How much food do UK supermarkets waste each year?

Posted on 26th May 2016

As children we were all told not to waste food, and yet statistics show that as adults we are now far more wasteful than ever before.

Widely reported statistics last year showed that nearly 70% of bagged salad is thrown away by Tesco rather than sold, and that nearly 40% of their apples and almost half of all bakery items were routinely thrown away over 2013. The figures for other supermarket giants are very similar to Tesco's and make for troubling reading, especially with so much focus in the news on increasing poverty and food bank use throughout the UK.

In fact, it's been reported that our supermarkets now throw away a combined 300,000 tonnes of food waste each year and that the adult population adds a staggering 7million tonnes on top of that, working out to around £450-worth per family. Thankfully the figures are slowly dropping and, as more people become aware of the waste going on, people are taking action - but the figures are still too high for our liking.

Who's really to blame?

So, what can be done about all this food waste? Well, there are all sorts of theories about who or what is to blame for the waste, and many different options for tackling it.

Many people simply blame the quantity of perishable food that is on sale in the biggest supermarkets. When you walk through the doors of most supermarkets you are met by a sea of fruit and veg, all with very short shelf lives, and it only takes a quiet day or two in the store for much of it to go past it's best.

Marks and Spencer have tried in recent years to cut down on the perishable food problem by offering nearly-gone-off items at lower prices in a bid to encourage customers to take it off them shelves. This initiative did lead to a massive 60% of perishable food being sold which otherwise would have hit the tip, but could be said to have just shifted responsibility for waste to consumers and away from the store.

With consumers already wasting huge quantities of food, how can supermarkets selling even more be of any help? Well, simply, it can't. Many already blame the 'low-cost bulk buying' nature of supermarkets for the rise in food waste, with special offers and buy-one-get-one-free deals baring most of the responsibility. The argument goes that through low prices and promotional offers people are encouraged to buy far more than they need - extra food that invariably goes out of date before it's eaten.

Knowing that reducing waste through extra sales is no real solution to the problem, many supermarkets are turning to charities to shift their excess food. In the past you might have heard that stores would refuse to give away out-of-date food, presumably for fear of breaching food safety laws, but many are taking a fresh look at giving to those in need. Through organisations such as FareShare [http://www.fareshare.org.uk] some supermarkets now donate their leftover food to a range of local charities like homeless shelters and breakfast clubs. Giving away unsold food like this helps to reduce both waste and food poverty, something we must all agree can only be a good thing.

Making Shopping Green

It seems then that the problem of food waste can't be solved easily; waste is reduced in supermarkets by passing it on to consumers, who then waste it themselves - hardly a solution. Some stores are looking at the problem in a different way however, cleaning up their act in other ways to balance out the problem of food waste.

Sainsbury's recently transformed one of it's Staffordshire stores into the world's first supermarket to be powered exclusively by waste. By feeding the waste produced by the store into the UK's largest anaerobic digestion plant, methane gas is collected which can be used to generate electricity. The energy produced from this waste not only powers the store, but also 2,500 nearby homes, providing clean and affordable energy to the local community.

Similar initiatives are in place in other supermarkets, with M&S stores reportedly sending up to 90% of their waste to energy production. The waste-to-energy program, combined with their donations of food, has helped Sainsbury's to become almost technically waste-free, and many other chains are following suit.

Maybe food waste can't be eliminated completely, at least not in the near future, but initiatives like waste-to-energy combined with charitable donations go a long way to making amends. In the long-term we hope to see all the big retailers following the lead of Sainsbury's and M&S, producing clean energy and supporting their communities - but until then we all have to play our part in reducing food waste.