Household food waste in the UK has increased by nearly a third as coronavirus lockdown restrictions have been eased and could spiral further, new research has warned.
The government’s waste advisory body, Wrap, said self-reported food waste was up by 30%, reversing progress made at the start of the pandemic as consumers threw away less food while confined to their homes.
While concerns about going to the shops and running out of food motivated people to waste less in April, their resolve appears to be weakening as restrictions have lifted.
Wrap carried out two phases of research during lockdown. In the first phase in April, consumers reported a reduction in wasted food compared with before lockdown. However, its June update reveals that levels of wasted food have begun to rebound, with the average self-reported amount across bread, milk, potatoes and chicken currently at 18%, up from 14% in April. It still remains below pre-lockdown levels; in November 2019, people reported wasting nearly a quarter of these staple items.
The most recent official figures covering pre-lockdown, published in January, show that UK households waste 4.5m tonnes of food a year that could have been eaten, worth GBP14bn – or GBP700 a year for an average family with children.
Next month, Wrap will launch a new campaign called Keep Crushing It, aimed at motivating people to keep up the positive actions they adopted during lockdown, including checking their fridge temperature, freezing more food and making shopping lists. Planning before a shop is the behaviour that most people were likely to continue after lockdown, the study found.
Peter Maddox, director of Wrap UK, said: “We’ve seen clearly how effective the Love Food Hate Waste messages and tools are – we need to reach more people to widen our impact. The more novel and innovative ways we find to engage with new audiences about this, the greater our chance of meeting the crucial target of halving wasted food by 2030.”
The campaign will also highlight the environmental benefits of reducing food waste. For example, if the UK stopped wasting uneaten bread, the amount of CO2 equivalent saved each year would be equal to more than half a million return flights from London to New York.
Fears that the surge in panic buying and stockpiling before the lockdown would lead to an increase in food waste levels did not materialise, according to a separate study covering that phase. Environmental charity Hubbub revealed that almost half of people (48%) said they were throwing away less food and only 5% were throwing away more.
“Wasting less food doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming,” said Helen White, Wrap’s special adviser on household food waste. “It can be as simple as leaving the skin on when you make mash, or freezing more food before it passes the ‘use by’ date.”