The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated food waste contributes 8-10% of total manmade greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to WRAP’s recent report, UK households generated 6.4 million tonnes (worth £17 billion) of food and drink waste in 2021 and 2022. Significant reductions in UK food waste are needed to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 (and the UK Courtauld Commitment 2030) to halve food waste by 2030. Defra’s Food and Drink Waste Hierarchy plays a key role in achieving these targets and reducing GHG emissions from waste.

The Food and Drink Waste Hierarchy guides businesses and organisations that manage food and drink waste (farmers, manufacturers, retailers, hospitality, and local authorities). The hierarchy lists 8 (1 being best, 8 being worst) options to minimise the environmental impacts and maximise the economic value of food and drink waste or surplus. Options 1 through 4 provide guidance on preventing food waste, and 5 through 8 explain compliance with statutory waste hierarchy duty (set out in Article 4 of the Revised Waste Framework – Directive 2008/98/EC). Decisions about food waste and surplus depend on costs and available infrastructure. However, stakeholders must apply the options in the order they are listed when possible because they have a legal duty of care to take all ‘reasonable steps’ to keep waste safe and ensure those that take waste are authorised to take it and can treat it or dispose of it safely (see more information on this duty of care here).

1. Prevent Surplus and Waste in Your Business

Reducing food waste via prevention is the first priority for the waste hierarchy. The WRAP Waste and Resources Action Programme includes tools for suppliers and customers to prevent and reduce food waste. Businesses should develop a strategy to measure food surplus and waste (see WRAP and Guardians of Grub resources) and help consumers reduce their waste (see Love Food Hate Waste). Businesses can demonstrate their commitment to reducing food waste by joining the Courtauld Commitment 2030 and becoming a signatory of the Food Waste Reduction Roadmap.

 2. Redistribute Surplus Food and Drink

While food past the ‘use-by’ date cannot be sold, businesses can sell or redistribute food to charities, schools, commercial redistributors, and food banks if it has passed its ‘best before’ date (see WRAP on food date labelling and storage). You can read about food labelling here and learn more about redistribution from WRAP or the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD). Manufacturers should create a surplus food supply plan (site assessment) using tools from WRAP and IGD.

3. Make Animal Feed from Former Food

If surplus food cannot be sold or redistributed for human consumption (and it complies with feed hygiene requirements), it can be used as animal feed (see resources from WRAP and the UK Former Foodstuffs Processors Association). Site managers are responsible for deciding if food surplus is suitable for human consumption. Businesses that use low-risk foodstuffs (bakery & confectionary that does not contain meat, fish or shellfish; fruit and vegetables that have not come into contact with animal material) to make animal feed must follow government guidance and register sites with their local authority (usually the trading standards officer).

4. Process Surplus Food to Make Biomaterials

Businesses should find new uses for previously wasted or low-value materials (packaging materials from fibres, bioplastics from polylactic acid, feathers for pillows, leather, soaps or cosmetics from rendered fat).

4. Recycle – Anaerobic Digestion and Composting

When food waste cannot be repurposed for consumption or use, it should be collected separately from residual waste and dry recyclables to be sent for anaerobic digestion (AD) or composting. Defra recommends AD as the first option for food waste recycling and dry-AD or composting for garden (green) waste (see Evidence Summary, section 9). Businesses can check with the EA to make sure the sites they send waste to have the correct permissions and read WRAPs guidance for more information on food waste recycling for businesses. All animal by-product (ABP) or catering waste carriers must be APHA registered. Carriers can learn more about transporting ABPs here. Businesses can find a suitable facility to treat ABPs and catering waste by contacting the EA or checking APHA’s list of approved plants.

6. Recover Waste by Landspreading

Compost and digestate can be used as an organic fertiliser to spread on land if they meet the requirements of an environmental permit, are end-of-waste certified or meet the conditions in the end-of-waste test. See the U10 and U11 waste exemptions for spreading waste on agricultural and non-agricultural land. Landspreaders should read the rules to prevent water pollution and guide to improving soil health.

7. Recover Energy from Waste

When food waste cannot be recycled into organic material, it can be sent to an energy from waste (EfW facility) to be burned to generate energy.

8. Dispose – Send to Sewer or Landfill

Food waste should only be sent to sewer or landfill when there is no other alternative as the government has committed to eliminating biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill sites from 2029 under the Net Zero Strategy. Any waste sent to the landfill will incur a landfill tax, all ABPs and catering waste must be pretreated, and the landfill must be permitted to accept biodegradable waste (see Defra’s guidance).

You can find Defra’s Food and Drink Waste Hierarchy here and their guidance on applying the hierarchy here. The Evidence Summary used to create the waste hierarchy is available here. If you have questions about how the hierarchy applies to your business or organisation you can contact Defra, the EA, or the REA.