The Management Problems Of Household Food Waste Environmental Sciences Essay


Each year in the UK we throw away about 1/3 of all the food we buy and at least half of this food could have been eaten (WRAP 2007). The vast majority of household food waste ends up in landfill; Figure 1 shows an example of food waste that is discarded into landfill. It then rots producing methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Methane emissions from biodegradable waste (i.e. food waste) in landfill account for 40% of all UK methane emissions and 3% of all UK GHG emissions (DEFRA 2007). This is particularly important given that the consumption of food in the UK is estimate to be responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 22% of the overall total for the country (HM Government 2005).

Household waste makes up approximately 90% of the 30 million tonnes of the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated each year in the UK (Knipe 2005). Of this an estimated 31% is food waste (WRAP 2009a). Of the total MSW 78% is being sent to landfill and just 12% recycled (Barr 2004). In 2007(a) a DEFRA report suggested that household waste per person per year was around 450kg. This is a huge amount of waste for individuals to be throwing away and with around 31% being made up of household food waste there is significant room for large scale reductions.

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Figure 1: - Examples of the household food waste that is landfilled

A reduction in the amount of MSW going to landfill is largely being achieved through the recycling of glass, paper and metal. The requirement for a significant reduction in biodegrable waste going to landfill has refocused attention on food waste (Knipe 2005).

The aim of the report is to look at the current data for Household waste in the UK and how trends have changed temporally. The report will also present data on percentages of how the food waste is disposed and/or recycled. Legislation is also an important factor in the future of any waste management strategy and directives from the EU as well as within the UK are going to affect how food waste is dealt with in the future. With all waste there will be barriers to improving waste management performance, whether economic or social factors. These barriers must be removed and possible solutions for the disposal of food waste found to reduce the amount of household food waste that is just landfilled.

Current Household Food Waste Data

Figure 2: - Total Amount of Municipal Waste in England (2006-2009) (DEFRA 2009)

Figure 2 above shows the total amount of municipal waste in the UK over the last 3 years. The data shows a decrease in the amount of household waste being produced. Over the 3 year period there has been a drop of around 2,000,000 tonnes. This is due to a number of factors such as increasing kerbside recycling, increased education about recycling as well as increased collections. If household food waste accounts for 31% of the total municipal waste then we can calculate that just over 9 million tonnes of the waste in 2008/09 was from household food sources.

Figure 3 below shows that the majority of the MSW (5.8 million tonnes per year/70%) is collected by Local Authorities. A further 1.8 million tonnes per year is disposed of via the sewer (WRAP 2009). As we can see only a very small amount (less than 10%) is currently being composted or fed to animals.

Figure 3: - Weight of food and drink waste generated in the UK, split by disposal route (WRAP 2009)

Approximately 2/3 of the 8.3 million tonnes of food waste, (5.3 million tonnes per year) is avoidable (see Figure 4). The remaining 3 million tonnes per year is split equally between unavoidable and possibly avoidable waste (WRAP 2009). Figure 3 shows that over 80% (6.8 million tonnes per year) could potentially be avoided. This is a huge amount of household food and drink waste that can be reduced or diverted from landfill for composting.

Figure 4: - Weight of food and drink waste generated in the UK, split by avoidability (WRAP 2009)

Figure 3: - Weight of food and drink waste generated in the UK, split by avoidability (WRAP 2009)

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Of the avoidable food and drink waste, 2.2 million tonnes is leftover after cooking, preparing or serving and 2.9 million tonnes is not used in time (WRAP 2009). Obviously some food and drink waste is going to be unavoidable such as cores from apples and pears for example. However this only accounts for about 17% or 1.5 million tonnes of the total food and drink waste produced each year (see Figure 4). Food not being used in time through over buying of food for example, makes up nearly 50% of the reason for disposal. 40% of wastage is then made up from over estimating cooking portions, i.e. the meal is served but some is left at the end (see Figure 5 below).

Figure 5: - Weight of avoidable food and drink waste generated in the UK, split by reason for disposal (WRAP 2009)

Figure 6 shows the proportion of food and drink wasted in each of the different food groups. As the graph shows fresh fruit, vegetables and salad make up 1/3 of all the food waste each year. Generation of household food waste results from: -

Food preparation (e.g. fruit and vegetable peelings, removal of meat fat)

Leftovers (e.g. excess quantities, fat and bones)

Spoilt food (e.g. stale, mould growth, rancid)

Refrigerator and freezer accidents (e.g. power cuts)

Over purchasing of food and adherence to sell-by and used-by dates

Figure 6: - Proportion of all food and drink wasted in England split by food group (WRAP 2009)

Household Food Waste Management

Figure 7: - Total Municipal Waste Recycling Rates in England (2006-2009) (DEFRA 2009)

Figure 7 shows the Total municipal waste recycling rate for England. As the graph shows recycling rates have increased nearly 10% over the last 3 years. This current trend is going to increase over the coming years. The Waste Strategy 2007, set MSW recycling and composting targets at recycling and composting of household waste of at least 40% by 2010, 45% by 2015 and 50% by 2020 (DEFRA 2007a) As the graph shows the 2010 target could definitely be reached on time.

Figure 8: - Management Strategy for Municipal Waste in England (2006-2009) (DEFRA 2009)

Figure 8 shows the current Management Strategy for municipal waste in England from 2006-2009. As the graph shows there has been a reduction of nearly 4 million tonnes of municipal waste going to landfill over this 3 year period. This is only going to increase with the European Union's Landfill Directive (1991/31/EC). The directive stipulates that the UK must reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill in the target years of 2010, 2013 and 2020 to 75%, 50% and 35% respectively of the amount landfilled in 1995 (Knipe 2005). This is going to help push forward household food waste strategies. The amount recycled has gone up 1 million tonnes from about 9 million to 10 million tonnes of municipal household waste.

Figure 9: - Total Municipal Waste Recovery in England (2006-2009) (DEFRA 2009)

Figure 9 shows the current rate of growth for Municipal Waste Recovery in England. A current growth of around 2% a year wouldn't be enough to reach the Government targets (see Table 1 for breakdown of Municipal Waste Recovery Targets). However because of lower levels of waste growth than previously expected recovery rates should rise above current 2% per year as education of recycling gets better and more schemes and incentives are set up for waste recovery, recycling and composting.

Current and Impending UK Legislation for the Management of Household Food Waste

The Waste Strategy for England 2007 set out a number of actions for the Government to take forward to contribute to the objectives in relation to household food waste:

Meet and exceed the EU Landfill Directive diversion targets for biodegradable municipal waste in 2010 (75%), 2013 (50%) and 2020 (35%) (of the amount landfilled in 1995)

Secure the investment in infrastructure needed to divert waste from landfill and for the management of hazardous waste

Get the most environmental benefit from that investment, through increased recycling of waste and recovery of energy from residual waste using a mix of technologies.

Target Year

National Directive

Household Waste Recycling and Composting (from 2000 levels)

Household Residual Waste (from 2000 levels)

Recovery of Municipal Waste (from 2000 levels)

Landfill Directive Diversion Targets

Household waste not re-used/recycled or composted Targets


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29% reduction


75% (of 1995 levels)

15.8 million tonnes (29% reduction on 2000 levels)


(*= 2013)


35% reduction


*50% (of 1995 levels)



45% reduction


35% (of 1995 levels)

12.2 million tonnes (45% reduction on 2000 levels)

Table 1: - Summary of UK Targets relating to household food waste

Table 1 above gives the breakdown of the impending UK targets for household food waste. The aim of these targets is to have an annual net reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from waste management of at least 9.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year compared to 2006 (DEFRA 2007a).

Key EU Directives and Regulations Relevant to the Management of Household Food Waste

The directives below are the most important directives in relation to household food waste from the EU. They aim to improve waste management as well as consider the environment, human health as well and climate change implications.

Framework Directive on Waste Directive 75/442/EEC as amended by 91/156/ECC

Figure 10: - The Waste Hierarchy This Directive establishes a framework for the management of waste across the EU. Figure 10 shows the Waste Hierarchy, it sets out the order in which options for waste management should be considered based on environmental impact (DEFRA 2010). Waste prevention is the most favourable of all the options. The directives aim is to ensure the best methods are employed to reduce waste with waste prevention being the most desirable. Household food waste mainly comes under recycling/composting or energy recovery. These are the 2 main areas that the government is looking at in terms of household food waste.

Landfill of Waste Directive 1999/31/EC

The main objective of this Directive is "to provide for measures, procedures and guidance to prevent/ reduce the negative effects on the environment, in particular the pollution of surface/ground water, soil and air, as well as any resulting risk to human health" (see Table 1 for the stipulations of the Directive). The aim of the directive is to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive 2001/42/EC

The objective of this Directive is "to provide a high level of protection for the environment and contribute to the integration of environmental considerations into the preparation and adoption of plans/programmes with a view to promoting sustainable development. An environmental assessment is carried out of certain plans/programmes which are likely to have significant effects on the environment".

Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive 96/61/EC

The purpose of this Directive is to achieve integrated prevention and control of pollution arising from waste treatment facilities. The Directive requires consideration of the Best Available Techniques (BAT) to avoid or reduce emissions from certain installations and reduce the impact on the environment as a whole.

Principle Barriers to Improved Household Food Waste Management and Solutions

Sustainable development cannot be imposed from above. It will not take root unless people across the country are actively engaged (DEFRA, 2002b). The Waste Strategy 2000 (DETR, 2000) argued that individuals/households have a vital role to play in achieving sustainable waste management through:

Buying products which will produce less waste and those made from recycled materials

Separating our wastes for recycling, and composting kitchen and garden waste

Participating in local debates about how best to manage our waste

Knipe (2005) lists the issues which require consideration when developing a household food waste strategy including issues like: -

Population densities

Financial costs and budgets

Potential increase in food waste

Fit with the rest of the waste strategy

Public education, incentives and penalties

Public and political acceptability

Barriers can be overcome and management solutions improved. Environmental threat has been highlighted by Baldassare and Katz (1992) as a major influence on pro-environmental action, not least because individuals who feel threatened by given environmental problems believe that individual action is necessary to alleviate them. De Young (1986) has argued that individuals who gain intrinsic satisfaction from behaviours such as recycling are more likely to begin and maintain such behaviours. Stern et al. (1995) found that these individuals tended to be more open to social change. Indeed, there is a need for individuals to take an active role by considering - What we buy, what we throw away, and how we use our voice (DETR, 1999b). However the main obstacles are education and bureaucracy. Currently there are 500 instruments of regulation for waste in the EU. The aim of the Waste Strategy 2007 was to help push forward development of projects as well as informing consumers about how to reduce, re-use and recycle. Education of waste options and strategies helps increase knowledge and makes the general public feel included in their local waste management plans.


Despite its relatively small size, the municipal waste sector is financially important. Between 2001-02 and 2005-06 waste spending by English local authorities increased from £1.65 billion to £2.44 billion (DEFRA, 2007). Overall, municipal waste is only about 9% of the total waste stream (DEFRA, 2007) but it has a significance beyond this for several reasons: a lower proportion of it is recycled than other waste; it is regarded as a major contributor to the production of gases that affect global warming; it continues to increase at a rate that is regarded as unsustainable; and, there is a limit to the amount of landfill space available (Davis 2007). To purchase the avoidable fraction of food and drink (per year) waste would cost £12 billion or £480 per year for the average household, rising to around £680 per year for families with children (WRAP 2009). This is a lot of food waste that is being unnecessarily wasted. The aim of the Waste Strategy 2007 is to help alleviate some of these issues and promote future development. Household recycling rates are also on the rise, and at a faster rate than ever before. Green recycling (composting) now accounts for over one-third of total recycling, compared to around one-fifth in 1998/99 (DEFRA 2009).

The future for household food waste looks very green; EU and UK legislation are helping to promote the need to address household food waste as a real issue. Education of the benefits of reducing food wastage and food waste composting also need to be introduced. Further incentives for home composting also need to be implemented to help reduce the impact of food waste on the environment. Local governments also need to introduce more schemes to work with supermarkets to get the message across about reducing food waste. There are strong arguments for encouraging more separate collection of food waste, especially since it can help achieve environmental gains more cost-effectively, including through the use of anaerobic digestion to provide energy. Separate collection of food waste has so far been introduced by a small number of authorities, all on a weekly basis and WRAP research suggests this can lead to higher tonnage and participation rates (DEFRA 2007).

Figure 10: - West Dorset Kerbside Food Waste Recycling Initiative