By Iain Ferguson, Environment Manager 

Hands up those of you reading this article who are guilty of throwing away food that you’ve forgotten you bought and didn’t eat? Hands up those of you who think that you don’t waste any food at all. Well, food waste is actually more common than you might think. Over 70% of all food wasted in the UK is from households, and we throw away roughly 4.5 million tonnes every year that could have been eaten.  

But there are many other impacts of food waste that might not always be evident. Whilst 81% of citizens are concerned about climate change, only 37% recognise it’s connection with food waste. According to WRAP, 30% of global greenhouse gases are created from the production and consumption of food. For instance, the production of food requires energy and resources such as fuel for tractors, fertilisers, pesticides, etc.

However, wasting food also creates a CO2 footprint, as rotting food creates greenhouse gases which can often be easily avoided. Key tips are to only buy what you need, eating what you have, freezing food or donating excess. There’s a big environmental cost of wasting food, and it’s important we understand that.

This week is Food Waste Action Week, and in partnership with WRAP, we wanted to share some insights about food waste, what we’re doing to help tackle it in our business, and some helpful tips that you might be able to take home with you too. 

Thinking behind the scenes 

We’ve been in the business selling food for a long time, and as a responsible retailer, part of the responsibility of food waste falls to us. We need to try to understand what the issues are and how we can change our business. We also need to support our customers in understanding the bigger picture.

There are three key things we must consider:

  • Labelling
  • Packaging
  • Ranging

Let’s talk about labelling first. We label our products with ‘best before’ and ‘use by’, and we know there are common misconceptions which can lead to good, edible food being thrown away.

  • ‘Use by’ is the date after which food shouldn’t be eaten due to safety
  • ‘Best before’ is only a quality marker, and whilst food may not be as good quality after this date, it’ll still be safe to eat for some time

With 41% of food thrown away because it ‘wasn’t used in time’, we’ve been reviewing on-pack information and implementing our improved product labelling to enable customers to make informed decisions to help reduce household food waste. We’ve added additional symbols to front and back of packaging to:

  • Encourage consumers to freeze food before its use by date
  • Provide extended storage advice across all food categories on how to store and at what temperatures
  • Provide additional ‘cook from frozen’ and defrosting information
  • Share ‘top tips’ on using leftovers, damaged produce and offcuts

These changes have been implemented on product relaunches during 2020 and will continue into 2021.

Thinking about packaging, we’re constantly reviewing and, in some cases, innovating how our products are packed. The aim of this work is always to improve recyclability and reduce the environmental footprint, while making sure we don’t compromise the quality or shelf life of the food inside the packaging. 

Some of these changes are quite visible, like switching our Co-op pizza trays to recyclable cardboard, saving approximately 200 tonnes of unrecyclable plastic annually, and contributing to a circular economy without impacting on the pizza’s shelf life. In cucumbers however, we choose to use plastic shrink-wrap because we recognise its benefits. Shrink-wrapping cucumbers has been shown to increase shelf life and to reduce food waste.

Our own trials comparing loose and wrapped cucumbers following their journey through the supply chain and into our stores showed that an average of 1.33% of wrapped cucumbers were wasted before they could be sold, compared to 4.77% of unwrapped cucumbers, with no strong customer preference between buying wrapped or unwrapped. Therefore, our trial showed that the environmental footprint of unwrapped cucumbers is much greater than that of wrapped cucumbers – with 224.99 CO2 eq. emissions per kg of unwrapped cucumbers in comparison to 64.93 CO2 eq. emissions per kg of wrapped cucumbers. This difference dwarfs the impact of the shrink-wrap we use. We understand customers and members have concerns about wrappers, but the good news is this type of plastic will be included in our new recycling scheme for plastic bags and wrapping.

Finally, we pay close attention to our store ranging. We’ve huge data pools which we use to help us make calculated decisions on what products to include in stores. That’s why those of you who work in our food stores will often get lines and products swapped in and out during range events. We measure food sales and wastages closely; if a store has a poor performing product that’s causing significant amounts of waste, we’ll review the line, carefully managing stock levels and replacing it with a different product if necessary – all to reduce waste and the associated environmental impacts.

Action on the front line 

Even more incredible and important work happens on the ground in our food stores, which helps benefit others in need. We’ve developed our own food redistribution programme called Food Share, where our stores partner with local community groups and donate surplus still edible food items, including chilled goods. This enables our stores and colleagues to work directly with our communities and partners, helping those in our immediate communities. In 2020, we were able to share the equivalent of 9.6 million meals. In 2021, we’re looking for more partners to include in this important work. 

Our depots and logistics colleagues also work directly with the national food redistribution charity, FareShare, to help share food surplus directly from our depots when circumstances prevent products being sent to store. The type of things our depot teams donate are short-dated stock from our suppliers, excess stock that wasn’t ordered by us and stock that we ordered in error. We also recently celebrated over 5 million meals donated to FareShare through our logistics operation since we started working with them.

What’s Next? 

By cutting food waste, the average household can save £500 each year, reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to the UK’s waste reduction targets.

WRAP have provided 10 top tips to reducing food waste which you could try at home. Their campaign site Love Food Hate Waste can provide you with storage, portion size and fridge temperature advice, food surplus recipes and more tips and tools to share to tackle food waste together.

Comment below if you’ve any of your own tips to reducing food waste, and use the hashtag #FoodWasteActionWeek and tag @coopuk and @LFHW on Instagram with your surplus food recipes!

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. I recently downloaded an app called TooGoodToGo this is for businesses to sell off the items that might me going out of date that day, this might be worth a look in to

  2. I use special produce bags which help keep Veg and Fruit longer – available from Lakeland.

  3. So why cant we buy reduced waste for 5p any more. Or even half the final reduction. Instead we are just throwing away .

    • Hi Annette, the activity you mention regarding the sale of reduced goods to colleagues was part of a trial to understand how we might get to our ambition. We have completed the trial are reflecting on what we have learned to decide the best way forward. Many teams across the Co-op are working together on different parts to help us achieve our goals and we will update as we progress further.

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