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Tips for cutting your household bills and helping the planet this Food Waste Action Week

Green Watch columnist Louise Tennekoon writes about environmental matters in Bishop's Stortford...

This week is Food Waste Action Week. Since I started writing this column, one of the things I get asked most often is: what happens to our waste? Specifically, how do we know none of it is ending up in the ocean? What's being done about plastic packaging? What can I do with my food waste?

It was with these questions in mind that I joined an online talk by Duncan Jones, of the Herts Waste Partnership, hosted by the Bishop's Stortford Climate Group last week. Full disclosure – I am chair of the climate group, so it was not a coincidence I was there! The partnership brings together the 10 district and borough councils in Hertfordshire responsible for waste collection and the county council, which deals with disposal.

During 2020-21, the partnership handled over 510,000 tonnes of waste at a cost of £89.49m. Of this, 15% ended up in landfill, with the rest being recycled/composted (52.4%), incinerated to produce energy (31.9%) or reused (0.3%). In East Herts, the average household produced 917 kilos of waste.

Let's tackle the ocean waste first. Most of our recycling, just over 85%, is processed here in the UK. However, 12.7% is sent to Asia, including Turkey. I was surprised to learn this includes a lot of cardboard and paper which I'd always assumed was recycled here in the UK.

As Duncan explained, recycling is a global market and the materials are sold to the highest bidder. This seems crazy in environmental terms but makes sense financially. He gave a strong assurance that our waste doesn't end up in the ocean, as the partnership tracks where everything goes for processing.

Ninety per cent of our food waste could be eaten but is thrown away unused, unopened or because it has been allowed to go off
Ninety per cent of our food waste could be eaten but is thrown away unused, unopened or because it has been allowed to go off

As far as plastic packaging goes, our kerbside recycling captures some of it: bottles, trays, punnets etc. The council doesn't collect flexible plastics because, as Duncan explained, there just isn't the market for them. However, you can take these plastics to collection points at Sainsbury's, Tesco and other major supermarkets where they will be passed on for recycling, paid for by the Flexible Plastics Fund.

This fund was set up last year by some of the biggest plastic users on the planet – Mars, Mondelez (owner of Cadbury), PepsiCo, Unilever and Nestle – to stimulate UK-based recycling of plastic film. It's too early to know how effective this fund will be (or if it's just a clever bit of greenwashing) but it has had a huge impact on the waste in our black bin, which now needs emptying only every four to six weeks.

Big changes in packaging are on the horizon, including a tax on any plastic packaging which does not contain at least 30% recycled content starting in April. In 2023, the Government is introducing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging. This means that companies using packaging will be required to "fund the… cost of collection, recycling, disposal, the clear-up of littered packaging and communications". The scheme will be designed to reward reuse and refill systems and to penalise less sustainable materials such as polystyrene.

Finally, food waste, which is not collected separately in East Herts, makes up about 30% of the waste in our black bins. The crazy thing is that 90% of this food waste is avoidable – in other words, it's food that could be eaten but is thrown away unused, unopened or because it has been allowed to go off.

For a typical family, this translates into throwing away one in every three bags of food they buy. This holds true right across the country, regardless of age or gender, and costs the average family £700 a year.

This doesn't make sense on any level. It takes energy, water and land to produce all this food and to ship it around the world and still more to dispose of it. If we stopped wasting food in the UK, it would have the same impact on our carbon footprint as taking one in five cars off the road.

It doesn't make sense for the council and our tax bills. It's projected that it will cost around £1 million to collect and process food waste in East Herts. Most of all, it doesn't make sense for us, particularly as we all face a squeeze in the cost of living – £700 in your pocket would go a long way to paying for the rise in energy costs this year.

Duncan's solution to this problem is simple: plan meals in advance, check what you have in the fridge before you go shopping (take a 'shelfie' on your phone), take a list and stick to it. To this I'd add get creative with leftovers, use the freezer if you have one and don't rely on sell-by or use-by dates.

Supermarket Morrisons announced in January it would be removing use-by dates from its milk packaging, telling customers to "use the sniff test" instead. I used to stick to use-by dates for dairy products, going a few days beyond, but not much more. That was until I reached for some Christmas cream in mid-January and found it completely unspoiled. Two weeks past its use-by date and still perfect. So now I use the sniff test too!

The Olio food-sharing app (55257471)
The Olio food-sharing app (55257471)

There are lots of great resources available to help you make use of leftovers and cut food waste. Check out the BBC guide to using the UK's most wasted foods at www.bbc.co.uk/food/articles/food_waste_recipes for recipe ideas, or pop your leftover ingredients into the search box at cookingonabootstrap.com for simple, affordable recipes from Jack Monroe.

If you do end up with food you can't eat in time, then give it away via the Olio app. You can even give away food that's been opened and it gets used locally. I first tried the app a few years ago when there weren't many people using it in Stortford. However, that has changed. Now when I list things, they are snapped up in about 30 minutes and collected the same day to smiles all round.

Over the next couple of years, East Herts Council will be required by law to introduce separate collection of food waste from households, so we could wait for that and not worry about it. But I think that the chance to cut our food waste is too good to miss when we can save money and help save the planet, one slice of bread at a time.

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