Last reviewed 18 April 2016

In March 2015, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) unveiled the latest phase of the Courtauld Commitment — the voluntary agreement by which food businesses commit to reducing waste. Caroline Hand looks at how Courtauld 2025 sets an ambitious new target to cut food waste, and the associated carbon emissions, by a fifth over the next 10 years.

The scandal of food waste

The horrifying extent of food waste, both worldwide and here in the UK, has been well publicised in recent years.

  • Worldwide, a third of all food produced is wasted (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimate).

  • An estimated 30–50% of the food bought in Europe is thrown away by consumers.

  • In the UK, 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away each year, contributing a fifth of our CO2 emissions and costing an estimated £12.5 billion (WRAP estimate).

  • The average British family wastes food worth £60 each month (WRAP).

The Courtauld Commitment was set up by WRAP in 2005 to address this problem. Over its first three phases, it has broadened in scope from an initial focus on packaging to encompass the entire food chain from farm to fork. Despite being entirely voluntary, it has been highly successful: Phases 1 and 3 achieved their targets and even though Phase 2 missed its target, this period still saw substantial reductions in waste.

The success of Love Food, Hate Waste, WRAP’s campaign to reduce waste from households, has greatly exceeded expectations: the initial intention was merely to reduce the rate of increase in food waste, but in fact, there has been a 12.5% actual decrease in household food waste between 2007 and 2012, despite population growth.

The 2025 targets

Signatories are committing themselves to a 20% reduction in:

  • actual food waste arising in the UK

  • resource intensity, ie the amount of resource needed to produce a given amount of product

  • greenhouse gas intensity of food and drink consumed in the UK, ie the amount of greenhouse gases generated for each tonne of food and drink produced.

In doing so, signatories are predicted to achieve an estimated £20 billion worth of savings.

The signatories

Whereas 53 businesses signed up to Courtauld 3, the number for Courtauld 2025 has expanded to 98, representing 93% of market share. The increase is partially due to the wider scope of the new agreement, which for the first time includes farm businesses and local authorities. Local authorities are included because of the opportunities they have to interact directly with consumers and achieve changes in consumer behaviour, whether in terms of making the best use of food or disposing of food waste. High profile businesses from the previous rounds, such as the major supermarket chains, remain on board.

How the targets will be achieved

WRAP’s website does not go into details about the waste reduction initiatives that will form part of Courtauld 2025. The impression given is that the early part of the project will involve a search for solutions and prioritisation of actions. Work will proceed under four general headings.

  1. Provide lower impact products. Resource efficiency criteria will be built into design and purchasing decisions. For example, food manufacturers will seek to design products that use fewer resources to produce or cook.

  2. Provide products more efficiently. Businesses will need to work together to reduce inefficiencies across the supply chain.

  3. Help people get more value from the food and drink they buy. This way, less food goes to waste.

  4. Make the best use of remaining waste and surplus food. Ideally this will be redistributed to charities, but if this is not possible, it could be recovered through anaerobic digestion or new technologies.

The success stories of Courtauld 3 give some concrete examples of the kind of projects that are likely to contribute towards achieving the targets.

Lower impact products

Innovations in packaging have achieved remarkable reductions in waste and CO2 emissions for a range of manufacturers, particularly those in the drinks industry. Britvic’s Squash’d packaging for concentrated soft drinks saves 4.8g of CO2 per serving and weighs 25g less than a normal squash bottle. Because so much less water is used, a great many more containers fit onto a pallet.

Coca Cola is on target to reduce the carbon footprint of a typical drink by a third in the next five years, using lightweight, recyclable bottles. Innocent Smoothies has also significantly reduced the impact of its packaging by reducing the weight of both bottles and lids by 10%.

The Croner-i article Food for Thought describes some of the new innovations in packaging technology that are already reducing waste across the supply chain.

Supply chain efficiencies

The Courtauld Commitment signatories will work together to identify ways in which they can work together to eliminate wastage through the supply chain. For example, Aldi now transports its whole chickens in reusable plastic trays rather than cardboard boxes. The trays are used for approximately 240 trips.

Helping consumers get more value from their food

The best known campaign aimed at consumers is WRAP’s own Love Food, Hate Waste. As well as recipes for leftovers, the website and app include guidance on portion size and food storage.

All the big supermarket chains have followed WRAP’s lead in encouraging their customers to waste less. Here are some examples.

  • Sainsbury’s has produced an app with recipes for leftovers.

  • The Co-op and Tesco have added storage instructions to their bread and bagged fresh produce. Tesco’s prepared vegetables include recipes for leftovers on the bag, branded with the Love Food, Hate Waste logo.

  • Asda has created a bagged chicken, ready to roast, again with recipe ideas for the leftovers printed on the bag.

Making best use of waste and surplus food

WRAP’s data demonstrated that during 2014, nearly 70% of food waste from households still went to landfill. This is clearly an area where local authorities will be able to take action, for example by introducing more food waste collections.

Courtauld signatories are doing a lot better than the householders: the retail signatories are sending most of their waste to anaerobic digestion (AD) which, as a form of recovery, is higher up the waste hierarchy. However, there is still a lot of perfectly good food going to AD which could be eaten by hungry people.

The charity FareShare, which distributes surplus food to those in need, has highlighted the fact that manufacturers have a financial incentive to send surplus food for anaerobic digestion, whereas they receive nothing if they donate it to charity. Donations of food to charities increased by 80% during Courtauld 3, but it is uncertain how much of the total surplus food this represents.

Courtauld 2025 will include farm businesses for the first time. Many people were horrified at the revelations in the recent BBC documentary, Hugh’s War on Waste, that vast quantities of perfectly edible vegetables are discarded just because they do not meet cosmetic standards for size, straightness, etc. For example, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall visited a farm where 30–40% of perfectly edible parsnips were routinely discarded.

Supermarkets are already offering “wonky veg” lines but there is more to be done. In 2014, apple producer Musgrave reviewed waste from farm to stores and identified several ways of reducing waste, such as:

  • packaging the apples at source

  • improving date labelling and consumer information

  • using more British apples when they are in season.

Judging by the success of WRAP’s work so far, there are grounds for optimism. Consumers are far more aware of food waste and retailers have made considerable strides in eliminating wasteful practices such as “buy one, get one free” promotions on fresh produce. Hopefully we can look forward to a new set of success stories over the next 10 years.

See also the related Croner-i article:Food Waste and Local Processing.