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Waste not, want not

Source: Public Sector Executive Feb/Mar 2014

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), talks to PSE about how reducing and repurposing food discarded by shops and restaurants could cut emissions, combat poverty and improve residents' skills and community spirit.

Between 30 and 50% of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching a human stomach – that was the key message of the IMechE’s ‘Waste Not, Want Not’ report in 2013. Supermarket standards for perfect-looking produce, as well as consumer ignorance and a lack of distribution infrastructure all add up to good food being thrown away.

But awareness levels have never been higher, and some things are starting to change. PSE spoke to Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IMechE about the UK’s progress on food waste since that landmark report, published a year ago.

2013 was “the year of public awareness around food wastage”, Dr Fox said. A look back at that report highlighted progress both on an individual and national level. Anecdotally, the IMechE has seen raised interest in the media and the public, with people “recognising that there is an issue, understanding and really being able to connect with the issue of food waste”.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) estimates that 15 million tonnes of food is discarded in the UK each year.

Dr Fox called it a scandal that so many go hungry around the world and in the UK, despite the growing piles of wasted food, and highlighted the cost of energy, water and land in the production of food which goes on to be wasted.

The people’s kitchen

There are a number of ways to help empower people to do something about it – in their own kitchens and at a wider policy level. Dr Fox described ‘People’s Kitchen’ events, where local communities collect waste food from supermarkets and restaurants and turn them into healthy meals. This can help to feed the hungry or homeless, as well as raise awareness.

Increasingly people are ‘gleaning’ – harvesting produce on farms that has been rejected by supermarkets for failing to meet a perfect aesthetic – as well as ‘dumpster diving’, with these crops and food then turned into meals for those who need them.

Dr Fox said: “There’s a heightened interest amongst policymakers and the industry itself to try and change behaviour, both of industry and consumers. Part of that is trying to reconnect citizens with their culinary skills.

“The emergence of things like cooking classes that go into schools or communities that teach people how to make use of waste, how to plan their shopping better; an attempt to re-engage people with food.”

A local approach

And councils can really make a difference in facilitating the reduction of food waste. Dr Fox said: “Local authorities have a strong role to play. Tackling food waste is about engaging multiple stakeholders; the retailers are only one part of the scenario. The consumers themselves and local policymakers are another part; local authorities could support the kind of activities that we’ve seen emerging in the last year.

“Things like people’s kitchens and cooking and culinary events – some of these are emerging to be quite interesting and dynamic and radical events that attract young people.”

One of these is known as ‘Disco Soupe’, a phenomenon that started in France and has since been replicated in cities across the world. Somewhere between a rave and a cooking class, the events promote the use of leftover or rejected food, challenging perceptions and seeking to teach people how to change their behaviour.

Complete with a DJ and a festival-like atmosphere, Disco Soupe provides workshops for people to make soup out of wilting veg and make good use of produce that’s been gleaned from fields and where supermarkets have rejected local crops.

“What do you do with a cabbage when it starts to go limp? Make soup. But a lot of people don’t know how to make soup. In many cases this disconnect with culinary skills means they have a fear of food. If they see the colour changing, there’s a response that just involves putting it in the bin.”

Learning to shop

Councils could support the waste reduction movement by hosting and supporting such events, running cookery classes and even teaching people to manage their shopping more effectively.

“It sounds ridiculous, but it’s important to teach people how to make a list and actually stick to it and go shopping. It’s really about transferring that knowledge in a fun way.”

This element of fun was important, Dr Fox emphasised, as people may be more susceptible to taking on these messages in informal environments. Using tools like social media to create awareness campaigns and to advertise events “is probably a better way to go” than more traditional education or anything suggestive of the classroom.

There is a huge opportunity there for councils to raise public awareness about the need to reduce food waste and to re-use produce which would otherwise be thrown away.

Access and structure

Another area local authorities could get involved in is to help develop the capacity and infrastructure to enable the redistribution of waste and gleaned food in an effective manner. This would help volunteers to access food and move it around “to where it needs to go”.

Dr Fox said: “There’s a role there. That’s building on the traditional food bank role within the community, extending that.”

Enabling access to supermarkets, restaurants and farms’ wasted food in a safe, secure and appropriately managed environment would help support this aim at the local level.

Removing barriers to access leftovers or rejected food and the expansion of those structures is also important, and something local authorities could have a role in lobbying national government for.

Wasting less?

Although awareness of food waste is improving, there is still a long way to go to encourage people to stop throwing away useable food.

The IMechE surveyed 2,023 people over the Christmas period, with 45% reporting that they had bought more food than they intended as a consequence of supermarket offers and promotions.

A fifth of those polled threw away or wasted more than 10% of the food they bought during the festive period, but 41% said they had wasted less than 10%. More than a third claimed not to have wasted or thrown away anything.

Dr Fox said: “That shows that potentially people have been receptive to the message and certainly are trying to find ways to help tackle this issue.”

He acknowledged that surveys such as this one may be capturing people’s perceptions of their own behaviour rather than the reality, but added: “That’s part of the issue that we were raising in the report – an improvement in measurement, benchmarking, reporting, target setting.”

Promotional tactics

So is it up to supermarkets to change their behaviour and use of marketing tactics? Even if this was desirable, it is difficult to image how companies could be persuaded to act differently when profits are at stake.

It is about supermarkets promoting in a different way, rather than restricting the use of certain offers, Dr Fox said. One example he suggested was highlighting the end date beside an offer, to eliminate panic buying.

“If it was clearly advertised that an offer would last until the end of the month, that would take that over-purchasing out of the system, because people would return to the supermarket at another time to buy again. That’s the kind of responsible approach supermarkets should be looking at.

“There needs to be a way of allowing opportunities for competitive pricing, but clearly there is an issue of customer response to that which results in over-purchasing. I think supermarkets need to look very carefully at the ways they use sales promotions to encourage people to buy, rather than using bulk-based promotional opportunities, like BOGOF.”

It’s not just about price: “It’s to do with the way [marketing is] positioned on the shelf; that needs to be addressed.”

The biggest supermarkets have recently pledged to regularly publish the tonnage of food they throw out from 2015. Tesco admitted in October that it wasted 28,500 tonnes of food at its stores and distribution centres in the first six months of last year alone, nearly half of which was baked goods. It has ended multi-buy deals on bags of salad, puts less bread on display and changed its ‘display until’ policies.

It says its unsold food is, where possible, donated to anti-poverty charity FareShare, converted into animal feed for livestock, or recycled into renewable fuel.

Taking responsibility

Dr Fox continued: “Consumers themselves need to take stronger responsibility for managing their shopping so that they resist those offers. The classic example is to make a shopping list and stick to it: only buy the level of ingredients that you need.”

More research around behavioural science is needed to examine why people are persuaded by such offers and how they would be likely to respond to alternatives.

“At the moment the commercial imperative of competitive pricing sometimes gets in the way of taking a responsible attitude towards sales promotion.

“It’s taking a different approach – rather than promoting it as what appears to be a limited half-price offer, to package the sales promotion in such a way that it doesn’t instill that immediate response and panic buy.”


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