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Comment: waste reduction - food for thought

Food waste has attracted a lot of press recently following the arrest of three men for taking food from bins behind a branch of Iceland. The charges were dropped but the incident has reopened the debate about how much supermarket food is thrown out. By Gavin Matthews, head of retail at Bond Dickinson.


Comment: waste reduction - food for thought

All organisations have several legal obligations when dealing with their waste. As well as complying with the waste management “duty of care” (ensuring that any waste is produced, stored, transported and disposed of without harming the environment), they also have an obligation to apply the “waste hierarchy” which ranks waste management options according to what is best for the environment.

Businesses must take all reasonable measures to prevent waste in the first place. Failure to properly consider the waste hierarchy renders a business liable to receive a compliance notice from the Environment Agency breach of which is a criminal offence.

If it is not possible to prevent creating waste in the first place, when waste is created, priority should be given to re-use, recycling, recovery and as a last resort, landfill. Usually the rankings should be applied in this order except where it would not achieve the best environmental outcome. As waste management technologies become more sophisticated, so their impact on the environment relative to other options may change. For example, current research shows that for food waste, anaerobic digestion is environmentally better than composting and that for mixtures of food waste, dry anaerobic digestion followed by composting is environmentally better than composting alone.

The British Retail Consortium Report "A Better Retailing Climate: Driving Resource Efficiency" (the ABRC Report) notes that out of the 4.3 million tonnes of food and drink wasted each year in the grocery retail supply chain, only 9% is actually wasted at the retail end of the chain whereas the majority of waste (3.9 million tonnes) arises in food and drink manufacture. Whilst more could be done to reduce the amount of food thrown out because its use by date has expired or it’s not up to scratch (The ABRC Report estimates that between 20 – 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach the shops), these figures emphasise the need for a conjoined effort from retailers and manufacturers to address food and packaging waste in the supply chain.

To date we have not seen much action from the Environment Agency in relation to legal enforcement of the waste hierarchy. Rather the Agency has found itself on the receiving end of criticism for not doing enough to promote it – for example the recent threatened judicial review by the Cornish Waste Forum for the Agency’s decision not to challenge Cornwall Council’s decision not to have separate food waste treatment. Whether the Agency ramps up enforcement in relation to the waste hierarchy remains to be seen.

One thing which is certain is that major retailers are feeling the pressure to reduce and be accountable for their waste, with the British Retail Consortium announcing last week that the UK’s four biggest supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison as well as M&S, Waitrose and the Co-op are pledging to disclose the volume of food discarded by their stores.

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