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Food waste: What happens in Cambridge?
Discarded fruit and vegetables
Jozef Hall found all of this food thrown out in bins near Cambridge market

Over eight million tonnes of food is thrown away every year in the UK, yet much of it is still usable.

This figure was revealed in a BBC television programme, the Great British Waste Menu, which was broadcast on 25 August 2010.

The programme inspired BBC Radio Cambridgeshire's Jozef Hall to see what the food waste situation was like here in Cambridgeshire.

To do so he visited the traditional market in the middle of Cambridge.


Supermarkets are usually accused of being the worst culprits when it comes to food waste. Yet the Great British Waste Menu revealed markets, restaurants and cafes were also throwing away masses of unwanted, yet still edible, food.

BBC Radio Cambridgeshire's Jozef Hall visited Cambridge's market square to discover how much unsold food is wasted.

He spoke to Andy from Close Produce who told him what they do towards the end of the day: "We tend to sell most of ours off cheap, and we don't have to throw most of it away. People have it at a good price."

Local grower

Jo Harvey is from Harvey & Sons, which is the only local grower/seller in the Cambridge area to sell its produce at the market.

She told Jozef that knowing the city well means they rarely have to waste food: "We grow local vegetables, so we only pick what we know we're going to sell for that day and bring it in fresh, and that way we don't have the waste.

"Most small stores only order in a small amount. The problem with supermarkets is they deal with such huge amounts so it's very easy to get it wrong."

Mix of fruit and veg in bin
More discarded fruit and vegetables in bins near Cambridge market

She does believe that shoppers have become more picky: "Five years ago we used to have people who would come around at the end of the day and they would be waiting to buy at a cheaper price, whereas nowadays we can't do that, they wouldn't buy them."

Jo says she no longer has to do that.

Allotment glut

The problem of too much produce is also known to many keen home-growers.

Two websites have been set up by Cambridgeshire allotment holders, keen to find a way of using their glut of produce.

David Bower set up Lourish in summer 2010 to encourage home-growers to swap food with others in the area.

In summer 2009 Mark Desvaux and Dan Spence set up Foodshare to link allotment growers with local charities interested in taking their surplus.


Back at Cambridge's market, Jozef was keen to see for himself how much perfectly edible food ended up in the bins.

At four o'clock there was nothing in the bin, by five o'clock he was beginning to wonder if there was nothing in the story, but by six o'clock he was shocked by what he found.

"I have to say there's a lot of fruit and veg," he said with his head buried in a bin. "You've got peppers, grapes, nothing wrong with them, plums, apples, carrots, tomatoes - I don't think I'd touch them - bananas, nothing wrong with them and even potatoes. Nectarines, peaches and onions too.

"Hang on a minute, a melon too. Worth waiting for."

So what next for this binned fruit and veg?

Financial cost

Every district council in Cambridgeshire encourages households to do their bit. We are expected to do home composting, or to put spoilt food into green bags or bins, which will later be turned into compost.

Sell-by and best-before dates on food are blamed for unnecessary waste, as are BOG-OFFs - or buy one get one free deals.

It is also claimed that people no longer know how to use up left-overs or cook and store food which is slightly past its best, which is adding to the increase in dumped food.

There is a financial cost to households. Figures from Love Food Hate Waste reveal that wasting food costs the average family with children £680 a year.


The county's household waste ends up at a huge waste processing plant at Waterbeach in South Cambridgeshire, run by the company Donarbon.

Food and garden waste separated out by households is turned into high-quality compost which can be used by farmers.

This is not the case for food waste mixed in with other rubbish.

"There's a lot of food waste, definitely," Mark Shelton, Donarbon's waste promotion manager confirmed. "We know there's lots of food waste in the rubbish because anyone who's visited us can see the seagulls.

"Seagulls and other vermin are on our landfill because of the food waste that people throw away, that should be recycled in their green bins."

Donarbon has a new mechanical biological treatment (MBT) plant, which separates recyclable waste from people's black bags.

However, because it might have been mixed in with contaminants like disposable nappies, paint pots or leaking batteries, it is not considered suitable for farms.

It is turned into compost-like material, which gardeners can have for free.

Trade waste

The discarded fruit and vegetables discovered in municipal bins by Jozef is treated differently to household waste.

"Some of the market stall waste could come to us, but it counts as trade waste," explained Mark Shelton. "If it is collected by Cambridge City Council then it will go through the MBT plant and again go to this compost-like process.

"But if it's kept separate - and we do offer separate collections to pubs and restaurants etc - we can compost it and produce compost to local farmers and free to the public."

Ultimately, choosing not to separate waste - whether it is household or business waste - does not just have an environmental impact.

"There's the landfill tax, and that's going to go up by £8 a tonne a year - it's already at £48 a tonne - so if people don't separate their waste and it goes to landfill, then as a business they'll be paying very heftily as a tax," explained Mark Shelton.

"And if it goes in a black bin and we can't sort it out, then the council pays that tax.

"If people want to save money then yes, keep it separate, send it to be composted, or better still reduce it in the first place.

"That really is the best bet, and it will help cut business costs for waste as well as council tax."

Have your say

What do you think about food waste in Cambridgeshire?

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I agree with the suggestion in the Waste Menu programme in that supermarkets and shops - and market stalls too - could have a separate section with 'food to be eaten today', reduced for instant sale (or even given free, rather then thrown away!); this would encourage people to buy the food and there would be less waste. There should also be more incentive for people to compost centrally if they have no room at home. It is wonderful that Donarbon give away their soil improver, but quite difficult to organise yourself with spade, bins or bags, and transport - and then having to get this stuff back to the allotment too... Suki Sharples, Cambridge

What a fantastic programme. It showed what food faddies many people are now. I am now 63 and like all sorts of food as long as it is prepared correctly. I am saddened by how the supermarket chains 'authorise' what we can eat. They often 'fix' prices with suppliers and dare to dismiss the less expensive cuts of meat in favour of a more profitable product. I love ox tongue which I smother in mustard sauce (Yum) but am unable to buy, even in the local butcher.

However I am certain that some of the abattoirs keep little known and best bits to themselves. I still miss sheep neck breads, totally delicious with bacon. When I left home at 17 I could only afford the cheapest cuts, like my other friends who left home young to fend for themselves, many of us lived on breast of lamb, mine casseroled (stewed with pearl barley) or roasted. I was bought up not to be picky or faddy (however I was dismissive of some then) but now appreciate the flavour of less expensive cuts cooked to perfection. I must make shin beef or oxtail soon. As for misshapen veg, bring it on, tastes just as good. Also, why oh why are we saddled with awful bagged water cress, all bitty and disgusting, what happened to the real thing packed in greaseproof or paper cones? As for fruit, which does not suit my ulcer too well, a compote does not require the freshest or youngest. Perhaps the government cut backs will make people reappraise value. Thanks for letting me let off steam. Sheila Armstrong, Birmingham.

Swapping vegetables using the web
13 Aug 10 |  People & Places
Out-of-date food in UK supermarkets
21 May 07 |  Business



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