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UK food waste strategies don’t measure up

Westminster’s plans aren’t good enough to even be included in a major global study, writes Nick Hughes.

How do approaches to tackling food waste in the UK compare with other countries? The answer is not very favourably, unless you live in Scotland. In fact, government plans to tackle food waste in England were not even considered worthy of inclusion in a major new study, such is their current inadequacy.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins centre for a liveable future in the US analysed 93 official plans addressing food waste developed by local, state and national governments around the world.

In order to qualify plans had to include actionable strategies for addressing food waste, meaning some documents didn’t make the cut. Among them was the UK government’s 2013 Waste Management Plan for England, developed under the coalition government, which identifies anaerobic digestion as the best technology available for treating food waste and pledges to help businesses, consumers and local authorities manage their food waste sustainably. The plan, however, conspicuously fails to set out detailed measures for how this will be achieved and instead emphasises the role of industry-led voluntary agreements such as those co-ordinated by WRAP (WRAP’s 2016 Food Waste Recycling Action Plan was excluded from the research since WRAP is no longer an official government body).

Scotland’s 2010 Zero Waste Plan, on the other hand, was included within the scope of the research since it introduced regulations to drive separate collection and treatment of food waste in the country. Scotland one, England nil.

So what did the researchers find and with what lessons for future government food waste strategies?

The vast majority of the plans come from North America and the US in particular, including plans from 32 US cities, 18 counties and 20 states. Others came from Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australia.

The researchers found that the topic of wasted food can be addressed in many types of government plans, but is most commonly tackled in solid waste management plans and least commonly in climate change plans.

While two-thirds of the plans place a strong emphasis on composting programmes, far fewer focus on strategies higher up the food waste hierarchy, most notably waste prevention, which the researchers note can have the greatest environmental, economic and social benefits.

They found that plans could also be strengthened by having clearer target-setting, monitoring and evaluation. Only 22 of the plans set numeric targets for minimising the amount of food that is wasted by a specific year; a further 48 plans set broader waste management and climate goals of varying levels of specificity and ambition.

The research identifies a number of barriers to progress, which include lack of funding, negative perception of composting programmes, data collection issues and difficulties co-ordinating waste management across jurisdictional borders. All of these will no doubt sound familiar to anyone involved in UK food waste policy.

Government officials interviewed as part of the research made a number of recommendations for how food waste efforts could be improved. These include clearly linking food waste targets with other existing goals to help move it up the priority list, setting evidence-based targets and gaining public support with pilot projects.

The researchers noted that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. “What works in Macon County, Illinois, may not work as well in Malaysia, but the people developing and implementing these plans face many of the same challenges and have a lot to learn from one another,” says Roni Neff from the centre for a liveable future, who oversaw the study.

The UK government would be well advised to take heed. The overall cost to the UK of food waste each year is £17bn, according to the House of Commons Library, with the cost to an average household estimated at £470 a year.

And although Neff is keen to stress that the UK generally has been a leader in tackling the problem of wasted food, continued inaction by the government specifically looks like an expensive mistake even before the negative environmental effects are accounted for.

With no coherent plan to tackle food waste, and industry left to do all the heavy lifting, the UK risks falling behind in the global food waste stakes.