As the government strives to tackle more than 14 million tonnes of food waste in the UK, supermarket bosses are under increasing pressure to demonstrate how they aim to address the issue. Later this year, their evidence will form part of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s (EFRA) inquiry into supermarket food waste. Here, Philip Simpson, commercial director at ReFood, explores the benefits of sustainable waste management and calls for the industry to step up to the plate.

According to The Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), the UK grocery retail market is worth more than £170bn, employing more than one million people across 100,000 stores nationwide. However, with so much fresh produce stored and sold on a daily basis, the sector is also a key contributor to the UK food waste stream.

In fact, according to recent research, supermarkets are said to be accountable for more than 300,000 tonnes of food waste every year – 200,000 tonnes of which is said to be avoidable. Put another way, the sector is unnecessarily wasting enough food to fill 80 Olympic-sized swimming pools on an annual basis.

However, as a huge challenge for the industry, a number of the supermarket giants are now taking positive steps to address the growing issue of food waste – turning a problem into an opportunity.

For example, in partnership with ReFood – the UK’s leading food waste recycler – several Sainsbury’s supermarkets across the country are now powered by green gas. Produced entirely from waste food, the energy generated over the past year alone is enough to power 5,000 homes, or 10% of Sainsbury’s’ entire national gas consumption for the year.

As a result of the partnership, ten stores have already significantly increased their use of renewable energy, while lowering utility bills. The partnership also helps to deliver on Sainsbury’s commitment to send zero operational waste to landfill, by finding a use for inedible waste products. All surplus edible food is donated to local charity partners.

Waitrose has also reached its goal of sending zero waste to landfill as part of its ‘Treading Lightly’ environmental strategy. The retailer conducted a thorough review of its corporate operations and supply chain processes, enabling managers to identify common factors that contributed to food waste and address them each individually. Today, surplus but edible food is redistributed via food banks and local charities, while unavoidable food waste is sent to anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities, helping to provide a sustainable power source for thousands of homes nationwide.

Other large retailers are also following suit. Marks & Spencer’s, for example, has agreed a nationwide partnership initiative to re-distribute excess food from 150 of its largest outlets to charity – a scheme mirrored by Tesco and Sainsbury’s.


In addition, ASDA’s ‘wonky veg’ box scheme, in which it sells misshapen fruit and veg at a reduced price, is having a hugely positive impact in shaping consumer buying attitudes. This initiative has proved incredibly popular with customers, reducing the stigma of ‘ugly-but-edible’ produce – something that is vitally important when you consider that fruit and veg accounts for 27% of the entire retail food waste stream.

But the onus shouldn’t just fall on larger grocery retailers. Smaller convenience and independent stores also contribute to the volume of food wasted in the sector, which makes it important, therefore, to learn from this best practice and implement sector-wide initiatives to drive down food waste as a whole.

It’s increasingly important for the media to highlight the issue of food waste and place it higher up the news agenda. In September, The Evening Standard launched a hard-hitting campaign to collect food waste dumped by stores and suppliers — instead redistributing it to the hungry. The initiative seeks to harness London’s food surplus to tackle food poverty, transforming an environmental problem into a social solution.

There is a very real appetite from consumers and government alike for supermarkets to take action, so it is encouraging to see that the battle is being fought. It’s absolutely vital that the larger grocery retailers continue to use their position at the heart of the supply chain to drive down waste, influencing smaller retailers, and creating real opportunities for the entire sector to tackle food waste as they do so.