UK takes backward step over food recycling?

Written by Integrated Skills

Aug 10, 2023

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An opinion piece by Alan Paget, CEO of ISL

Last month the EU announced plans for legally binding food waste reduction targets for member countries. In the UK the government ditched proposals to force companies to report on food waste and has “no plans” for mandatory targets for prevention.

Yet another U-turn by the UK government on a key environmental pledge? A consultation ended a year ago on annual reporting of food surplus & waste plans first promised by ex-Defra environment secretary Michael Gove in 2018, to be followed up by mandatory targets “should progress be insufficient”. Gove was praised for taking bold action to tackle food waste one of the main causes of carbon emissions.

Interestingly the government secured the ability in the Environment Act to impose mandatory targets. The move comes despite supermarkets & food waste experts warning that progress was being undermined by a lack of mandatory reporting, and that mandatory food waste reporting is essential if UK wants to meet Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – to halve food waste by 2030 (Sustainable consumption and production | Department of Economic and Social Affairs (

The European Commission, on the other hand, has set out proposals for legally binding targets to reduce food waste by 2030, including a 30% reduction for households, restaurants, and retail. Under the plans, member states will be legally obliged to reduce overall food waste in stores, restaurants and households by 30% per capita by the end of 2030 while food manufacturers will be set a lower target of 10%.

The UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has also recently delayed the roll-out of EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility – a policy holding producers responsible for the collection, sorting, recycling or disposal of their product packaging). His government put the kybosh on the DRS (Deposit Recycle Scheme) in Scotland that resulted in Circularity Scotland going into administration with debts and liabilities of £86 million. In addition the prime minister has also ‘tweaked’ other green policies, such as delaying a target for improving home insulation, and ordering a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods in England.

Is this a shift away from green policies in light of political pressure from net-zero sceptics in the Conservative Party? “In terms of policy, little has actually changed,” according to Jack Richardson, the head of energy and environment at the centre-right Onward think tank. But there has been a shift in messaging, he adds. “The majority of people across all demographics, regions, and major political parties back net zero and want to tackle climate change, but they do not want unfair costs put on them to get there.” Opinion polls back this up, suggesting climate action that involves personal costs or changes to lifestyle is not popular – Net zero sceptics warm to Rishi Sunak’s climate shift – BBC News

Simon Roberts, CEO of Sainsbury’s, was recently quoted as saying “The [EPR] decision is also an important step in minimising further pressure on food inflation…”. Regarding EPR specifically, Steve Gough, CEO at Reconomy brand Valpak, states that “In the current economic climate, stakeholders face tough choices. With consumers under significant pressure from the cost-of-living crisis, both government and businesses are struggling to balance budgets against a commitment to progress with environmental improvements”.

So why has the UK government taken such decisions? During times of national financial difficulty progressive environmental programmes are, it appears, an easy target and one of the first items on the UK Government agenda to be delayed. Or should that read ‘during times of political uncertainty, with a general election looming, progressive environmental programmes are easy targets for politicking’, and food recycling is just one of many environmental initiatives to be affected.

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