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Sustain Sustainable Food

The problem

Wasting food

In the UK we discard a shocking seven million tonnes of food every year - about one third of the food produced – and a significant amount of this could have been eaten. All the natural resources that have been used to make food and its packaging are wasted if we just throw it away. The United Nations estimates that if farmers all around the world fed their livestock on agricultural by-products, and on the food that we currently waste, enough grain would be liberated to feed an extra three billion people – more than the additional number expected to be sharing our planet by 2050.

To make matters worse, food waste is usually wet and rots, so if it is not separated from other waste, it spoils materials that could otherwise have been recycled. Plus, when food waste is put into landfill sites it gives off powerful greenhouse gases, such as methane, that contribute to climate change.

Wasting packaging

Well-designed packaging can protect food and so help reduce food waste, but far too much food packaging is just cosmetic and also difficult to recycle. As well as using up natural resources like metal (for tins and foil), oil (for plastic) and wood (for paper and cardboard), packaging consumes precious energy and generates huge amounts of waste. Many of us compound the problem by putting our over-packaged food in plastic shopping bags – eight billion of them in 2011 alone.

Plastic is especially problematic because there are not enough plastic recycling facilities in the UK, and if it is not recycled, it can take hundreds of years to break down. Plastic and other packaging waste not only litters our neighbourhoods and the countryside, it also pollutes our rivers and seas and endangers wildlife.

What we can do

Love Food, Hate Waste

Not surprisingly the majority of people agree that wasting food is wrong. The Love Food, Hate Waste campaign has helped to increase public awareness of the problem and provide a range of information and practical tips on how we can all reduce our food waste, including:

  • Planning our shopping, to avoid buying food we already have, or being tempted to buy too much;
  • Storing the right food in the right place – a cool cupboard, the fridge or the freezer;
  • Using up leftovers, for example in soups, smoothies and a whole range of creative recipes;

Learning the difference between ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates. The Food Standards Agency explains that ‘use by’ is for food that goes off quickly so we should pay attention to this date and follow storage instructions for the product. In contrast, ‘best before’ is more about the quality of the food, not the safety. Similarly, ‘sell by’ and ‘display until’ are for stock control in some shops, not for shopper safety.

Of course, some food waste is not edible – peelings, teabags and so on – and even the most careful of us sometimes lets the odd grape go mouldy. This is where composting comes in.

There is lots of advice online, including from the organisations below in Stay informed, on how to set up a compost bin or wormery. Some local councils provide subsidised composting equipment for their residents and also collect food waste from our homes. Enter your postcode in this website  to find out if there is subsidised composting equipment in your area.

Lighten up on packaging

Compost bins will even welcome some of our packaging, like paper and cardboard, but the best option is not to generate packaging waste in the first place. A really easy way to reduce packaging waste is to avoid bottled water. Bottling and transporting water generates considerable environmental costs, including the energy costs of producing, transporting, and disposing of (or, occasionally, recycling) the bottles. Bottled water is also a colossal waste of money – it has been calculated that £1,000 worth of bottled water would cost a mere 49p for the same volume from the tap.

UK tap water is governed by some of the strictest rules in the world, tested to even more stringent standards than bottled water, so it is safe and palatable to drink. There are no known health benefits from drinking bottled water instead of tap water and blind taste tests confirm that, particularly if the water is chilled, most people cannot tell the difference between tap water and still bottled water.

Other good ways to reduce packaging waste include:

  • Carrying shopping bags with you. There is now a huge range of lightweight, well-designed foldable, squashable and otherwise portable bags.
  • Shopping locally at outlets that use minimal packaging, such as markets, veg box schemes and small shops (for more on this see Growing our own, and buying the rest from a wide range of outlets).

Ask businesses and policy makers to take action

The Pig Idea is a campaign started by chef Thomasina Miers and food waste expert Tristram Stuart, to change the law so that we can return to the traditional practice of feeding surplus food to pigs. They recommend that government should:

  • Raise awareness - amongst food businesses, Animal Health officials and pig farmers – that it is both legal and a good idea to use, for example, surplus bread, and waste fruit, vegetable, dairy, and confectionery products as pig feed.
  • Start the long process of changing European law to allow more food waste (once it’s been safely processed) to be used as pig and chicken feed.

You can also help. Cosmetically imperfect fruit and veg – oddly shaped or with slight blemishes – is often wasted in vast quantities, even though it is perfectly edible. It is estimated that around 30% of UK-grown fruit and veg are never even harvested, just for cosmetic reasons.

  • Tell your local store that you like to buy ‘wonky’ fruit and veg – if we buy it, they will stock it. The campaign group Feeding the 5,000 runs a range of imaginative events to show how ‘wonky veg’ can make great tasting meals Following the flooding in 2012, leading to poor harvests for some fruit and veg, a few retailers agreed to take cosmetically imperfect produce. Although this is positive, it is not clear why this can’t be made a permanent change.
  • Many businesses, local authorities and other organisations (including Sustain) follow the hierarchy and advice set out in the Food Waste Pyramid devised by Tristram Stuart Ask your local council and businesses to follow it too.

While it’s very easy to drink tap water at home, it’s not so easy when we are out and about. Increasing numbers of business, though, are serving tap water with meals and even offering free tap water so we can top up our refillable bottles.

Use websites like these and to top up with tap water on the go and encourage other businesses to join the trend.

Some local councils are reinstalling modern water fountains in schools, parks and other public places.

  • If your local council doesn’t yet invest in water fountains, let them know they should. You could also join the Find-a-Fountain campaign

Some local councils also provide a range of waste collection and recycling services, including picking up from your home (free or at low cost) food waste as well as paper, metal, plastic, garden and other waste. By 2011, about half were offering domestic food waste collection, and by 2013, more were considering doing so. If your council is not one of these, you might like to join with other residents and suggest that they improve.

The devolved administrations can teach the English government a thing or two about reducing food and food-related waste. In October 2011, for example, the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge on plastic bags which has led to a drop of between 70 and 96% in the use of plastic bags in food shops. Public support for the charge rose from 59% before its introduction to 70% afterwards, with 82% of people using their own bag instead. In April 2013 Northern Ireland followed suit with a minimum 5p charge on single use carrier bags.

  • Join the Break the Bag Habit campaign in England, and write to your MP saying you would like a plastic bag charge similar to the one in Wales and Northern Ireland. The campaign’s research shows that it would be just as popular in England.

You might also want to ask government to make sure that all children leave school with good food education and cooking skills since, without them, they will not have the knowledge and expertise they need to turn leftovers into tasty meals.

Stay informed

As well as the organisations mentioned above, you can also get information about food waste and related issues from the following:

  • The Community Composting Network helps community groups, social enterprises and individuals to produce compost from food and other green waste and use it in their local communities.
  • Fareshare provides surplus but perfectly edible products from the food and drink industry to organisations working with disadvantaged people in the community. It also provides training and education on safe food preparation and nutrition, and warehouse employability training.
  • Food Cycle empowers local communities to collect surplus food and prepare nutritious meals in unused professional kitchens. The tasty meals are served to people in need in the community.
  • Garden Organic’s Master Composter Programmes works with local authorities to train volunteers who promote home composting in their local area.
  • Waste Watch helps people to waste less and live more, and is part of Keep Britain Tidy. It works on a whole range of waste issues, including food


Sustainable Food: What you can do - and ask others to do - to help make our food and farming system fit for the future.

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Sustain advocates food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, promote equity and enrich society and culture.

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