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Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Tuesday, 15 April 2008 12:01 UK

Liz MacKean
by Liz MacKean
BBC Newsnight

Newsnight reports on the huge amounts of uneaten food that is thrown away every year by UK householders.

We are a nation that's being force-fed a diet of healthy food messages, but it turns out we have a guilty secret.

Huge amounts of uneaten food are going straight into the household bin. And an awful lot of that is the fruit and veg we're all supposed to be eating more of.

New figures from the government waste agency WRAP lay it bare for the first time.

Householders chuck out 6.7m tonnes of unwanted food every year at a cost to us of 8bn. That's the equivalent of chucking out one bag of food for every three that we buy.

Around 40% of that is fresh fruit and veg - nearly 4.5m apples, and more than 5m potatoes and 1.5m bananas.

Scale of waste

Tomatoes get the bin treatment too - we throw away nearly three million of them.

WRAP's Director of Organics, Dr Richard Swannell, says people are generally unaware of the scale of the waste.

Food waste
When food waste rots it produces methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times more damaging than CO2
He says, "We don't store food properly and so it goes out of date and we throw it away because it has gone off, or we cook too much and it gets thrown away at the end of a meal, so we don't get the portion control right.

"I think the key thing is that we are not aware we are doing it and we have got ourselves in the habit of treating food like this."


The mountain of food that gets wasted dwarfs that great public enemy, the plastic bag.

The recent blitz of publicity to get us to stop using so many even saw the Prime Minister writing about the need for us to cut back.

But take a trip to one of Britain's 250 landfill sites and you see why the wasted food is coming to be seen as such a problem for the environment.

When it rots it produces methane, a greenhouse gas more than twenty times more damaging than CO2.

Peter Jones from one of the country's biggest waste companies, Biffa, says, "Most people think that throwing away food is beneficial to the planet, it rots, it biodegrades, what's the problem? Landfill is the problem.

"We have got 60m people consuming about 30m tonnes of food a year and it has been calculated that each tonne of that food consumption is absorbing as much as 20 tonnes of the planet's resources."

Ludlow trial

The Nicholas household
The Nicholas family changed their behaviour after the Ludlow waste trial
The other issue is the sheer amount of energy that goes into food just for it to be wasted. It's reckoned about twenty tonnes of energy is used up for every one tonne of food that is produced.

A trial in the Shropshire town of Ludlow is offering an alternative to our bin-bag culture. Householders have been issued with a separate bin, along with biodegradable bags.

They're asked to keep their food waste separate from the general rubbish. It's collected every week and brought to the town's anaerobic digester - a sort of Robocop of food waste - designed to turn the scourge of rotting food into a force for environmental good.

It all gets shredded and liquefied. It then goes through a process of fermentation and pasteurisation before being turned into fertiliser for local farms.

At every stage of the process, methane gas is collected and used to power the plant, and the vehicles that ferry the waste here.

In the Nicholas household in Ludlow, nursery assistant Kim has taken part in the food waste trials for more than a year.

Her children Natasha, Payton, and Joshua are equally enthusiastic and help to make sure that all the food scraps go into the green bags at their home.

"I'm cooking less", says Kim Hughes, as her children stoically eat their way through their vegetables.


Throwing food into landfill sites produces methane
Environmental campaigners want to see more investment in plants like this. As rising landfill taxes start to bite, there will be greater financial incentives to do so.

But Friends of the Earth are preparing to fight plans to build new incinerators.

Despite the large capital cost and the probability of drawn out planning disputes, campaigners fear councils are being tempted by the large amounts of residual waste that incineration can dispose of and the potential of getting funding from private finance initiatives.

Dr Michael Warhurst of Friends of the Earth says, "It is very clear that the best thing to do from a climate point of view and trying to be as efficient as possible with the world's scare resources is to make sure we are recycling as much as possible and preventing waste, but what tends to happen with landfill taxes is that people go from one not very good solution, landfill, to another not very good solution, incineration."


The best way to reduce the rubbish mountain is to be less wasteful about what we're throwing out.

The government's waste strategy last year prioritises minimisation. This is where the trial in Ludlow has had an effect.

You certainly see it in the Nicholas household. Kim says as soon as she started putting the food waste in a separate bag she realised how much the family were wasting - now she monitors their portion sizes and reduces them.

This is the sort of awareness WRAP hopes to shock us into with its new research: a more mindful approach to waste begins at home.

Liz MacKean's film on waste food can be seen on Newsnight on 15 April, 2008, on BBC Two and on the Newsnight website 2230BST/2130GMT.

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