Can Supermarket Waste Be Reduced?

Supermarkets have long been criticised for the amount of waste food they throw away each year. Some waste is inevitable – supermarkets need to provide customers with a wide range of food and choice, and it is impossible to make sure that supply exactly meets demand. The problem is that many supermarkets have viewed waste more lightly in the past than has pleased their public, and attitudes to food waste have hardened during the recession.

What do Supermarkets Do With Out-of-date Food?

Some supermarkets dispose of recently out of date food by donating it to the homeless and people in very low income situations. The charity Fareshare has taken on the supermarkets and smaller retailers and campaigned to be able to give ‘waste’ food that is still perfectly edible and nutritious to the poor and homeless who live in Britain, usually in our inner cities. Sainsbury’s has been behind the scheme for several years now, but other supermarkets such as Morrison’s don’t offer any of their waste food for reuse in the community.

About 3000 tonnes is obtained by Fareshare each year and this is gratefully received by the people who get it – but there is a further 97000 tonnes – the vast majority – that still ends up in landfill, where it is very effective and efficient at creating methane. This may be harnessed by some sites, but most of it is just burned away, increasing the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

A new scheme, which is being piloted by Sainsbury’s is to invest in biomass waste digesters, reusing the waste food to produce energy, which can then be fed into the national grid – potentially for profit. Currently waste food from about 100 stores across the UK is being fed into anaerobic digesters, which are fitted with specially modified biomass boilers. The first such plant is based in Bolton in Lancashire.

Is Food Ready to Throw Out?

One of the things that upsets many people is the supermarkets and many ordinary people throw away food just because it has gone a day or two past the printed sell-by date on it. These sell by dates are set to be as safe as possible. Most people would rather throw the food away than risk getting a nasty dose of food poisoning by eating food like meat or fish that has gone off.

Scientists in Scotland, where there is a really strong commitment to reduce the waste food thrown away by supermarkets to zero, are working on new packaging that might make things easier. Their idea is to develop a new type of plastic that changes colour when the food inside starts to produce some of the chemicals that are released when food starts to decompose. Food contained in such packaging would still have a printed sell by date, but if it still looked OK after this date, people could prepare and eat it more confidently, minimising their risk of illness.

Waste Past and Future

Although the new ideas and new schemes are good news, there is still a long way to go to make sure that we don’t waste as much food. One shocking statistic is that people in the UK as a whole throw away enough rubbish, and that includes waste food, in 10 minutes to be able to easily fill an Olympic size swimming pool. As well as supermarkets being keener to reduce food waste, we all need to look very critically at our own habits in our ‘throw-away’ society. Perhaps we need to learn from the lessons of our grandparents in the Britain of the Second World War – and ‘waste not, want not’.