Figures reveal that wasted food would provide three meals per day for every hungry person in Britain.

Households are responsible for nearly ¾ of the UK’s yearly food waste. Credit: Adobe Stock.

This is the third and final article in the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series. Written by our research expert Alex Blair, previous articles analysed what retailers and manufacturers can do to tackle the food waste crisis in the UK. Finally, we shift to the impact of consumers’ choices in reshaping a fairer, greener, and waste-free food system.

Each year, the UK throws away 15 billion meals’ worth of edible food.

At the same time, 14 million people struggle to get enough to eat each day.

In other words, the food thrown away would provide three meals a day, year-round, for every hungry person in Britain.

This gross injustice has resulted in much finger-pointing as to who is the main culprit in the food waste crisis.

As some of the most financially powerful and influential companies in the UK, large supermarkets and manufacturers often bear the brunt of the blame.

After all, leading retailers set the course for the rest of the food industry to follow, top-down, through their redistribution policies, store practices, and partnerships with farmers, manufacturers, and consumers.

Credit: Cath Strawson (Klipspringer).
What has the largest impact on waste-free food industry policies - the supply or demand? Credit: Adobe Stock.

Our previous article in this series also demonstrated how major manufacturers are able to implement changes that alter the entire supply chain, from eco-friendly landfill alternatives to a circular economic system.

However, the food waste crisis is not a straightforward narrative of greedy corporations exploiting the goodwill of innocent customers. Ultimately, consumers are responsible for the majority of the food wasted in the UK – and it is consumers who can play a major role in tackling the crisis.

Consumers Top Waste Figure Charts

That’s right – households actually cause 70% of the UK’s food waste, throwing away 6.6 million tonnes of food each year (4.5 million tonnes of edible food).

Food waste in the UK by sector. Data taken from WRAP’s 2020 food waste report. Credit: Cath Strawson (Klipspringer).

Amid sky-rocketing inflation of food prices, UK consumers have a chance to be greener while saving money. According to research by WRAP, the average household could save £730 per year by only buying the food they actually eat. This figure estimates that a typical family with children bins 244kg of food each year – the equivalent of 580 meals.

Environmentally, it isn’t just the potatoes or ham that goes to waste. It is all of the resources that have gone into their production, packaging, transportation, and storage – which explains why roughly 1/3 of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are related to food and drink.

If households knew these facts, attitudes towards food waste and its costs – both financial and environmental – would shift dramatically. As Brits desperately caste around for ways to save money on bills, it is imperative that all groups with influence over the food industry contribute to sharing this information, from retailers and manufacturers to media and government.

Milk is the third most-wasted food in the UK, with more than 490 million pints poured down the kitchen sink each year. Credit: Cath Strawson (Klipspringer).

It is also crucial that UK consumers educate themselves on the impact of food waste. Corporations have a responsibility to propel sustainable, wasteless practices into the mainstream, but consumer behaviour drives commercial decision-making.

Consumers represent the final stage of the food supply chain. As seen below, there are several choices that can be made to cut food waste in the home – and also prove to large food businesses that waste-cutting, sustainable practices are non-negotiable.

Six Ways for Consumers to Reduce Waste

1. Buy wonky fruit and vegetables

With supermarkets and consumers looking to reduce food waste and keep costs down, rejecting produce for cosmetic reasons makes little sense. Retailers including Morrisons, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Aldi have launched ‘imperfect’ ranges to address this.

Although wonky produce is just as tasty and nutritious – and usually costs less – take-up among consumers has been mixed. This is due to an underlying stigma towards fruit and vegetables that are unconventional in size or surface. In fact, UK consumers between 18 and 24 are 23% less likely to eat misshapen produce than older generations, research shows.

An alternative is fruit and vegetable boxes. Delivered directly to consumers’ doors, these boxes are full of wonky or surplus produce that would otherwise be thrown away by retailers. Companies offering imperfect fruit and vegetable boxes include Oddbox and WonkyVegBoxes.

2. Plan shopping and portions

A little preparation goes a long way when it comes to buying and cooking the right amount of food.

Consumers who take inventory of their cupboards before heading to the supermarket or local food store are less likely to buy more than needed, or accidentally double up on perishable produce.

Even better than a mental stock-take is a physical shopping list – whether that’s on paper, phone notes, or a shopping list app. WRAP’s ‘Love Food, Hate Waste’ initiative have several useful suggestions on shopping list writing, such as organising the list around the shop’s layout.

Shopping lists are an effective way of avoiding unnecessary spending on surplus food. Credit: Adobe Stock.

Having bought the right amount of food – at least within a reasonable margin of error  – consumers can next think about cooking the correct quantities. For example, a single portion of spaghetti can be measured using a 1p or £1 coin, and a mug usually holds the right amount of (uncooked) rice for four adults.

3. Adjust and manage fridge storage

In the UK, the average fridge temperature is almost 7°C, but should be between 0 and 5°C according to the FSA. Adjustment to the correct temperature will keep food fresh and edible for longer.

Keeping fruit and vegetables in the fridge also ensures longer life. Exceptions to this are potatoes, onions, bananas, and pineapple. For salad bags and spinach, put a piece of kitchen towel inside the bag once open – this stops the leaves from going slimy.

Simple tricks, such as covering fresh produce with a bag once open, can extend food life and prevent waste. Credit: Adobe Stock.

4. Understand what food labels really mean

As outlined in the first article in the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series, leading supermarkets’ store practices are a key driver of wasteful consumer behaviours. Among these are ambiguous product labels, which have resulted in several prevalent misconceptions around food expiration dates.

Campaigns for food labels to be plainer and prevent unnecessary waste are ongoing, but consumers should also be informed that only ‘use-by’ dates are about food safety. Food should not be consumed or served after its use-by date, even if it looks and smells fine.

Retailers could prevent needless waste by simplifying food labels - but consumers can educate themselves and prevent it on their end too. Credit: Cath Strawson (Klipspringer).

‘Best-before’ dates, on the other hand, solely relate to quality. Produce a few days past its best-before date is generally safe to eat. The same goes for ‘sell-by’ dates, which are intended for supermarket management, not consumers.

5. ‘Make and freeze’ cooking

Cooking multiple portions of ‘make and freeze’ recipes is recommended by BBC Good Food. Essentially, this involves preparing several days’ worth of meals at once, refrigerating the next day’s meals, then freezing the rest.

This advice can be extended to all food, cooked or not, which is fine to freeze right up to the use-by date. Almost all foods can be frozen, including bread (slice it first), cheese, and even eggs – once they’ve been cracked and beaten.

Food preparation doesn’t have to mean Tupperware-prepared meals every night of the week – freezing leftovers is also proven to prevent food waste. Credit: Adobe Stock.

6. Creative recipes

Sometimes, spoilt food is unavoidable. But this does not always mean the food has to be binned. Overripe bananas? Turn them into a tasty, nutritious load of banana bread. Bruised pears? Make a sticky toffee pear cake. With a little thought and creativity, food bits that would otherwise go to waste can be reimagined and reused for tasty dinners and desserts.

Alone, individual consumer choices cannot stifle the food waste crisis, but they can influence retail and manufacturing policies.

UK consumers must first take ownership for the millions of tonnes of edible food binned each year – then take pride in overturning this waste through eco-friendly, oftentimes cheaper, food decisions.

In a world where nearly 800 million people suffer from malnutrition, the moral precedent to eradicate food waste is urgent and undeniable.

Access to food is a fundamental human right, and hunger is one of the most pressing problems facing our world today, closely linked with global conflict and climate change.

Only through coordinated action between all food industry participants can the food waste crisis be averted and, eventually, reversed so that no food is thrown away while people remain hungry.

Did you miss the rest of the ‘No Food Left Behind’ series?

Click below to read the first two articles, addressing the food waste crisis from the perspective of retailers and manufacturers.