Monthly Archives: June 2016

Tackling the food waste problem


Defensive cooking is a term I learned when deep ocean sailing and working on Antarctic research stations. When there is no shop just down the road, every item of fresh food is precious and one’s diet is often dominated by food that is just about to go mouldy.  This experience has made me much more sensitive to wasting good food but, sadly, I am still guilty of letting the odd tomato slip into a fuzzy state. While I’m less fussy than some other people about actually eating a mouldy tomato some of them do head for the bin.

The UK throws away at least 10 million tonnes of food every year, 60% of which is avoidable. This wasted food has a retail value of £17 billion representing about £265 of wasted money for every person in the UK.  For an average family of four people this would mean it’s like throwing away about £1,500 of their annual earnings, roughly enough to pay for a short holiday. Remarkably, most people when asked deny that they do this.

Apart from the direct impact this has on people, according to the Waste Resources Action Programme, the UK’s avoidable food waste gives rise to at least 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide which is equivalents to about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced from domestic fuel used for cooking and heating. To make matters even worse some of the waste food ends up in landfill sites where it often ends up as methane. If this escapes to the atmosphere, as much of it does, then it is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This should indicate that cutting food waste will save more than just the pennies in our pockets.

But there are ways of fixing this problem. I recently visited Swadlincote, in the heart of the midlands. Swadlincote has committed to slashing the food waste produced by its residents and businesses by 50% by the end of the year. The programme is run in association with Sainsbury’s Waste Less, Save More campaign. Almost 200 local councils applied for a £1 million investment from Sainsbury’s to trial a number of initiatives and technologies.

The Swadlincote project is currently in its early stages: an initial analysis of the contents of the bins of 800 people was conducted in January of this year. The past few months have been devoted to rolling out the various initiatives and creating awareness including smart fridges and ensuring that people measure how much they are chucking away. Participants are also being advised about zero-waste meal plans.

The Winnow scales used to weigh and record details about their waste are connected the home owner’s mobile phone and the fridge sends a picture of its contents to the phone whenever it is opened. The scale keeps a continuous log of the weight of food being wasted and an estimate of its cost and the pictures mean that when shoppers are in the store thinking about what to buy they can see what is in their fridge helping to stop them from over-buying perishable items. Participants are given a simple system for checking the temperature of their fridge and there is a healthy competition among the Winnow-users to save the most money.

Winnow scale

Six families have been chosen to trial the smart technologies and I visited a family to see this for myself. They had two children under five and were selected by the Waste Less, Save More team to trial the zero-waste meal plans, a smart fridge and the Winnow scale. They said that these changes have helped them to adjust their shopping and cooking habits to be less wasteful and the smart fridge has helped their salad items last for longer. They estimate that they have saved £10 per week on their food bill as a result and one of them has even shifted to vegetarian food.

This project is as much about education as it is about high tech solutions.  Sainsbury’s are providing primary schools with educational materials that ensure children understand food waste and how to prevent it, and these messages can be taken back to their homes to allow “pester power” to work its magic.

Gillian Coates, the Waste and Recycling Manager for South Derbyshire district council, runs the “Food Saver Champions” which is a network of volunteers on hand to provide recipes and advice. Swadlincote is also rolling out a refitted vintage van for their champions to use. It will be brought to special events within the town to act as a rallying point, serve low-waste food, and help to distribute the programme’s messages.

Waste less Save more 01

The impact of Swadlincote’s initiatives and efforts will not be seen until early 2017 when the second analysis of the town’s waste is conducted. Any true success, however, must be measured by a lasting impact and sustained behavioural changes. Sainsbury’s has recruited other local authorities in to their campaign mainly because they see how much sense it makes. Just disposing of all that food waste is a real headache for local authorities.

I hope that any successes made by Swadlincote and the Waste Less, Save More campaign will be carried forward into the future by their participants, rather than forgotten just as quickly as the defensive cooking practices of the disembarked crews of scientific research vessels.