Councils working to win over stomachs and minds in the war against food waste
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Councils in Suffolk are working with environmental charity Hubbub to tackle the long-standing problem of food waste in the region.
The war on waste is gathering momentum.
Recycling of paper, plastics and metal containers is now firmly established across many Suffolk households with the latest figures showing that 47% of waste in the county is recycled. Meanwhile, the Government says its 5p levy has led to an 84% reduction in the use of plastic bags from the main supermarkets. And thanks in no small part to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, there is now also a widespread awareness of the need to wrestle ourselves away from single-use plastics and excessive packaging.
The next form of waste on the menu - as it were - is food waste, and this autumn a partnership of local authorities - Suffolk’s seven district and borough councils together with Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils - launched a ‘Food Savvy’ initiative, which aims to draw attention to this significant problem and has set a long-term target of reducing food waste in the region by 20% by 2025.
According to Suffolk Waste Partnership manager Rob Cole, food waste is the stuff that does not end up on compost heaps but in our bins, and can take many forms - it’s the fare that has gone mouldy in the fridge; the leftovers we scrape off plates; the surplus after we’ve cooked more than we need; and the unopened items we jettison because the label tells us it is past its best.
Here’s a few more stats: based on Suffolk County Council’s last waste composition study conducted in 2016, of the 172,000 tonnes of non-recycled rubbish – generated by Suffolk households, around 52,000 tonnes is food waste - that’s 36% - which costs the council £4.5m to dispose of. Approximately, 20,000 tonnes of this food waste is packaged food that is thrown away unopened. The Government’s waste arm WRAP calculates that this extravagance costs the average UK household £810 a year.
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Food waste is an environmental problem because of the resources that are needlessly used to produce, store, transport and dispose of it and the emissions that are related to all these activities.
“Food waste is an ingrained problem, not just in Suffolk but across the country and the Western world,” said Mr Cole, who explained the Food Savvy scheme has four main goals: to raise awareness of the problem among residents; to get the large supermarkets involved; to develop a “network of advocates” to spread the food waste message; and to get local businesses investing in the programme and working with their staff and customer base.
Mr Cole continued: “At the end of the day, the council can put out messages but we don’t want it to be just about the council or the waste partnership.
“We would like people to understand that it is a problem and a challenge in their own lives, and by working with individuals and getting businesses involved, we can all start saying the same message and pushing in the same direction.
“Hopefully, in the first few years of the project we can raise this up as an issue – and then over time we can start to make changes.”
Crucially, Mr Cole and his team recognise that if they are to win over stomachs and minds, changing deep-set and personal behaviours around shopping and eating habits is not something that will happen overnight. This was a lesson learnt from a previous campaign run in Suffolk in 2014 called Making Food Waste History, which raised awareness but had limited impact because it only ran for three months.
He added: “It taught us that if we are really going to hit food waste, we have to do something over a longer period - and that perhaps as local government officers we don’t have all the expertise we would need to hit these long-term challenges.”
To ensure the necessary skills are at hand, the partnership is working with a charity called Hubbub, which specialises in “environmental behaviour change” and has experience of tackling projects of this nature across the UK. The charity brings innovative thinking to the partnership together with established relationships with many of the country’s leading supermarkets and food stores who have bought into trying to tackle the food waste problem.
Creative partner at Hubbub, Tessa Tricks, says one thing to avoid when calling for action is sending out environmental messages that make the problem seem insurmountable, in which case people are liable to switch off. The best approach, she says, is to try and make things “ tangible, fun and aspirational”.
“The best approach is positive communications, which focus on the benefits of doing the right things. Showing people they can save money is a compelling argument, as is showing them they can meet new people, learn new skills and improve their health.”
While it is early days for the project, Ms Tricks has a host of initiatives planned. One exciting scheme that is expected to take off soon in Suffolk is the installation of several community fridges around the county.
Hubbub has already facilitated the placement of 40 community fridges across the UK including some in Norfolk and is receiving enquiries from other communities on a weekly basis.
According to Ms Tricks, community fridges tend to be located in places like cafes, universities and leisure centres.
The idea is that people place food in the fridge they can’t use themselves, so others can. Items could include excess produce from a garden, bread that has reached its best before date or food that can’t be used because a family is going on holiday.
Community fridges work because “food waste is unpredictable and happens “in dribs and drabs” said Ms Tricks who says Hubbub is exploring the possibility of having fridges placed at locations in Lowestoft, Woodbridge and Stowmarket.
Other ideas in development include working with the East of England Co-op to simplify food labelling and getting businesses involved in promoting better habits around lunchtime eating among their staff.