Addressing Supermarkets' Food Waste Problem in the UK

Sara Nigohosyan highlights the major waste problem in the UK supermarkets

Sara Nigohosyan
15th March 2021
Image: Unsplash
Food that could make up 190 million meals is being thrown away every year by supermarkets, recent statistics in the UK show. 

The top 10 food giants in the country are donating less than 9% of their surplus products. This means that tens of thousands of tons of food that could go to those in need now go to waste every year. Given the fact that there are more than 14 million people living in poverty in the UK, the food going to waste could relieve many, if it was not being thrown away by supermarkets.

This is not a new trend amongst industry giants - some big fashion brands are known for burning unsold clothing, restaurants also bin leftover food and products, and now it has come to the public’s attention that supermarkets aren’t falling behind.

This wastage is not only a problem because of the wasted potential help it could be of for some, but it also harms the environment. All of the processes around production, moving, storage, and cooking use energy, fuel, water, plastic, and time. On top of that, when this food is not consumed, it releases greenhouse gas emissions, which severely damage the environment. The wasted food in the UK produces 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide yearly, according to WRAP, which is 5% of the UK’s CO2 emissions - the equivalent produced by 10 million cars. 

190 million meals are being thrown away every year

There have been many resolutions to this supermarket problem - both government-backed charities such as Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and NGOs are working to fight this issue, which could easily be turned into a small solution for many in need. However, these solutions inconveniently cost more money, more working hands, some more money, and more paperwork. This seems to be discouraging supermarkets from improving, as some of the biggest ones, such as Sainsbury’s and Iceland, only donate 3.8% and 1.7% of their unsold food respectively.

So what are the solutions and how should this be addressed? Many people today are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, live more empathetic and more conscious lives by making changes to their lifestyle. But this issue is not something consumers can resolve themselves by making lifestyle tweaks - the problem caused by supermarkets needs to be addressed primarily by them in the first place. A concern this big needs to be managed and resolved by the government and the supermarkets themselves. France has set an example by banning supermarkets from throwing away unsold food that could be given away. The stores are encouraged with a financial incentive - reduced business tax, and discouraged by the threat of a fine if incompliant. 

A number of charities and NGOs in the UK have now formed a coalition, creating a more unified force in the attempt to fight the problem - Olio, Karma, WhyWaste, and others are partnering in the attempt to “ease the burden of supermarkets,” making sure that there can be no more excuses for food waste. On an individual level, it is also important that we, as consumers, also make the small decisions that have a more positive impact and show the government and industries we care - reducing our own food waste, contacting our local MPs with concerns regarding this issue, and considering where we shop - it’s easy to ignore a problem, but sometimes the smallest things lead to the biggest changes.

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