Last reviewed 24 April 2013

In the UK, various initiatives have been launched to try to deal with the food waste problem. Are campaigns and sector voluntary agreements having any effect? Becky Toal investigates.

A variety of EU directives have been, or are soon to be, enacted in UK legislation that will affect waste management. These directives aim almost entirely to reduce the amount of waste (including food waste) going to landfill, reducing the environmental impact of waste disposal practices and increasing the rates of recycling. Currently, these directives and subsequent UK regulations apply to electronic and electrical equipment, refrigerators and freezers, tyres, end-of-life motor vehicles and batteries, by way of example.

In the UK there are several government agencies that enforce waste legislation. These include the Environment Agency in England and Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in Scotland and the Environment and Heritage Service in Northern Ireland.

The UK produces approximately 200–250 million tonnes of waste from households, commerce and industry per year. Another 90 million tonnes comes from agriculture, while 95 million tonnes comes from mining and quarrying. A combination of rising costs to dispose of waste, recognition of the environmental and social impacts of waste and an EU focus on sustainable development means that waste management is firmly on the agenda.

A range of producer responsibility regulations and taxation with regard to waste has seen the “ownership” of the issue placed firmly on the business community. However, the fact is that regulations, taxation and funded programmes for waste management are different in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and this can be confusing.

The cost of food waste is not only the cost of disposal, but includes all costs (and the time) associated with the purchase of food, storing and processing it, and staff costs. Dealing with waste food is estimated to cost business up to £1800 per tonne per annum, and an estimated 53,500 tonnes of food waste is disposed of annually by the Scottish hospitality sector, two-thirds of which could have been eaten.

The Waste Framework Directive

Revisions to the EU Waste Framework Directive have been implemented in England and Wales through the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 and ancillary legislation in Wales. All this legislation was introduced in April 2011. These regulations apply to all businesses responsible for producing, keeping, transporting, recycling, recovering or disposing of waste. The revised Waste Framework Directive places greater emphasis on the waste hierarchy to ensure that less waste goes to landfill. Waste is dealt with in the following order of priority.

  • Prevention.

  • Preparing for reuse.

  • Recycling.

  • Other recovery (for example, energy recovery).

  • Disposal.

For businesses with food production and food products at their core, the need to reduce food waste through the implementation of new waste regulations will see both cost and carbon savings. Prevention of food waste will become a key consideration, and could include reviewing portion sizes, checking with customers if side orders are required with meals and working with supply chains to buy ingredients and liquid products in bulk. Chefs will be required to take more responsibility for meal preparation and waste prevention in the kitchen areas of hotels, cafes and restaurants.

The Waste Framework Directive sets out a range of provisions in relation to recycling and reuse, including targets to recycle or prepare for reuse 50% of household waste by 2020.

Facts and statistics on food waste

The WRAP campaign “Love Food Hate Waste” highlights the following facts about food waste.

  • 7.2 million tonnes of food and drink are thrown away each year — enough to fill Wembley stadium nine times over.

  • 4.4 million tonnes of this food could have been eaten.

  • 2.6 million tonnes of this food was not used in time — before the “best before” date.

  • Food waste for the UK costs £6.7 billion; for the average householder this is approximately £270 per year.

Clearly, if everyone, including food manufacturers, could apply the waste hierarchy less food waste would be produced, savings would be made and greenhouse gas emissions cut significantly.

Waste regulations in Scotland

The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 came into force on 9 May 2012. In Scotland it has been calculated that some 400,000 tonnes of food and drink, worth £1 billion, is thrown away each year.

By the end of 2013, food businesses will be required to have mandated source separation of food waste, which includes food preparation waste, leftovers, plate scrapings and out-of-date ingredients.

There are some exemptions worthy of note. Smaller food businesses that produce less than 50kg per week are exempt from the regulations until the end of 2015. Some “rural” Scottish businesses are also exempt — the definition of rural is dependent on postcodes — and businesses producing less than 5kg per week are exempt (this is equivalent to a small kitchen caddy). Food wastes arising from international transport are also exempt, as international catering waste in Scotland is classed as Category 1 animal by-products and requires special management.

Waste regulations in Northern Ireland

The Department of the Environment is responsible for drafting legislation on waste, implementing waste management policy and promoting a more sustainable approach to dealing with waste in Northern Ireland. The Controlled Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) define household, industrial and commercial waste for waste management licensing purposes. The Waste Regulations (Northern Ireland) require businesses to apply the waste management hierarchy, introduce a two-tier system for waste carrier, broker and dealer registration and establish waste prevention programmes. In addition, the regulations amend other legislation.

A recent consultation to amend the (draft) Controlled Waste and Duty of Care Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2013 closed in April 2013.

The purposes of the revised regulations are:

  • to clarify what is classified as household, commercial or industrial waste

  • to provide for district councils to be able to levy a charge for the disposal of certain household wastes as well as commercial and industrial wastes

  • to strengthen duty of care requirements by requiring Waste Transfer Notes to accompany the waste to which it refers whilst in transit.

Other amendments place a statutory requirement on waste holders to include the Standard Industry Classification code on Waste Transfer Notes, as well as allow for the use of electronic Waste Transfer Notes, in preparation for the introduction of an electronic duty of care known as "e:doc".

Waste regulations in Wales

There are several pieces of key waste legislation applicable to Welsh businesses. These include the Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012, the Controlled Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 and the Waste (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Wales) Regulations 2011.

In Wales, over 17 million tonnes of waste is produced each year. The Waste policies and targets for Wales are set out in Towards Zero Waste — the overarching waste strategy document for Wales. Further information is available at

Waste campaigns and initiatives in the UK

Across the UK various campaigns aimed at specific sectors have been established to reduce waste to landfill. A variety of government departments have also been established to support communities and businesses to prevent waste and apply the waste hierarchy.

Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP)

WRAP has a vision to have a world without waste, where resources are used sustainably.

One of WRAP’s most successful campaigns is the Courtauld Commitment — a responsibility deal aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing the amount of carbon produced by, and wider environmental impact of, the grocery retail sector. Originally launched in 2005, Phase 2 was launched in 2010, with 29 major retailers on board.

WRAP also runs two other initiatives — Love Food Hate Waste and the Recycle Now Campaign. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign contains useful hints and tips on food preparation, recipes and food storage to prevent food items becoming waste.

For larger businesses involved in food preparation such as hotels, restaurants and cafes, the Unilever Wise up on Waste Toolkit is also a useful (and free of charge) resource. This was put together with the Sustainable Restaurant Association and supports kitchen staff and chefs to audit the food waste in their business. Other supporting resources are also provided, such as a procurement toolkit and posters.

Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS)

Zero Waste Scotland is managed on behalf of the Scottish Government by WRAP. It works with a range of partners to deliver the Zero Waste Scotland Plan.

A current initiative is the Hospitality and Food Service Agreement (HAFS), which is a voluntary agreement to support this sector to reduce waste and recycle more. By signing up to HAFS, companies agree to provide data to ZWS on certain targets — a prevention target and a waste management target. The prevention target is to reduce food and associated packaging waste arising by 5% by the end of 2015. This is against a 2012 baseline and is to be measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions. The waste management target is to increase the overall rate of food and packaging waste being recycled, sent to anaerobic digestion or composted to at least 70% by the end of 2015.

Waste Awareness Wales

Support for recycling and waste awareness is provided by the Welsh Government in the form of Waste Awareness Wales.

Rethink Waste Northern Ireland

The campaign in Northern Ireland is known as rethink waste and the website contains links to awareness campaigns, events and legislation changes.

Energy from food waste and anaerobic digestion

Energy Recovery is about extracting, through various technologies, energy from waste (EfW). These processes include direct combustion (incineration), gasification, pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion. EfW avoids the methane emissions from waste that would otherwise rot in landfill.

Anaerobic digestion in England has been encouraged for separately collected food waste because it meets a number of environmental objectives, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, producing renewable energy for heat, power and transport fuel, and recycling nutrients back to the land. The Coalition Government has committed to an increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion.


The EU Waste Framework Directive is driving the UK to apply the waste hierarchy to prevent waste (including food waste) going to landfill, and to encourage reuse and recycling where appropriate. Across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, slight differences in legislation are apparent. However, the campaigns and sector voluntary agreements are starting to take effect. It is clear that much more awareness and education across sectors is needed to ensure that food waste is seen as a resource and not disposed of without thought.

The focus in Scotland on food waste is innovative and no doubt will be watched carefully by all UK Governments. For businesses that operate across the UK it is important that they are aware that waste legislation may differ from one country to another, as is the funding and support that may be available to them to reduce waste at source. The application of the waste hierarchy, driven by legislation and targets, will no doubt change the UK perception of waste, moving us towards a more sustainable society.

About the author

Becky Toal is a Full Member of IEMA and a Chartered Environmentalist. She is Managing Director of Crowberry Consulting Ltd, an environmental and CSR consultancy.