Household food waste in the era of Covid: Is food upcycling the future?

20 January, 2021

Food waste is a huge global issue, occurring at all stages of the food production chain, from the fields and farms to the factories and in the home.

Before Covid-19 hit, food waste amounted to around a third of all global food production and consumption. But the pandemic lockdown measures are set to push this percentage ever higher as a result of those catering for the events industry having to throw out expired foods, for example.

However, Covid-19 presented a different story at home, where people in the UK throw away 6.6 million tonnes of food every year. 4.5 million of this waste is ‘avoidable’, i.e. food that was perfectly edible at some point before it was put in the bin. In fact, 13% of edible food and drink purchases are wasted at a cost of £500 per year to the average household.

With more people at home for longer periods, and with more time on their hands, home cooking has made something of a comeback. Homeworking means less time spent commuting, and more time preparing and planning meals, the absence of which is often a lead cause of food waste at home.

According to WRAP, which surveyed households throughout 2020, self-reported levels of food waste fell by 43% in early lockdown in April, before rebounding to some degree in June when lockdown eased and people returned to work, and children returned to school. But they were still well below pre-lockdown levels.

More than 90% of people who checked date labelling more often during lockdown continue to do so now, including 22% who say they are doing this even more than during the main lockdown. There is a similar pattern when it comes to people using up leftovers, freezing and checking the fridge before shopping.

The main reason cited for this behaviour was lockdown unease, i.e. wanting to avoid going to the shops during the pandemic.

So, who’s responsible to act?

Covid-19 aside, motivations and barriers to reducing food waste at home are beginning to evolve. Saving money, valuing food, eating healthily and protecting the environment are increasing in prominence (although just 30% of WRAP’s respondents say they see a clear link between food waste and climate change).

Yet, the consumer at the end of the food chain is a tricky piece of the food-waste puzzle to solve. While people are more aware than ever of the food waste challenge, there remain conflicts in perceptions when it comes to accountability and responsibility.

There is also a lack of consensus on who should be responsible for addressing food waste. A recent survey conducted by our sister company Leatherhead Food Research shows 27% believe it is up to individuals to act, 24% think it’s for food and drink manufacturers to sort it out, and 38% put the onus on retailers.

Upcycled food on the up

Evidence suggests that both retailers and manufacturers are stepping up to the plate. Upcycling – when would-be waste streams become new consumer products or ingredients – is growing in prominence. A common example of this can be seen in many grocery aisles within supermarkets where ‘wonky’ vegetables that would previously have been discarded as waste by producers are being given a new lease of life. Start-ups such as Oddbox and Wonky Veg Boxes have entered an interesting new market designed to highlight the food waste problem within consumer circles, while selling discounted produce.

Food upcycling is not a new concept. Marmite has been producing its spread from spent brewers’ yeast since 1902. However, the urgency of the food waste problem has made it an interesting market for start-ups and legacy businesses to explore. Initiatives where food waste can be commercialised as an upcycled product are likely to gain traction. They represent a way for manufacturers to monetise waste that they previously paid to dispose of. Reducing waste and cutting costs while establishing a new product or ingredient creates a win-win-win situation.

Yet, any such approach will need to win the hearts and minds of consumers, and there are a range of considerations to be made. For example:

  • The sustainability story of upcycling alone is unlikely to be enough to sell an upcycled product. What additional benefits are offered? Can the product improve health and wellness? Does it feature natural ingredients?
  • Consider whether target audiences understand the concept of upcycled food waste. How should this be communicated? Some waste streams may be more acceptable to consumers than others (e.g. plant-based versus meat-based).
  • Establish price-point. How much are consumers willing to pay for a product upcycled from food waste?

Households and consumers have a huge role to play in fighting the food waste challenge. The pandemic lockdown provided evidence there is an appetite to freeze, plan and cook more at home. But the onus is on manufacturers to work with consumers, and further improve their awareness and understanding of food waste issues, if the dial is to be truly turned.


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