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What actually is food waste?

18th September 2017

This blog post is a first in a series about food waste. Food waste has been identified as a significant issue in the UK, and indeed globally, and is a focus of some UK government policy, and campaigning by WRAP. This blog series aims to discuss the problem of food waste, and explore what is being done in an attempt to reduce unnecessary wasting of food. First, and perhaps most importantly, what is food waste?

As part of the FUSIONS project, the EU defines food waste as; “any food, and inedible parts of food, removed from the food supply chain to be recovered or disposed”. This definition includes inedible parts of food, meaning that eggshells and pineapple skin, for example, are counted as food waste. It also includes any food wasted at any point in the supply chain, from producer to consumer. This may be caused by a variety of issues including poor storage, transport losses, and aesthetic choice by retailers, all before the household is reached. The relative contribution of different stages of the supply chain to food waste varies globally, but household waste remains a key area of wastage in developed countries.

Food waste

WRAP distinguish three levels of household food waste: avoidable, possibly avoidable, and unavoidable, and estimate that 60% of household food waste is avoidable. This category includes food and drink which has been thrown away because it is no longer wanted and has been allowed to deteriorate beyond its best. This category of waste is what causes the greatest concern, but it is worth noting that measurements may include possibly avoidable and unavoidable waste.

The definition above gives a conceptual overview of food waste, but the way food waste is measured and quantified is equally as important for understanding what it is. Food waste can be quantified in tonnes, often producing large and alarming figures; for example this 2015 article in The Guardian suggests 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year. Although certainly alerting individuals to the problem, these figures are often intangible (try imagining 10 tonnes of food waste!) and difficult to relate to day to day life. As an alternative, a monetary value is often placed on food waste, and UK households in 2015 wasted £470 worth of edible food (see here). This is much more tangible than very large tonnages, but does frame food waste as an economic issue rather than an environmental problem of resource wastage.

This leads on nicely to the second post in this series about food waste: Why is food waste a problem?