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Wasting time

Wasting time

How the UK’s food giants are missing their food waste targets.

One in six of the UK’s biggest food companies – including Unilever and Kellogg’s – are falling behind on efforts to reduce food waste, contributing to millions of tonnes of edible food that are discarded every year, according to analysis produced by the Tortoise Better Food Index

Food wasted during production and manufacturing is mainly due to technical malfunctions, order miscalculations, and failure to meet quality standards. According to Biffa, a leading waste management company, the UK produces the highest amount of food waste in Europe, corresponding to 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year – the equivalent of taking one in three petrol cars off the road.

Of the 30 companies assessed in the Index, five are projected to miss their food waste reduction goals. But these projections only cover a minority: nearly half of all the companies in the Index did not set a target, and six companies with food waste targets have not reported their progress against them.

Despite an ambitious target to halve food waste by 2025, Unilever has only cut waste by 3 per cent since 2019, meaning if they continue at this pace, it will be 2052 before they meet their target. A spokesperson for Unilever said they are “disappointed” that they are not currently on track to meet their target, and attributed the cause to “Covid-related disruptions, such as supply chain interruptions and production inefficiencies”. 

Kellogg’s cut waste in its UK operations by 6 per cent between 2015 and 2018, and has fallen short of its 2020 target to cut food waste by 15 per cent. It has since changed its target to a 50 per cent reduction of organic waste, including food waste, across its worldwide facilities by the end of 2030, from a 2016 baseline – and has so far achieved a 23 per cent reduction.

Similarly, Premier Foods – the company behind Mr Kipling, Loyd Grossman and the Oxo brands – has reduced food waste by 5 per cent against its 2020 baseline, leaving it significantly off-track to meet its 2030 target to halve food waste. A spokesperson from Premier Foods blamed “a one-off waste treatment issue at a manufacturing site last year” and insisted the company was on track to deliver its 2030 target. 

Much of the food industry’s action is being organised through The Courtauld Commitment 2030, a voluntary initiative set up by WRAP,  the food waste campaign group, to halve food waste by 2030 vs. a 2007 baseline. Over a third of companies assessed in the The Better Food Index have signed up to the commitment, including Unilever and Premier Foods. 

Good progress is being made elsewhere, and some of the companies analysed in the Index have already achieved their reduction targets. Mondelez, makers of Cadbury and OREO, cut food waste in its distribution by 65 per cent, three years ahead of its 50 per cent reduction target by 2025 vs a 2018 baseline. It has also cut food waste in manufacturing sites by 28 per cent between 2018 and 2021, putting the company on track to hit its 2025 reduction target. Adopting new technology was key to making these improvements; AI is used to predict and prevent machine breakdowns that can often result in waste and high-speed cameras have been introduced to analyse production processes and reduce line stoppages. 

Greencore, a company that produces food-to-go and convenience foods for major UK retailers, is on track to exceed its targets. Since scaling up its efforts to redistribute surplus food and measure food waste against production volumes on a monthly basis, Greencore has achieved a 25 per cent reduction in food waste since 2017. 

The government has said it is fully committed to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – to halve food waste by 2030 vs. a 2007 baseline – and claims they are an “international leader on tackling food waste”. However, with many large companies failing to keep pace with their food waste targets, it remains uncertain whether this goal can be met. Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP, warns “there is absolutely no room for complacency… we must seriously supercharge our efforts if we are going to get to the finishing line”.

Most food waste happens in the home, but because of their scale, food businesses can play a critical role in driving change. It is ultimately in food companies’ own interests to reduce their impact on the natural world, which they rely on for their products.


Climate compromise
On Sunday, the US Senate passed a $370 billion package that will gear the American economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer called it “one of the defining legislative feats of the 21st century”. The secret of the bill’s success is the decision to opt for carrot over stick: providing incentives for consumers, rather than taxing carbon outright. Only the latter will be enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change, but provisions contained in the bill – for electric vehicle rebates, methane reduction and renewable investment – are being rightly heralded as game-changing. To ask: at what point will renewables, rather than shale gas, become the backbone of US energy security? Mandated auctions for drilling rights on federal lands open the door to yet more fossil fuel exploration, when the IEA says that no new reserves are needed. It’s a risky compromise. That said, the Democrats can rest on their laurels – they have given the world a lesson in how to hammer through meaningful climate legislation. ​​The bill is expected to pass the House of Representatives and land on Biden’s desk within days.


Don’t Pay UK
Conservative leadership hopefuls Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are under pressure to do more to tackle rising energy bills, with some experts projecting a £4,000+ price cap in October. Yesterday’s Times calculated that Truss’s proposed measures – scrapping the planned rise in national insurance and removing green levies from energy bills – will save an average earner just £200 per year. Meanwhile Sunak has been making noise about spending billions more helping fuel-poor families. Neither candidate has offered much in terms of solving the root of the problem: namely, a UK energy system that’s heavily-dependent on global fossil fuel markets and hamstrung by some of the leakiest housing stock in Europe. In response to price rises, protest group Don’t Pay UK has gathered the support of 80,000 people who intend to cancel their direct debit fuel payments on 1 October when the price cap rises. The UK will have a new Prime Minister before then. They’ll need to act fast if they want to avoid the worst impacts – for both consumers and providers.

engagement and activism

Adding up
Since Labour first proposed a windfall tax on energy giants in January, UK oil major BP has spent £800,000 on social media ads that tout the company’s investments in green energy. An investigation by the Guardian and EcoBot.net revealed that the bulk of that spending on Facebook and Instagram ads was allocated in the eight days before the company posted its highest quarterly profit in 14 years. BP is not alone in its attempts to foster an online reputation as a green energy provider; Shell has also paid Meta to run ads this year that reached more than a million people in the UK and has been recruiting managers for its TikTok channel. There’s nothing illegal about running these types of ad but, as environmental lawyer Sophie Manjanac says, “it’s what these companies don’t tell you in their advertising campaigns which is the real problem”. In reality, clean energy operations still represent just a fraction of the majors’ capital expenditures (see below).

£6.9 billion – BP’s underlying profit in the second quarter of 2022.

£9 billion – Shell’s underlying profit in the second quarter of 2022.

5 – per cent of BP’s capital expenditure directed to renewable or “low carbon” projects in the second quarter.

4.5 – per cent of Shell’s capital expenditure directed to renewable or “low carbon” projects in the second quarter.


One sex on the beach
Sea turtles in Florida face a unique challenge as a result of climate change. A recent study showed that 99% of turtles born on Florida’s beaches in the last four years were female due to successive heat waves that have raised the temperature of the sand – an environmental factor that determines the sex of hatchlings. If a turtle’s eggs incubate below 27.7C, the turtle hatchlings will be male, whereas if they incubate above 31C, they will be female, according to the NOAA. “Over the years, you’re going to see a sharp decline in their population because we just don’t have the genetic diversity,” says Melissa Rosales Rodriguez, a sea turtle keeper at the Miami Zoo’s recently opened Sea Turtle Hospital.

Thanks for reading.

Maddy Diment

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre and Laoise Murray. Edited by Barney Macintyre.

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