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  1. Environment
14 August 2020

How the lockdown forced the UK to confront its food waste problem

If the climate crisis is to be addressed, British households must reduce the 6.6 million tons of food they waste each year.

By Natalie Covino

Every day, the nation eats, cleans up and scrapes food waste into the bin. A wave of guilt may pass over us as the lid snaps shut on the heap of scraps. Some of us might vow to reduce it, while others may be lucky enough to be provided with a food waste caddy by the council.

Yet the majority find themselves repeating the process every mealtime, scraping sludge into the bin once more. This is an issue precisely because few realise they are culprits of wasting food. Having been incorporated into our daily routine, it is difficult to isolate. 

Around 50 per cent of all food waste happens at home.

“Most people think, ‘Well, what difference does it make if I throw two brown bananas in the bin?’ Well actually, there are 28 million other households doing that same mental equation each week. And that’s just bananas,” says Tessa Clarke, co-founder of food-sharing app OLIO.

Those two brown bananas make a huge difference. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) notes that around 6.6 million tons of food is wasted by UK households each year, which is the equivalent of ten billion meals.

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One positive outcome of the pandemic has been the challenge to such behaviour. The new ordeal of shopping at a supermarket, coupled with the fear of stock shortages, saw households acknowledge food is not just a commodity – but a life-source.

OLIO has been used more in the past five weeks than in the past five years. The app connects people who have food they no longer want with neighbours, ensuring surplus food does not end up in landfill.

At the start of the pandemic, OLIO adapted to contact-free collection. Clarke attributes OLIO’s surge in membership to three factors: people valuing food more, becoming collectively more aware of social inequality and realising a sense of belonging to our local community.

“It really led people to have a bit of a nationwide Marie Kondo moment. They really went through their cupboards and their drawers and looked to give away what they didn’t need.”

Clarke argues that this process not only sparks community activism, but leads to a sense of self-fulfilment, which is a natural incentive to help. “You feel like your local Father Christmas,” she says.

Our food management behaviour is also undergoing change. On average, UK citizens adopted six food management behaviours more often during lockdown than before it, including planning our shops, freezing, batch cooking and using up what was in cupboards (Looking at you, cannellini beans).

Prior to lockdown, waste of four key products (bread, milk, potatoes and chicken) was at 34 per cent. By April, this more than halved to just 13.7 per cent. 

However, with the prospect of a return to “normality” comes the risk of this progress being reversed. 

“With regards to food waste, the last thing we need to be doing is going back to normal,” says Clarke.

“Normal” is a third of all food produced globally going to waste, and food waste producing over 20million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste as a category were considered as a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China.

As the UK’s lockdown eases, levels of food waste have begun to rise, according to WRAP’s most recent study. While they have not yet reached pre-lockdown levels, the recorded waste of the four key products has risen by 31 per cent.

Crucially, it was those returning to their normal lives (children going back to school, adults going back to work) who were more likely to report an increase in food waste. The effects of lockdown easing are in full force.

The main motivations behind our changing attitudes have been virus-related, such as wanting to avoid the supermarket, having more time on our hands and trying to save money.

“Whatever thing motivates you and makes you think about this, then that can only be a good thing in terms of reducing our food waste,” says Helen White, adviser for Household Food and Drink at WRAP.

While four in five people (81 per cent) during lockdown said they were concerned about the climate crisis, only two in five understood its connection to food waste, according to polling by WRAP. This suggests a disconnect, yet it also reveals an opportunity. With more education, there is the potential for that 81 per cent to realise how important reducing food waste is for our planet. 

In its March review, Project Drawdown listed reducing food waste as the number one solution (out of a possible hundred) in diminishing greenhouse gases.

The project, run by world-leading climate change scientists, examines solutions needed to reach “drawdown”, a point in the future at which the levels of greenhouse gases stop climbing and start to decline. Drawdown solutions are measured against two scenarios that are seemingly plausible, a world warmed by 1.5C or by 2C. Under the Paris Agreement, countries including the UK have committed to limiting the global temperature rise this century to 1.5C, and keeping to well below 2C. 

It’s estimated that the world will reach the former point as early as 2030-2052. This would result in a 41 per cent increase in areas burned in an average Mediterranean summer. The UK alone could suffer a 1,208 per cent increase in economic damages from river flooding when it reaches this temperature. 

Knowing that 50 per cent of food waste occurs at home, we have an important role to play – as do food retailers and manufacturers. Reducing food waste must be a collaborative effort. More than 100 UK food businesses have pledged to halve food waste by 2030 and have begun reducing waste at each stage of the food chain. This includes all major UK supermarkets. Now we must focus on our individual impact.

Max La Manna, zero-food waste chef, author and presenter, emphasises small changes that can truly make a difference at home. He encourages planning your food shop and “making friends with your freezer. This is an underrated technology that we have in our homes.”

Polling suggests that is exactly what 70 per cent of us intend to do after lockdown. La Manna believes we know little about where our food originates and its environmental impact, and changing this is crucial to learning to appreciate our food more.

We’ve reached a unique point in consumer behaviour. The pandemic has helped change our attitude to food, whether it be through food apps or individual management. Yet as lockdown relaxes, so does our attention to food waste. Let’s just hope our recent progress doesn’t end up in the bin.

Natalie Covino is a Danson scholar, interning at the New Statesman.

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