The UK has one of the worst food wastage rates in Europe, throwing away 6.4 million tonnes of edible food each year – this equates to more than 15 billion meals.

The UK’s manufacturing industry is the ninth largest in the world, with an annual output of £183 billion. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Our research expert Alex Blair has written this second article in the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series to explore ways in which food manufacturers can alleviate the food waste crisis. If you’ve not read the first article on leading UK retailers, click here.

Food is the largest sector of the UK’s manufacturing industry.

Annually, it contributes £30 billion to the UK market – nearly 1/6 of the UK’s manufacturing output – and employs more than 468,000 people.

As a pillar of the British economy, the food manufacturing industry has the power, capital, and influence to act against the 1.5 million tonnes of food it currently wastes each year.

The implementation of a sustainable, waste-limiting supply system would see manufacturers reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, replenish valuable resources, and feed more people with less land – a crucial balance to strike amid growing populations and rising living costs.

Food wasted - or recycled? Read below for landfill alternatives. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Landfill Waste

Of all stages along the UK food chain, manufacturing is one of the most significant contributors to landfill food waste.

While some waste is classed as ‘unavoidable’ (such as inedible produce such as meat bones or eggshells), a sizeable portion of the discarded food could have been used to fill empty stomachs. Instead, this food waste takes up valuable land for years, or even decades, as it slowly decomposes.

Credit: eHow UK.

Various greenhouse gases are released during the process of decomposition. Particularly damaging is methane – a greenhouse gas that is between 28 and 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In the UK, landfills are responsible for approximately 25% of all methane emissions. Gases emitted from landfill sites have also been linked to negative health effects among communities living nearby.

Landfilling or landraising? Birmingham’s Packington landfill site was the largest in the UK, covering 380 acres of land and standing 80 metres tall, until its closure in 2015 because it reached maximum capacity. Credit: Birmingham Mail.

It is a common misconception that manufacturing companies continue to use landfills because they are the cheapest disposal option.

Since the government raised the landfill tax to £98.60 per tonne in 2022, cheapness is no longer a valid justification. Landfills remain the most commonly used disposal option due to convenience and the status quo.

Regardless, convenience and cost should be no issue for leading manufacturing companies including Mars, Unilever, Diageo, and Associated British Foods, who turn over billions in revenue each year.

Associated British Foods are one of the UK’s most powerful food manufacturers, with revenue reaching just under £17 million in 2022, according to the Wall Street Journal. Credit: Adobe Stock.

For many UK citizens, the recycling of paper, glass, and metals is now second nature. This enthusiasm, however, has not extended to food waste. Almost 6 million tonnes of food still end up in landfill sites each year.

When considering the wide range of solutions available to capture food waste and put it to better use, this is a considerable waste of resources.

So, what are some of these solutions to reduce food waste?

Conversion into a Food Resource

While the solutions outlined below focus on cutting food waste before it occurs, conversion targets the repurposing of food waste at the end of the cycle.

There are two main ways to recycle food waste: composting and anaerobic digestion.

Composting is widely recognised for soil fertilising and helping plant growth in gardens and farms. It is proven to reduce methane, carbon dioxide and the need for chemical fertilisers – as well as improving soil quality and moisture levels (resulting in lower water usage).

Composting is an eco-friendly process for converting waste into useful fertiliser. Credit: Adobe Stock.

For UK manufacturers, commercial composting is a viable, simple alternative to the mass disposal of food waste into landfills. There are benefits in terms of supply shortages and costs, as composting results in a higher crop yield for farmers.

Amid a climate of supply chain uncertainty and environmental degradation, commercial composting is an exciting possibility for the future of food manufacturing.

The UK’s largest anaerobic digestion plant is found in Staffordshire. Capable of processing 120,000 tonnes of food waste annually, the KIRK-owned site mostly treats commercial waste from manufacturers including Bakkavor. Credit: UK Construction Media.

Anaerobic digestion is the second main way to recycle food waste.

Once collected from a separate recycling bin, this food waste is transferred into an oxygen-less tank and broken down by micro-organisms.

During this decomposition, the waste produces a biogas which is used to generate electricity. In the UK, around 1.3 million tonnes of food waste are broken down using anaerobic digestion each year – powering 200,000 homes. This is worth more than £220 million to the economy.

Instead of sending food waste to landfills, research shows that recycling it:

  • reduces greenhouse gas emissions
  • preserves environmental biodiversity
  • uses less energy than producing new materials
  • limits the need for landfill
  • replenishes valuable resources

Circular Economy

Circular economies keep resources ‘in the loop’ (aka in use) for as long as possible. Rather than taking resources from the earth, using them once, then discarding them in landfill, circular economies repurpose and reutilise resources in other areas of an industry.

The ideal outcome is to extract maximum benefit from the resource, while reducing the abovementioned environmental damage of landfill sites. Circularity also has the potential to provide new jobs, encourage healthier lifestyles, and accelerate eco-friendly growth.

A linear versus circular economic food system. Credit: University of Cambridge.

Crucially, circular food systems feed more people with less land. Not only does this redistribute surplus food, but circularity also encourages manufacturers to use food by-products to create bio-based fertilisers and other useful products.

By cutting out disposal, circular economic measures would retain the resource value of food within the closed loop.

Food production and manufacturing businesses have realised the potential of this. Recent deals include £50 million funding granted to Eider VF by Slate Asset Management, and the £100 million investment in GrowUp Farms by Generate Capital. Eider VF is a vertical farming company targeting wastewater, nutrient usage, and biohazard risk; GrowUp Farms uses science and technology to grow food they claim tastes better and has the lowest environmental impact.

This leads on to the methods chosen by manufacturers themselves – a key part of cutting food waste before it departs the factory or production line.

Manufacturing Practices

While many UK factories streamline their processes to boost efficiency, there are still several commonplace practices that drive food waste.

These include:

1. Under or Overweight Products

In the UK, 3.5% of products are rejected for poor production. These under or overweight products that fail to meet manufacturers’ standards are discarded without a second glance.

While strict safety standards are essential, a more flexible approach to product weight could result in significant savings for food businesses. Certain manufacturers and retailers have already implemented a pay-by-weight initiative, particularly common among meat products.

Credit: Adobe Stock.

2. Trimmings

From bread crusts to tomato ends, one of the most common causes of food wastage is excess trimmings. These are especially common in meat processing, where production equipment that offers the highest yields and precision of cut is non-negotiable.

3. Technical Errors

In a similar vein, technical errors caused by contamination or malfunctioning machinery is an entirely avoidable driver of food waste. According to WRAP, 9% of waste in the ready meals and chilled products sector is caused by machine mishandling.

Higher-quality equipment usually comes with a more significant upfront cost. However, when calculated over the space of several years, reduced maintenance, downtime, and replacement costs, justify the larger initial sum.

Credit: Klipspringer.

4. Inconsistent Processes

Product integrity and quality are determined by one overarching factor: consistency of manufacturing process. Hitches and hiccups in this process result in inconsistent products – whether that be regarding size, ingredients, or any number of factors.

The key problem here is that inconsistent products are binned, rather than redistributed. (Or, even better, prevented in the first place). Manufacturers might be more inclined to limit such inconsistencies, but, when they do occur, admit their existence and put the food to better use than a landfill site.

5. Food Recalls

Two words that signal disaster to every hygiene and technical manager in the UK. Food recalls are primarily caused by foreign body contamination – when an object or substance enters a food item by mistake.

Cross-contamination of allergenic foods is a common cause of recalls. Credit: Klipspringer.

There have been several recent controversies surrounding food recalls. A prominent example is a recall in March 2023 which accounted for 148,000 pounds (67,131 kilograms) of chicken.

Typically, portion sizes state that 1kg of chicken feeds between five and six people. If this is accurate, the amount of chicken discarded could have provided meals for each of the 240,000 homeless people in the UK – nearly twice over.

These staggering figures are only based on a single recall. Imagine if recent recalls of cereal and snack packages or beef products had also been prevented and the food wasted given to those in need.

From the manufacturers’ perspective, recalls are also costly in fees and reputational damage. Combined with needless food waste, these are three massive reasons for creating an airtight foreign body prevention plan for food factories. Check out our guide here.

Ferndale Foods

Some food manufacturers have already taken it upon themselves to implement waste-cutting practices.

Vision 2020 is a ReFood initiative launched to ban all food from landfills and recycled instead. In line with Vision 2020, supermarket ready meal manufacturer Ferndale Foods identified food waste as a key step in its drive to improve recycling operations, cut costs, and manage its carbon footprint.

In 2012, Ferndale Foods generated more than 400MWh of renewable energy by diverting its food through PDM Group’s biomass combustion process. This decision allowed Ferndale Foods to produce a nutrient-rich fertiliser from the ash, and to displace more than 250 tonnes of greenhouse gases.

Credit: Adobe Stock.

Examples like this reinforce the economic and environmental precedent to eliminate manufacturing food waste. Companies that implement waste-cutting measures now can stay head of the curve, marrying productive efficiency with CSR pledges.

Click below to read the final article in the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series, focusing on how consumers can do their bit to cut food waste.