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Covid and food waste: do we have reason to be optimistic?

Updated: Apr 12, 2021

Blog by Emma

Sustainable Merton Community Champion & Food Team Leader

Did you know that if global food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the US? Or, that millions of tonnes of edible food is being thrown away each year whilst at the same time 8.4 million people in the UK alone struggle to get enough to eat?

Surplus food waste is one of the biggest problems facing humanity today but charities like Sustainable Merton is making strides toward combating the issue through initiatives such as their Community Fridges, but it’s a daunting challenge when faced with these statistics.

A year on from the first lockdown, it’s time to assess where we are in our efforts to combat food waste.

We would be forgiven for wanting to draw a line under 2020 and forgetting it ever happened, but amongst the gloomy news, there was the occasional story that lifted our spirits and made us feel hopeful. One such story that inspired me is the shifting attitude households have towards the amount of food that ends up in their bins.

During the UK’s first lockdown a report by Wrap (The Waste and Resource Action Programme) showed that consumers were being more conscientious in their eating habits. Not only were more people planning ahead their weekly meals, but they were generally being more creative with their cooking by using up any leftovers. It led to an incredible 30% reduction in food waste of potatoes, bread, chicken and milk, some of the most wasted food groups.

Admittedly, when lockdown eased over the Summer of 2020 and a degree of normalcy returned to our lives, things started to slip. Children returned to school, some people returned to work, and all those usual pre-Covid time pressures came flooding back to us. As a result, batch cooking and creatively using ingredients were two of the main behaviours that people struggled to maintain.

But what I found interesting in the third, and (at time of writing) most recent Wrap report, is that although these behaviours may have slipped some others seem to have stuck with us and, overall, the amount of food we are wasting at home is still well below pre-lockdown levels. Actions such as using up leftovers and freezing surplus food are still being performed by the majority of people who only started to do so during lockdown. When we consider that the average family of four can save just over £60 per month by reducing their food waste it’s easy to understand why people may not want to stop their food rescuing efforts entirely.

Covid and the holidays..

We have a complicated relationship with food waste during the holidays. On the one hand, we’re all guilty of piling too much food on our plates that we cannot possibly manage, but it’s also a time when we make resolutions to change our behaviour for the better. The website Love Food Hate Waste reports their highest levels of web traffic between Christmas and New Year, and in 2019 they received one-fifth of their entire visits for the year during this period! It will be interesting to learn whether Christmas 2020 was even busier for the website.

If you’re in charge of the Christmas cooking next year, why not explore inventive ways to use up your leftovers. How about turkey and cranberry spring rolls or turkey and sweetcorn burgers? But if you can’t wait until then to start using up your leftovers, there are plenty of other delicious recipes on the Love Food Hate Waste website to get started with in the meantime.

So what can we do to keep the momentum going and ensure we as a society don’t let our behaviours slip further?

In an effort to re-energise people’s enthusiasm for combating food waste, Love Food Hate Waste launched an initiative in August 2020 called Keep Crushing It. And in October 2020 WRAP started a new brand called Wasting Food: It's Out of Date. WRAP has conducted enough research to prove that when people see their campaigns a large percentage of people then take action as a direct result. So I encourage you all to explore these sites and get on social media and start sharing!

It’s hard to know how behaviours will evolve as we move forward. How will a return to our 'normal lives' affect our willpower to reduce food waste, considering we’ve seen some behaviours slip already?

I remain optimistic and believe we’re all a little less cavalier about throwing food away. After seeing the queues at the supermarkets and knowing that the use of food banks is on the rise, we have a better appreciation that food is a precious commodity not to be needlessly wasted. And let’s not forget that the proof is in the figures - we’re still nowhere near the amount of food wasted pre-lockdown.

But it’s not time to become complacent, let’s continue to support each other on our waste warrior journeys throughout 2021!

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