The Guardian and numbers again

Would you trust this newspaper to talk to you about tax rates, budgets, wages, inequality, or, in fact, anything at all to do with numbers?

According to the latest figures from Wrap,the average UK family wastes 7m tonnes of food – worth £700 – every year and at a total cost of £12.5 bn.

Food costs 0.01 of a penny a tonne these days, does it? Hasn’t the automation of agriculture done well?

47 thoughts on “The Guardian and numbers again”

  1. Campaigning against food waste in households is pure guardianista cat nip.

    Good waste is a sign of massive success in the abundance we have created.

  2. Plus of course we’ll know the figures are manipulated to within an inch of their life, with bones, potato peelings, etc counted as ‘waste’.

  3. The Groan goes on to tell us that, impressively, the average family’s food waste accounts for just under half the national total.

  4. Let’s presume it’s a zeros error…

    7 tonnes? Nope.
    700 kg? About 2kg per day? Nope.
    70kg? Perhaps. If we indeed include bones, peelings etc. But then we can’t really say £700 in value…

  5. I’m more inclined to suppose that domestic waste accounts for 7mn tonnes per year, since the Groan proceeds (as I quote above) to compare that figure with the national total. That would mean — assuming we’re really talking about households, since “family” is a bit statistically nebulous — that the average household [1] wastes about 260kg of food every year, implying food value of £2.70 / kg, which is of the right order of magnitude. It does, however, leave a household wasting 700 g of food per day, which sounds like quite a lot.

    [1] ONS figures give 26.7mn households in the UK in 2014: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-demography/families-and-households/2014/families-and-households-in-the-uk–2014.html. If it really is families, the number drops to 18.6mn.

  6. Aaand here’s the original: http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/household-food-and-drink-waste-uk-2012. As the URL implies, this was published in 2012.

    Households. 7 Mt annually total domestic food waste. Claimed £13bn value for the 4.2 Mt of waste classified as avoidable, implying a value of £3.10 / kg, again not an unreasonable order of magnitude.

    If these figures are all about right, then cutting out the waste would be worth about £470 per household. Not insignificant, though somewhat less than the Guardian’s headline figure. And since some households waste very little food (single people, for example, can generally keep waste down quite easily), this implies that there are some households where the saving could be quite a lot bigger.

  7. Phillip, your assumption is that this waste is actual ‘food’ and worth eating. My suspicion is that this figure has been inflated massively by including all sorts of crap you would only eat if you were starving or had a dog.

    Political advocacy groups releasing their own ‘research’, alarm bells should immediately be ringing.

  8. I can quite believe that some people waste that much food, but I suspect there is a massive divide within the country. There are those (like me) who are of the ‘Its out of date, has it got mould on, no, does it smell OK, yes, so lets eat it’ camp, and there are those (like other members of my family) who won’t touch anything the day it goes past the sell by date. That all goes in their bin. They also won’t reheat food, if there’s some left over mashed potato for example it all goes in the bin, rather than the fridge for the next meal.

    That attitude isn’t going to change anytime soon, as I suspect its one thats picked up in schools nowadays as the worst culprits are the ones with young children. The kids are all terrified of eating anything with the wrong date on the package.

    Its also amusing to see the Guardian bang on about wasted food at the same time as banging on about starving families and food banks, and also banging on about obesity. The cognitive dissonance must be immense.

  9. Rob,

    > the figures are manipulated to within an inch of their life, with bones, potato peelings, etc counted as ‘waste’.

    I don’t think they were manipulated; I think they were misunderstood. The phrase “food waste” is a technical term used by the waste-disposal trade, to distinguish it from metal waste, garden waste, etc. Obviously, that industry is able to provide accurate figures for the annual weight of food waste, but, equally obviously, they don’t go through it separating the peelings from the stuff that could have been eaten, so there simply are no figures for edible waste.

    And then some ignorant campaigner saw the phrase “food waste” and just assumed it meant “wasted food”. And ran with it.

    Then they got the weight of food sold from the supermarkets and compared it to the weight of food waste from the waste-disposers and concluded it was a national scandal.

    Rob H,

    > Food waste is a sign of massive success in the abundance we have created.

    No, wasted food is a sign of massive success in the abundance we have created. That aside, don’t make the mistake of accepting the campaigners’ assumption that food thrown away is food wasted. Probably the main reason we throw away useful edible food is standardised packaging. To judge whether a thrown-away spoonful of beans from the bottom of a tin are wasted, we need to compare that waste to the cost of manufacturing and shipping a much wider range of different sizes of bean tins so that people could buy the exact amount of beans they’re going to eat and no more. Those thrown-away beans aren’t wasted; they are a bi-product of an incredibly efficient system that reduces waste.

    There are other issues the clueless refuse to take into account. For instance, you are supposed to give babies and toddlers too much food, because the only way to tell when they’ve had enough is that they stop eating even though there’s food still in front of them. So the food thrown away at the end of every baby’s meal is not wasted either; it served a well-defined purpose.

    More generally, unless you can accurately predict exactly how much food every person at the table is going to want to eat and cook that exact amount, you’re either going to have a bit of left-over food at the end of the meal or you’re not going to give everyone enough. And I thought The Guardian were all up in arms over parents not giving their kids enough food. Wasn’t that a big problem for them? People being forced to resort to food banks? Oh, except aren’t they also upset about obesity? So, in fact, all this food that’s being thrown away, they want us to eat it instead? But without putting on weight?

    What the fuck do they want from us?

  10. “700m tonnes? Really?”

    No, I meant the figures as amended by Philip Walker above. I took the 700m to be obvious nonsense.

    In my house no food is wasted at all – it all gets eaten by me, or the dog, or my friends chickens. So someone is chucking out over half a tonne of food to keep the average up.

  11. Squander Two – “Forgot to say. Local authorities are now separating that food waste and turning it into compost. Compost is useful. So, in fact, none of it is being wasted.”

    Restaurant waste used to go to feed pigs in the UK until the last Foot and Mouth outbreak. Which scared the government so much they started doing random things like banning this.

    There is a simple way to reduce food waste – remove that law

  12. Squander 2>

    Quite. Or, to put it more simply, much of the ‘wasted’ food is used, it’s just not used for eating. Instead, it’s used to provide flexibility, or options, or…

  13. > Philip, your assumption is that this waste is actual ‘food’ and worth eating.

    Well, if you read the report (I know, what a dullard, going to the source), you’ll see that they define a few categories of food waste. “Avoidable” waste, in their terms, is food that could have been eaten but is being disposed of otherwise, perhaps because it was left to rot, or too much was prepared and not kept back for later. “Possibly avoidable” was food waste that some people think is not edible but lots would eat, such as bread crusts or potato skins. “Unavoidable” is elements of food generally considered inedible, such as the ends of vegetables [1], carcass bones [2], tea bags, coffee grounds etc. [3]

    The gross figures were that food waste classed as “avoidable” was 4.2 Mt, and I was using that category as the waste that could be eaten rather than turned into compost, put down the drain (1.3 Mt) or sent to the local council (to turn into compost, apparently). [4] The “unavoidable” waste was 1.6 Mt.

    Look, I’m not defending the methodology entirely: some of it seems rather sketchy and relies on multiplying up inexpert assessments of food waste as reported by householders. Wrap’s slogan, “a world without food waste”, is an undesirable goal, because of diminishing marginal returns. Squander Two makes a lot of valid points, particularly about how our system in fact reduces waste overall, even if it leaves pockets of waste unaffected. There is much to criticise. But the criticisms Rob is levelling are in fact tackled in the report itself.

    [1] S 3.3, technical annex on methodology.
    [2] S 3.6, ibid.
    [3] S 1.3, main report.
    [4] Far be it from me to pry into others’ utility functions, but to me at least, U(humans eating human-edible food) > U(putting edible food out to compost) > U(putting it out to landfill or the sewers). People may behave otherwise, and we can say “revealed preferences” all we like, but revealed preferences are not always rational.

  14. Philip,

    > U(humans eating human-edible food) > U(putting edible food out to compost)

    I don’t know enough about the compost industry to know whether that’s true. Is all the food waste they’re getting from local authorities now making their operations more efficient or is it an imposition? No idea. Do you know?

    Even assuming that it’s not as useful as eating the food, the key thing is that the foods on the left and right of your equation are not (always) the same food. The question is not “Shall I eat this food or throw it away?”; the question is “Given that I won’t eat this food, what shall I do with it instead?”

    > > U(putting it out to landfill or the sewers)

    There was a piece in The Reg a while ago about technical problems with capping landfill sites caused by their not containing enough rotting stuff any more. Again, we’d need to measure the effect of those problems in order to make a proper comparison.

  15. Bloke in North Dorset

    “Plus of course we’ll know the figures are manipulated to within an inch of their life, with bones, potato peelings, etc counted as ‘waste’.”

    Who peels potatoes? A quick scrub is all they need.

    I wonder if they also include the £90/tonne, or whatever it currently is, land fill tax in their calculations?

  16. > Who peels potatoes? A quick scrub is all they need.

    Depends on the potato, but yes. But the point still stands with, say, yam peelings.

    Those of us who make stock throw away vegetable ends and animal bones after using them. Somehow I doubt anyone’s measuring the difference between used bones and unused bones.

  17. “Use by” dates err grossly on the side of caution.

    Supermarket cheese and supermarket fruit tend to become ripe enough to eat about two weeks after their “use by”. It’s more or less impossible to buy a mango ripe enough to eat on that very day.

  18. I’m not sure I follow the point about the compost industry. I guess you’re suggesting considering that the quality of the waste in affects the quality of the compost out? True, my statement was a kind of blended average from my point of view as a consumer. If the compost industry wanted to pay me for my food waste, that would be a different matter…

    > The question is not “Shall I eat this food or throw it away?”; the question is “Given that I won’t eat this food, what shall I do with it instead?”

    Well, once you’ve got previously edible material that is not going to be consumed, there’s no doubt that compost or animals are good directions to send it. And there’s no doubt that some of this is inevitable — your end of the can of beans is an example, as are the scrapings from the pan. But the target, surely, is the decisions that lead to non-consumed food?

    I see this as a reminder that we can save money by paying attention to what we buy and then throw out: by buying less, cooking strategically, or freezing more. (Eventually, the money saved is worth less than the time taken, diminishing marginal returns, etc. etc.) Cutting people’s household costs, particularly if it’s helping those on lower incomes, hardly seems to me to be the end of the world as an outcome.

  19. single people, for example, can generally keep waste down quite easily

    I actually find it quite hard (I live alone half the time), as things like loaves of bread go stale before I’ve finished it. With two, things tend to get eaten and my wife does the shopping daily, whereas on my own I go twice per week.

  20. Which means that bottles of pickling vinegar have “best before” dates on them.

    And mineral water, drawn from a 1,000 year old aquifer. Drink by Tuesday week, or you die.

  21. Squander>

    “There’s also some stupid law that everything has to have a “best before” date. Which means that bottles of pickling vinegar have “best before” dates on them.”

    Actually, vinegar’s specifically exempt from the requirement. But bottles may still have a BBE on them for other reasons – it’s not a ‘use by’ date, so the product won’t be unfit for consumption, but it’s ‘best before’ that date, so may perhaps deteriorate slightly by, say, discolouring, or going cloudy.

    Tim N>

    “And mineral water, drawn from a 1,000 year old aquifer. Drink by Tuesday week, or you die.”

    There’s concern – or at least, media hysteria – about chemicals leaching out of plastic when drinks are left in bottles for a long time.

  22. > I actually find it quite hard (I live alone half the time), as things like loaves of bread go stale before I’ve finished it.

    Fair enough, I shouldn’t have generalised from experience so much! I found it easy to keep food waste to a minimum when single, by adjusting both diet and purchasing; and now that I’m married, we waste a bit more food than two of us did singly (though, it has to be said, I doubt anything near 5 kg a week).

  23. “some ignorant campaigner saw the phrase “food waste” and just assumed it meant “wasted food”. And ran with it. … Then they got the weight of food sold from the supermarkets and compared it to the weight of food waste from the waste-disposers and concluded it was a national scandal.”

    SQ2: Nitpicking, I know, but isn’t the sequence wrong there? What you call the conclusion will have been the starting point of the whole cock-waffling exercise.

  24. Fen Tiger,

    Two rules to live by:

    1: Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

    2: Never ascribe to stupidity that which can be adequately explained by malice.

  25. I find I throw away a lot of food because of my lifestyle: I live singly during the week and commute home at weekends. I hate wasting food and can cook an excellent meal out of most leftovers, but the combination of buying food in standard-sized packs and being away from that food for three or four days per week means some of it’s bound to go off. Quite a lot of people commute like I do, so I guess this is a common problem. Throwing food away really pisses me off, but, again, is it really wasted? The waste is a bi-product of moving labour to where it can earn more. The waste helps put a roof over my family.

    > I’m not sure I follow the point about the compost industry. I guess you’re suggesting considering that the quality of the waste in affects the quality of the compost out?

    I imagine it does. Maybe all that free high-quality food waste means they need to use fewer artifical chemicals? Like I said, I have no idea. Which was my point: we can’t just assume we can see which is the more wasteful or more efficient usage of something. These things are always quite absurdly complicated.

    Most local authorities maintain public parks. I wonder if that part of their budget has been helped by not having to buy in compost?

    > If the compost industry wanted to pay me for my food waste, that would be a different matter

    Agreed. Since most of this “waste” is in fact useful, it is a travesty that we are being forced by law to give it away when we should be selling it. And then we’re being charged for the “benefit” of recycling. Forcing people to sell you your raw materials at a negative price or face prosecution: nice racket.

  26. There’s concern – or at least, media hysteria – about chemicals leaching out of plastic when drinks are left in bottles for a long time.

    That periodically does the rounds on FB for a couple of hours before somebody posts to the link showing it is bollocks.

  27. S2>

    If some idiot throws it away and buys another as a result, it’s not stupid putting it on the bottle 🙂

    It’s also often used as a batch marker, which I suspect is actually the reason for most of the silliest looking examples.

    In my experience food regulation in this country is one of those odd little areas of government one stumbles across from time to time where things seem to have been organised by someone surprisingly competent and sensible. Unusual, I know.

  28. I have had little success in persuading supermarket staff to mark down bottles of wine which are clearly at least a year past the date on the bottledate.

  29. “I just went and checked my cupboard, and yes, my sea salt has a “best before” date on it. And not some crazy far-flung sci-fi date, but February 2016.”

    Throw it back in the sea in March 2016. The cycle of Gaia is complete.

  30. “7m tonnes of food – worth £700 – every year and at a total cost of £12.5 bn.”

    Which, given that people are entirely happy to throw it away, is not really a cost. It’s a big scary number but obviously no-one gives a shit about it, as if they did they wouldn’t bin the food.

    So, next crisis please. This one is done.

  31. Just checked my salt and yes, it’s got a best before date of 2012. Am I in danger?

    Maybe I should have bought organic sea salt.

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