dependency on landfills to accommodate our plastic waste is only one tangent of this. It is not only packaging that is squandered during annual holidays such as Easter but on a similar trajectory with many a family feast, party and dining occasions, food waste is also rife.
Britain’s remarkable food waste scandal sees over half of all our food waste takes place in the home, this includes 25 million slices of bread per day, 6 million potatoes and 1.4 million bananas. To contextualise, the UK has an average of 27 million households and that means just 1 slice of bread per day per household but if everyone does this the impact is monstrous. For the average family, this sees UK home food waste amount to approximately £700 per year. Whilst households are the main contributors to food finding its way into landfills, an additional £3 billion worth of edible food in the UK is wasted by the hospitality and food service sector. Readers may find it surprising and encouraging that total food waste at a retail store level stands at 2%. UK Supermarkets are actively contributing to combatting this. For example, in 2011 Sainsbury’s Zero Food Waste to Landfill policy has seen that instead of ending up in a landfill excess food is utilised to create energy via anaerobic digestion. They have also introduced customer initiatives such as “Love your left overs’. We have seen from many grocers including Lidl, Morrisons and Asda the introduction of the Wonky vegetable selection boxes for consumers less prejudice towards a disfigured courgette or broccoli. Most recently, Tesco in October announced it would remove ‘Best before’ dates from 116 lines of fruit and vegetables in order to prevent items being disposed of whilst still edible. This follows their investigation which found that 69% of shoppers believed scrapping ‘Best before’ dates was a good idea and over half of this sample believed that removing these dates made a tangible difference in keeping perfectly adequate food for longer.
On an environmental level the issue with all this food going to landfill is that it releases higher levels of methane, which is a far more radioactive greenhouse gas than say, CO2, thus excessively contributing to the warming of our planet! At a humanitarian level, there’s a degree of criminality in wasting all of this food when in Britain alone in 2017, 14 million people were recorded to live in poverty, including 4 million children amounting to a total of one fifth of the population.
This presents a clear dichotomy between the UK’s waste behaviour and the marked rise in food bank usage for low income households. Catalysed by the governments roll out of Universal Credit, the number of families resorting to food banks has been heightened exponentially. In 2018, the Trussel Trust data revealed that demand for food banks rose by 52% in areas where the Universal Credit benefit scheme had been rolled out. It also reported that in March of last year 1,332,952 three-day emergency food supplies were delivered to people in crisis across the UK – a substantial 13% increase on 2017. Of this record 1.3 million food parcels, 233,000 went to families with children.
Rectifying and rebalancing this epidemic are organisations such as the Felix Project bring hope and promise for many families across the UK. With a mission to lessen food waste and poverty, the organisation and charity founded in 2016, collects free of cost quality food from suppliers and delivers it to charities and schools who in turn can provide for the vulnerable.
This reallocation of food as a precious resource is saving supplies and changing lives through its door to door services and has seen the provision of nearly 3 million meals annually. Their substantial stakeholder network of over 200 charities, 200 suppliers and thousands of volunteers has created a much desired link between the food industry and the disadvantaged who need access to high quality food. Suppliers to the Felix Project include Daylesford, EAT, Gails, M & S, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Hello Freshwhich highlight how key market players are incrementally understanding the necessity of stamping out food waste.
In a similar fashion, it is worth mentioning, innovative disrupters in the technology space are embarking on combatting this dichotomy. For example, smart phone apps including Olio, Karma & Too Good To Go with their varying business models are penetrating a slightly younger audience to diffuse the importance of tackling unwanted food. Too Good To Go allows users to feast on the food of their 18,500 partner restaurants (Including Yo-Sushi and Planet Organic) in the form of a miscellaneous magic bag using location services. Olio, coined as the app for the food sharing revolution, connects shops, cafes, neighbours and communities to share food and care for the environment. With over 900,000 users, it has redistributed over 1,258,668 portions of food and has its own voluntary community of over 30,000! One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and if you’re going on holiday with a need to empty out your cupboards/fridge/freezer you can find a home for what would otherwise have been thrown away. Thirdly, a similar concept to Olio, Karma rescues unsold surplus food from retailers. It’s 500,000 users are able to purchase food at half price from partners including the likes of Deliciously Ella, Aubaine and Whittard’s. These entrepreneurial endeavours in addition to the Felix Project set precedent for how the collaboration between communities and the industry can crack the waste scandal.
The reorganisation of Britain’s food systems to safeguard the population that live in poverty is of fundamental importance.Through calling out on fast moving consumer goods corporations’ misleading packaging waste, we can tackle the tertiary issue of our material waste problems to mitigate the rising levels of rubbish in our landfills. The primary issue of food waste will call upon all stakeholders across our society to acknowledge and retain the value of the food produced and consumed. Not only will this lessen environmental impacts but also contribute to the nation achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #2 of accomplishing zero hunger.