By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Millions of tonnes of edible food is dumped into landfill each year. A charity is launching a scheme to put it to better use and supermarkets are considering recycling food into energy.
More than a third of household waste is food
There's a heatwave out there. Fancy a steaming bowl of soup? Not really? So what happens to the stacks of unsold fresh soup stacked up in supermarkets up and down the land?
All too often it gets dumped into landfill. Food that doesn't get sold, products that are caught out by changes in the weather, packaging from food that was never even opened can all be bulldozed into landfill.
But in an effort to reduce this waste - and to make better use of unsold food - a charity is launching a project to find more beneficial uses for the unwanted food mountain.
FareShare, a charity dedicated to reducing food poverty, is offering supermarkets, manufacturers and sandwich chains an alternative to using landfill.
Working with companies such as Sainsburys, Tesco and Waitrose, it currently takes unsold food to provide meals for about 12,000 homeless and low-income people every day.
And now it wants to provide a much wider service, charging a fee to get rid of much larger quantities.
"In the past, we might have been offered 100 pallets of some type of food by a manufacturer - but we could only take a quarter. So now we want to be able to take all of it - and offer them different ways of disposing it," says the charity's spokesman, Alex Green
Millions of tonnes of edible food ends up in landfill
As well as distributing it for meals - through 320 organisations helping the homeless, elderly and children's charities - the charity will now re-use the food in other ways such as composting and re-cycling the packaging.
"We want to maximise the use of good food. We want as little as possible of the product to go into landfill," says Mr Green.
The charity estimates that about five thousand people in each parliamentary constituency in the UK are malnourished - and it wants to use surplus food to improve the quality and quantity of these people's diets.
At present, FareShare collects, stores and redistributes about 2,000 tonnes of food each year. But this is only a small fraction of the amount that gets thrown away.
Just how much food and food packaging gets put into landfill is uncertain.
Food into energy
According to the government-funded recycling agency, Wrap, about five million tonnes of food goes into household waste. And there are estimates of total consumer and industrial food waste reaching 17 million tonnes, including four million tonnes of edible food.
Supermarkets have been giving unsold food to charities
A report this year from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showed how small changes in packaging could make a difference. Taking out a layer of plastic from a KitKat multipack saved 160 tonnes of waste, it says.
And individual supermarkets have been examining ways of re-using unsold food. Tesco is testing "gasification" technology which would use food waste to generate energy.
But it still raises the prospect of huge amounts of food being harvested, transported for thousands of miles, processed and packaged - and then dumped without even being opened.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Ten years ago, I worked for a supermarket as a night porter. At the end of my shift I would witness large amounts of unopened, unsold bread being bagged as rubbish. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the bread, and it really bothered me that so much food was going to waste. At the time, I remarked that this food could be used for charitable purposes but it continued to be wasted. It's good to know that something is finally being done - better late than never.
Wake up people, the future of British industry is in recycling and reusing waste material.
Karl Owens, Hinckley
Supermarkets should be charged for the amount of food they throw out as an incentive to sell it on.
Can you image the field day the press would have if food was given to a charity and someone was taken ill as a result. Unfortunately you can not blame them for their caution.
It is a shame the supermarkets have so much surplus food. There are then restaurants and homes which waste food, when there are people in need of a meal. Many products have too much packaging - Easter eggs for example. Manufacturers have a responsibility to reduce waste and use more recycled/recyclable packaging.
Hang on a minute - surely if supermarkets were to discount the surplus/unwanted/short-dated foodstuffs to a highly reasonable sum, they would be able to entice customers to buy and then use it, instead of it going straight in the bin? Or am I being simple and forgetting about how profit and power hungry our food suppliers have now become?
To Ian who suggested discounting surplus foodstuffs: good idea, but it would require a significant change in the way most people shop. This short-dated stuff needs to be eaten pretty much straight away, so it would rely upon people buying things as they needed them. Most people these days do a weekly shop, so already have their meals planned out and purchased for. They might take advantage of a heavily discounted item if it took their fancy, but this would probably mean something else in their fridge would go to waste. So it just moves the problem on, rather than solving it.
Emma, Hope Valley
I used to work in a supermarket a few years ago, and it is criminal the amount of perfectly good food that gets thrown out. I used to have to check dates as one of my roles. And the amount of food that went in the bin if it didn't sell at a reduced price is heart-breaking when you consider the millions starving in the world! The problem traditionally has been that no-one high-up in these companies seems to think to do anything - hopefully that will change.
Phil, Angus, Scotland
I have worked in [supermarkets] as second jobs. The amount of food and tins that goes in the bin is a disgrace. Even staff who would like to buy at a reduced price especially after Xmas, were not allowed. To my question why, I was told "company policy" and no one knew exactly why this happened.
Let's introduce some heavy fines for the sort of behaviour [where shops] have a policy of never marking down food and very rarely allowing organisations such as Fareshare to distribute it to those in need. No, they prefer to dump the whole lot, staff caught trying to rescue anything from the bin are routinely sacked.
If it is that bad in the UK, how bad do you think it is here in the USA! Every resturant I have been to here serves so much more than any normal human being can eat!
Lynda Nolan, Bedford, VA, USA
I thought that the online stores where the cunning way of getting rid of this near dated food. Whenever you buy using the supermarket's e-commerce sites, the food is invariably at or very near its sell by date.
If there is one thing I absolutely detest, it is food being wasted. I suppose it comes from growing up back in the 60s/70s when there wasn't the range of convenience foods that people have now; you had to eat what your mum put in front of you and there was no argument over it. I also detest it from the point of view that there are so many people (even in our own country) who don't have enough to eat, like pensioners who have to choose between food and bills, also the homeless and other vulnerables in our society.
Whilst some wastage of food is arguably inevitable, the current amounts wasted (some estimates are as high as 25%) show that the major supermarkets are deliberately restricting supply. One of the consequences of food distribution now being a near monopoly in each area means that supermarkets now find it more profitable to destroy unsold food than to discount it or dispose of it to, say the needy, as this would under cut their main sales base. This deliberate control of supply, is, of course, one of the most damaging aspects of the limited competition, and illustrates why more competition needs to be introduced.
My guess would be that supermarkets dump all this food because they don't want the legal trouble of someone feeling a bit ill after eating some bread that's a couple of minutes out of date.
Goodness me, there are some outlandish conspiracy theories here. I don't work for a supermarket but I do have inside knowledge. I can assure you that food waste at the store is in the low single percents, not 25% as someone claims here. Retailers hate to dispose of food because it comes off their bottom line. It's a problem recognised at the highest level and they try hard to contain it. The problem is, with short life products you can't precisely forecast demand, so either you have many gaps on the shelf or some food is left over. It's also illegal to sell food past its sell by date, so yes Rob, retailers don't want to break the law.
Maybe this charity can redirect some of this surplus back to the poor low paid supermarket workers like me...
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.