The UK may have sunk back into recession but you’d hardly notice it on a visit to the local supermarket. While the public frets over potential job losses and individuals struggle to keep a roof over their heads, food remains plentiful with supermarket shelves brimming with the latest produce.

Tempted by special offers and cheap deals like “buy one, get one free”, the public’s insatiable appetite for food, despite a surge in prices, appears to continue unabated. Inevitably, however, a huge volume of food waste ends up in the recycling or even worse, in the residual waste stream destined for landfill.

It’s a common sight seen right across the UK, and for Sarah Ellis, waste minimisation co-ordinator at West London Waste Authority (WLWA), it has become a focus for action.

Having taken up the position in 2010, one of her first jobs was to prepare a five-year waste prevention strategy for 2011-2015, which was agreed with WLWA’s six collection authorities – the London boroughs of Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond Upon Thames and introduced last year.

With its focus on waste prevention rather than minimisation, the strategy is underpinned each year by an action plan setting out priorities for the partners. Having monitored the residual waste stream from the six boroughs, the WLWA identified five top materials in terms of weight – food, textiles, disposable nappies, furniture and electrical items – and has targeted them for preventative action. As work rolls out on the second action plan, one material in particular has been singled out this year.

“Our main activities are focused around food waste because on average that’s about 30% of what comes through in the residual waste stream,” she explains.

At face value, it may seem a rather surprising statistic given that five of the six partner boroughs already provide a kerbside food waste collection, but then food waste services are quite new and it is relatively uncommon to find hard to reach groups, such as residents in flats feeding into this service.

Besides the moral issue surrounding the volume of food that is wasted by householders, there is also a strong message to put to residents about the cost to the family purse.

“Food waste has a cost three times over,” she explains. “You’ve got the cost to their pocket straight away. In theory, one-in-every-five bags of shopping gets thrown away because the residents don’t get round to eating the food.

“In addition, they pay their council tax and that goes towards collecting the food waste, whether it’s the food waste collection or the black bags. The council also has to pay to have it composted or disposed of as well.”

As Jim Brennan, WLWA’s director, points out, it is not about dictating to residents that they should reduce their waste. Nor is it about taking on the supermarkets who some commentators blame for actively encouraging excessive consumption by offering special promotions.

“It’s about informing the public so that they make better choices,” he says. “Certainly the supermarkets will listen to the public; they won’t listen to us.”

So what does the WLWA and its partners plan to do to encourage and support consumers to make the “right choices” and waste less? In this year’s action plan, the WLWA has devised a number of initiatives designed to raise awareness of food waste in the home and change behaviour.

The “biggest” intervention is the setting up of 20 Let’s Get Cooking clubs later this summer. The idea is to arm individuals that are leaving home for the first time with practical advice and support on how to make the most of the food they buy to minimise wastage, such as making new meals from leftovers and preserving food safely when too much is cooked.

During April, the WLWA kicked off its events season as part of a wider communication campaign that also utilises social media to target local residents. Over the next year, the WLWA aims to meet 5,000 local residents at community events and encourage them to pledge to reduce their food waste.

In another community intervention, food waste reduction messages are being extended into 12 local schools.

“We go into schools and look at what’s been thrown away as a result of lunchtime. It’s not what’s been prepared in the kitchen but what the children haven’t eaten,” she says.

“When they’ve had enough, they put the food in buckets, which we’ve labelled up with different food types. The children help us with that and then go away with their teacher and in lessons look at what they can do to reduce the amount of food that doesn’t get eaten.”

While prevention remains the top priority, “recycling” food waste is also important to prevent it from ending up in the residual waste stream. In one initiative, the partners plan to set up a support network for people who want to home compost.

“We did a lot of groundwork last year and as an extension of that we are looking to identify a community composting area on a housing estate area and see how we can make that work,” she says.

It’s hoped this latest initiative will encourage wider benefits such as healthy eating, self-sufficiency and greater community co-operation on food waste issues.

“That’s what waste prevention should be,” she says. “It should be your local community talking to each other. We’re just providing the tools to enable them to go out and do what they are already doing.”

Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR

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