Ways for food retailers to reduce waste

03 July 2024, 08:25 AM
  • Independent retailers can lead the charge on slashing single-use plastics and reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfill – here’s how
Ways for food retailers to reduce waste

Growing numbers of sustainability initiatives have taken off in the food and drink industry in recent years, but waste continues to be a problem that many businesses struggle to deal with.

Food waste from all sectors is still a shocking 10.7 million tonnes in the UK, according to WRAP, 70% of which was intended to be consumed by people (while 30% accounts for ‘inedible’ food). This food could have gone on to make the equivale of over 15 billion meals, or enough to feed the entire UK population three meals a day for 11 weeks – instead, it wound up in landfill. 

Elsewhere, food packaging producers are making strides to move away from single-use plastics – but change isn’t happening overnight. Plastic packaging in the UK accounts for nearly 70% of our plastic waste, WRAP says, and we throw away around 290,000 tonnes of plastic bags and wrapping every year in this country. 

While national schemes are being introduced to address this, there are still actions that individual shop owners can take. Read on to discover the ways that independent retailers can cut back on waste.

One shop, five ways to reduce waste

Teals Farm Shop, nestled in the Somerset countryside, prioritises sustainability and eco-friendly practices throughout its operation. The shop has put numerous measures in place to reduce and better manage waste, alongside initiatives to promote environmental conservation and cut the shop’s carbon footprint.

“Bottles, cans, food waste, butchery bones, cardboard, cooking oil are all recycled and put to good use (bio-diesel, digestate, energy etc.) along with general waste,” explains founder Ash Sinfield. 

For example, the kitchen team uses as much short-dated product as possible from the food market in order to minimise food waste. This turns potential waste into products that are sold in other parts of the business or donated to Help for Homeless, a local charity that feeds the homeless populations in Bath, Yeovil, Taunton and Bristol each week.

The shop also has a milk machine where customers can buy fresh, organic milk in glass bottles or their own bottles, reducing the amount of plastic leaving the business. All the milk that’s used in the coffee and kitchen also comes from the milk machine, so no plastic bottle waste is created from coffee sold in the restaurant or food to go

What’s more, coffee grounds produced throughout the business go into compost that is used on the fields on the farm; food waste from the kitchen goes into producing bio-gas; and oil from cooking in the kitchen is collected and re-purposed as feedstock for bio-diesel and renewable diesel production.

“We try and keep general waste to an absolute minimum,” Ash says. Listing the benefits of this practice, she says, “It’s an effective and impactful discipline for the team, it respects the work that’s gone into production before ingredients arrive at Teals, it reduces our cost of recycling, is good for planet and helps ensure value-for-money to guests. What’s not to love!”

Looking ahead, the shop also has plans to expand its sustainability initiatives, for example installing a composter on site to manage waste more efficiently and generate nutrient-rich compost for the farm’s own use. “We love the idea that food, cup and paper waste can be turned into viable compost whilst we sleep. Whether that ends up in customer’s gardens or on the fields around us, it’s keeping more of our waste local and putting it to great use!” Ash says. 

A closer look at the food waste problem

Across grocery retail, it’s estimated that the equivalent of 190 million meals worth of waste is thrown away every year, amounting to more than 100,000 tonnes in total, says Philip Simpson, managing director of ReFood, a food waste recycler in the UK.

“Despite being seen as a ‘necessary evil’ to operating within the supply chain, food waste remains a major issue for speciality stores,” he says. “From bruised products and damaged packaging to out-of-date produce (which alone is said to be responsible for 87% of all retail food waste), the cause of this waste varies from store to store. However, it’s important to note that food waste costs you twice – firstly in lost revenue, but secondly in waste disposal costs.”

According to Philip, landfill tax has risen to £126.15 per tonne, so the sector is paying more than £12.5 million every year to discard wasted stock.

The first step to addressing this waste, he says, is to adopt best practice measures across your shop. “From tightening up stock rotation processes and inspecting deliveries at the point of receipt, to improving labelling, increasing cold chain efficiencies, optimising forecasting and applying discounts in good time, amending processes can deliver immediate benefits,” Philip says.

Any remaining food waste should then be recycled or composted rather than sent to landfill. 

Farm shops have an excellent opportunity to instal their own compost systems, like Teals plans to do, to keep their food waste inside a closed loop system on their farm. However, if that’s not possible for your shop, food waste recycling facilities can turn food that’s no longer edible into renewable energy. Through anaerobic digestion systems, the methane that is naturally released when food breaks down is captured and used to generate power.

Other by-products can also be created. For example, ReFood makes a sustainable bio-fertiliser from the residue left after the anaerobic digestion process, which is used by local farmers as an alternative to chemical fertilisers. “The benefits of embracing food waste recycling are numerous – reducing reliance on landfill, preventing the release of greenhouse gases, generating renewable energy and providing a sustainable fertiliser for farmers. However, with zero landfill tax charges to pay, it can also prove a simple way to quickly and effectively reduce overheads,” Philip says.

Small, independent retailers can also join a ‘Target, Measure, Act’ approach to tackling food waste that’s used by both WRAP’s Food Waste Reduction Roadmap and the Courtauld Commitment 2030, a voluntary agreement in the food and drink industry that was created to deliver farm-to-fork reductions in food waste. 

Sophie Trueman, UK country director at Too Good To Go, an app that helps shops to offer customers ‘surprise bags’ of food that would otherwise go to waste, outlines a number of steps retailers can take to minimise food waste.

“Avoid overbuying,” she begins. “Often it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Work is busy, and it can be hard to find time, but trying to dedicate time to gauge your stocks before buying will help prevent food waste.” Secondly, she recommends educating employees. “Add protocols and employee training programs to raise awareness of food waste and the harmful effects on the environment.”

Next, dispose of items correctly, Sophie says. “If food does need to be disposed of, use the correct bins. Retailers should have a range of waste storage bins such as recycling, food and general waste.” And lastly, she says retailers have a role to play in empowering customers “to regain trust in their senses by clarifying the meaning of Best Before date labels.”

‘New thinking’ is needed on plastic waste

The introduction of bans on plastic carrier bags and takeaway containers has undoubtedly had an impact on the amount of plastic waste ending up in landfill – but single-use plastics remain a significant problem in the UK, with food and drink being a leading contributor of plastic waste.

The Big Plastic Count, conducted by Greenpeace UK and Everyday Plastic with the University of Portsmouth, found that UK households discard an estimated 90 billion plastic pieces annually, with only 17% being recycled domestically. This year, the survey of nearly 225,000 people found snack packaging and fruit and veg packaging emerged as the most commonly counted plastic items. In fact, 81% of plastic counted consisting of food and drink packaging.

“It’s clear from these results that the plastic waste problem is not getting any better, and that recycling is not going to solve it,” Dr Cressida Bowyer, deputy director of the Revolution Plastics Institute, said upon the publication of the results in April. 

“New thinking around packaging choices, backed up by legislation, is urgently needed,” she said, calling for more reuse and refill systems to “transform the plastics economy from a linear to a more circular model”. 

Refills are an area where independent retailers have long led the charge, and many retailers who have introduced refill set-ups still report strong success, with customers keen to reduce their packaging footprint and often save money.

According to WRAP’s research, shoppers are open to trying different refill and reuse options, and around half of those who haven’t yet are receptive to trying. However, only a few have adopted refill as a habit. Read more about selling refill products here

Where refills aren’t possible, consumers widely agree that packaging should be more sustainable.

“The direction of travel on packaging is increasingly embedded, driven by awareness and customers starting to demand or expect good practice,” Ash says. “With supply chains becoming more cost effective and brilliant and creative solutions emerging across the world every day, retailers have a responsibility in both directions to help drive change.”

At Teals, fruit and veg sold in the food market is never wrapped in plastic; instead paper bags can be used to purchase them. The trays used in the butchery to hold the meat products can also be recycled via household collections in Somerset. 

But far from putting the onus entirely on customers, shops like Teals are doing important work on waste management. For example, Teals works with seven different waste providers to collect different waste streams that the business produces, so each can be recycled or repurposed in the most effective way for the planet. 

By taking action on waste, fine food retailers can not only showcase their values to customers, but also lead the way on a more sustainable food sector.

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