Sadly, it is not an exaggeration to say that food waste is one of the biggest humanitarian problems we face in modern society.
Not only is it an ethical, social and economic issue, but it also depletes the natural environment of finite resources. We should all be trying to do our best to reduce food waste.
According to the UN, one third of the world’s food is thrown away. But how much food is wasted in the UK?
This guide will outline some of the alarming statistics surrounding what happens to our food waste, how it has changed over time and what is being done about it to tackle the problems we face.
How much food is thrown away in the UK?
- UK households throw away the equivalent of eight meals a week on average. (Independent)
- The UK throws away around 9.5 million tonnes of food waste in a single year – even though 8.4 million people in the UK are defined as being in food poverty. (Business Waste)
- 4.5 million tonnes of the food thrown away by UK households is considered edible. This is enough to fill 38 million wheelie bins, or 90 Royal Albert Halls. (Love Food Hate Waste)
- In the UK, we throw away around 20% of all the food we buy. (Love Food Hate Waste)
- Over 40% of the 10 million tonnes is considered as ‘unavoidable’ food waste. (Waste2)
How much food waste does the UK produce compared to other countries?
- The UK ranks 16th in the world, after Canada and South Korea. It produces 74.7 kilograms of per capita food waste per year. Australia produces the most food waste, generating 361 kilograms of food waste per person per year. The United States, Turkey, Spain and Japan make up the top five. (City of Westminster)
- The UK produces the largest total amount of food waste in Europe, almost twice the amount of Sweden and Spain and third higher than Germany, the second largest producer of food waste in Europe. (Biffa).
- The UK ranks 8th in the G20 for the Food Sustainability Index (FSI). (Economist Impact)
What types of food are thrown away the most in the UK?
- Potatoes are the most commonly wasted food item in the UK, with 1.6 billion thrown away every year. (The Coexperts)
- The most thrown away food group in the UK is fresh vegetables & salad, which makes up 28% of total edible food waste. (The Coexperts)
- In the UK, 38.7% of all lettuce ends up in the bin, along with 25.5% of every melon. The average UK family chucks a staggering 12 weeks’ worth of groceries every year. (Forge Recycling)
- 100 million pints of milk are poured down UK drains every year. (Friends of the Earth)
Where does this UK food waste come from?
- 70% of food waste comes from households, 16% manufacturing, 12% hospitality and food services (HaFS) and 3% retail. (WRAP)
- 20% – 40% of food headed for the supermarket shelves is thrown away as it does not meet cosmetic standards. (Insinkerator)
- 240,000 tonnes of food is wasted by UK supermarkets every year. (Friends of the Earth)
- Fruit and vegetable farmers in the UK waste up to 37,000 tonnes of produce every year – around 16% of their total yield. (Feedback Global)
- As of 2020, there are around 10,000 food and drink manufacturing sites that collectively produce 3.2m tonnes of wasted food. (Vision 2020)
- £376m worth of food is wasted by takeaway outlets every year across the UK. (Circular)
Why does the UK produce so much food waste?
- The most popular reason given by consumers in the UK for food being thrown away is exceeding the use by date (1.9 million tonnes). The value of this food waste equates to £5.7 billion. (WRAP)
- 1.8 millions tonnes of food is thrown away in the UK due to other reasons, such as fussy eating, accidents and personal preference. (WRAP)
- 65% of UK adults admit to buying too much food that ends up being thrown away, with London and Newcastle reporting the highest rates of food waste in the country. (The Felix Project)
- WRAP estimates that 1 in every 5 shopping bags is fully wasted. (The Felix Project)
- Just over half (54%) of the UK public reported avoiding or minimising throwing away food in March 2020. Just over a quarter (26%) reported doing so to limit the effects of climate change, while two-thirds (66%) reported doing this for other reasons, such as lifestyle choice, cost, convenience, health or ethical reasons. (UK Government)
Where does the UK food waste go?
- 34% of the UK’s total food waste – 3.2 million tonnes – is either dumped in a landfill or a sewer. (The Coexperts)
What are the environmental impacts of food waste in the UK?
- The greenhouse gas emissions associated with UK food waste is about 25 million tonnes CO2e – which is equivalent to c.5% of UK territorial emissions and the same as 10 million cars (or 1 in 3 cars on UK roads). (WRAP)
- A significant amount of water is used to make food. It takes 100 buckets of water to produce a loaf of bread, 54 buckets to produce just one chicken breast and six buckets to produce a potato. So when you throw this food away, the water is wasted alongside the items of food themselves. (Insinkerator)
What are the socio-economic impacts of food waste in the UK?
- The average family of four can save just over £60 per month by reducing their food waste. (Love Food Hate Waste)
- 2 million tonnes of edible food waste would make the equivalent of 1.3 billion meals – enough to feed everyone in food poverty for half the year (more than 180 meals each). (Fareshare)
- The consumable food we wasted in 2018 cost the UK a total of £19 billion. That’s £1.3 billion less than the UK wasted in 2015, but still adds up to £284 for every single person in the country. (The Coexperts)
- Households alone got rid of edible food worth £13.8 billion. If you split that between all of the UK’s 27.8 million households, each home could save, on average, £496 per year on their shopping bills. (The Coexperts)
- Local authorities spend over £50 million per year to dispose of food waste. (Insinkerator)
- The annual cost of disposing of the UK’s food waste is £23 billion. This cost is expected to rise due to rising cost of transportation and disposal fees. (Food Aware)
What are the UK targets for reducing food waste?
- As part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, the UK Government has committed to halving the UK’s per capita food waste by 2030. (UK parliament)
How have UK food waste trends changed over time?
- After the British advertising campaign ‘Love Food, Hate Waste‘ was launched in 2007, the UK saw a 21% decrease in food waste over the next five years. (Cheaper Waste)
- Total food waste in the UK fell by the equivalent of 7% per person between 2017 and 2020. (The Guardian)
- The total volume of UK food waste stood at 9.5 million tonnes in 2018, down from 10 million tonnes in 2015 and 11.2 million tonnes in 2007. (The Guardian)
- Between 2015 and 2019, the number of UK residents who see food waste as an issue has risen from 26% to 69%. (WRAP)
- Overall food waste produced by the UK fell by around 15% between 2007 and 2018. (ONS)
What is the UK doing to try and reduce its food waste and the impacts?
- In the UK, the energy we get from recycling 1.3 million tonnes of food waste creates enough electricity to power 200,000 homes each year, and is worth more than £220m to the UK economy. (Which)
- Tesco, Waitrose, Unilever, and Marks & Spencer are among the many companies that have pledged to cut their food waste by 50% by 2030. (Independent)
- The UK Government has financially committed to funding weekly food waste collections for all households in England from 2023. (Bioenergy Insight)
- In January 2021, Tesco launched a new scheme whereby surplus food that has not been donated or given to colleagues is made into pet food. This has saved 135 tonnes of food from becoming waste. They have increased the food turned into animal feed by 45%. (Tesco)