Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Image by OpenIDUser2 via GFDL

Much has been said about the reduced air pollution levels during the coronavirus lockdown as a result of the drastic reduction in travel but what about the impact other sectors are having as a result of recent changes? With eating out not currently an option, more of us are tucking in to takeaways as an alternative, which has had an impact on food waste.

Food waste in restaurants rises but waste at home is on a downward trend

New research released by Just Eat and the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) has found that “fluctuations in demand and unpredictable ordering patterns” have led to a slight increase in food waste generated in takeaway restaurants during lockdown. According to the analysis, food waste from restaurants has risen from an average of £111 to £148 per week per restaurant. This means food waste has increased from 9% of all waste to 10%, since pre-lockdown – which equates to a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole during lockdown.

As well as the variations in demand and unpredictability of ordering patterns, the survey found that disrupted supply chain and business models also had an impact on waste. Almost half (45%) of the restaurants surveyed said they throw most food waste in the bin, which is not good news for the UN target of halving global food waste by 2030.

On the flip side, however, consumers have seemingly become more aware of the food they waste at home and are now wasting less of their takeaway, down from 9% on average to 7.2%. The research estimates that, as a result, households have saved an average of £3.2 million per week during lockdown which adds up to £22.4 million all together.

Over half (59%) of consumers say that they have a greater oversight over how much food is wasted since Covid-19. And there is also agreement that food shortages have heightened awareness of food waste, with 84% agreeing that: “Stockpiling and empty supermarket shelves showed me how important it is to make the most of what we have”.

Changing behaviours and attitudes to food waste

Another recent survey conducted by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) of more than 4,000 participants found that almost a third of consumers said they were cooking more creatively while staying at home, while 30% have started saving leftovers. As a result of these new behaviours, the research shows that the public are throwing away a third less in food waste when compared to the average across 2018-2019, across four key products – bread, milk, potatoes and chicken.

Other changes in consumer behaviour and attitudes during lockdown, highlighted by the research include that:

  • 63% are shopping less often
  • 59% are buying more to create more meals at home
  • there has been a shift to more fresh produce and long-life products and less pre-cut veg, salad packs and ready meals
  • almost half (47%) are checking their cupboards more often before shopping, and 45% their fridge
  • 37% have been organising the food in their cupboards and the fridge
  • around 9 in 10 agree that “food waste is an important national issue” (87%) and that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food we throw away” (92%)

This shows there has been a small but significant change in attitudes towards food waste, according to WRAP, as this represents a 23% increase since November 2019 in the number of citizens that strongly agree with the above two statements.

Sustaining such behaviour and attitudes post-lockdown could certainly help in the fight against food waste, something the UK is already on target with.

Progress in reducing food waste

Indeed, before the current crisis, the UK had been making good progress in reducing food waste according to data from WRAP, with total levels falling by 480,000 tonnes between 2015 and 2018 – the equivalent of 7% per person and a reduction in emissions of 7.1 million tonnes CO2e.

The data shows there was a 27% reduction in food waste between 2007 and 2018, which has saved 1.7 million tonnes of food waste, equal to £4.7 billion. There was also an increase in the number of people that see food waste as an issue, rising from 26% in 2015 to 69% in 2019.

It is clear from the figures that we are moving in the right direction to meet both national and international targets on food waste, and that the current crisis has accelerated this, at least in the short term.

Final thoughts

It has been suggested that the current health crisis could perhaps be a catalyst for lasting air quality improvements. Could it also be a catalyst for a food waste revolution? The report from WRAP suggests it could be:

“This could be a watershed moment in the fight against food waste. There is a unique opportunity to embed these good habits into a ‘new normal’ – a culture which values food and reaps the maximum benefit from it. This makes good financial sense, at a time of economic uncertainty, but will also deliver significant benefits for the planet.”

Of course, the report also acknowledges that there are a range of behaviours that may require some level of support post-lockdown (particularly when citizens once again are more time-pressured). Similarly to the issue of air pollution, there will be a need to maintain certain changes and for new ways of thinking around tackling climate change across sectors when we once again shift focus back to the enduring climate emergency.

One thing is for sure, while we may begin to breathe more easily in the UK’s urban areas, it is no time to take our eye off the ball when it comes to tackling carbon emissions.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in some of our other recent posts related to food waste:

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One thought on “Food for thought: is Covid-19 a watershed moment in the fight against food waste?

  1. Pingback: Build back better: is now the time for Green New Deals? – Part 2 | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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