Supermarket food waste: prevent, redistribute, share: Towards a circular economy?

John Lever, Fiona Cheetham, Morven McEachern

Research output: Book/ReportOther reportpeer-review


Executive summary

 This project report explores the sharing of supermarket food waste in Kirklees, West Yorkshire. Conducted over a nine-month period from September 2017, the research on which the report draws was funded by the University of Huddersfield Business School. The project used qualitative methods to explore whether the sharing of supermarket food waste through NGOs increases the sustainability of the wider food system, or if this trend is a response to its increasing unsustainably.

 Alongside the rise of new values and technologies, notions of ‘sharing’ and ‘circular’ economic thinking have been closely aligned in recent years through their joint focus on reducing waste and reusing scarce resources. It is these links and their relationship with the sustainability of the food system that this project report is ultimately concerned with.

 There was a general consensus amongst research participants that it is all but impossible to eliminate food waste completely from supermarket operations and international food supply chains. Even in a sustainable food system, there will always be a degree of surplus food to be redistributed to people in need.

 All the NGOs consulted were reluctant to call the food they received from supermarkets “waste”, and the terms “wasted food” and “spare food” were sometimes used interchangeably with the notion of “surplus food”. In this context, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is often used to justify the linear model of food production and consumption that generates vast quantities of food waste.

 Independent food banks (IFBs) encounter a number of problems and barriers in their work. These revolve around the type and volume of food they receive from supermarkets, which they have no control over. Conversely, NGOs within the national distribution network (NDN) never accept supermarket “surplus” unless it is in good condition and they have the capacity to redistribute/share it before it becomes “food waste”.

 The value of the work being done by NGOs was widely recognized, yet concerns were expressed from both a political and environmental perspective about the normalization of these ways of working.

 Sending less ‘surplus’ food to anaerobic digestion as ‘waste’ in order to share and redistribute more food through NGOs was seen by some interviewees as one way of enhancing the links between sharing and circular economic thinking. Other participants argued that these ways of working simply add another level of governance to the existing linear model.

 Central government policy is not keeping up with the developments in technology that can drive movement towards a circular economy. As well as redistributing and sharing surplus food from supermarkets regionally, more food needs to be produced regionally, both on local farms and through the use of regenerative agriculture and vertical farming, for example, to minimize food waste at source and encourage circular thinking.

 While it is difficult to envisage a completely circular food system emerging, cities and regions such as Kirklees can help to reduce the burden of supermarket food waste by encouraging circular economic thinking. But better Central Government Policy and sustainable business models are needed to facilitate movement in this direction. Public and private bodies at the regional and national level must navigate the tensions involved as a matter of urgency.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2018


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