Food waste management in the US, UK and Japan

by Minako Kageyama Tanaka

This is the second of three blog posts by Minako Kageyama Tanaka* on food waste in the US, the UK, and Japan.

Food recovery hierarchy commonality and difference

How do the three countries tackle the food waste issue? The US, the UK and Japan articulate their food waste reduction strategies in their food recovery hierarchies. These hierarchies showcase available food waste reduction and recycling approaches and nudge people to take action in the order of least environmental impacts. Although the recovery steps in the three countries are not the same, the countries share many approaches. For example, all three countries start their hierarchy with the reduction of food waste sources. Redistribution of surplus to people and animals comes next, and recycling is the countries’ third preferable action.

However, each government’s recovery hierarchy differs slightly in its types of methods and actions. For instance, Japan is the only country among the three that specifically mentions using digestates for mushroom beds in its hierarchy. And the UK is the only country that sets landspreading in its hierarchy. These examples highlight these countries’ intentions to promote such recycling methods. 

Food waste prevention target

Another common policy tool in these three countries is to set a national goal for food waste aligned with SDGs 12.3, which is to halve global food waste per capita by 2030. However, each country adopts a different approach to its food business sectors.

In Japan, for example, the national government has set a five-year intensity reduction target since 2014. By 2018, food retailers needed to cut their food waste to 65.6kg per one-million-yen sale, and food servicers to from 83.3 to 170kg per one-million-yen sale, depending on their menu. From 2013 to 2018, the food retail industry increased the amount of food diverted from landfills and incinerators from 190,000 to 310,000 tons. The foodservice industry increased from 127,000 to 355,000 tons during the same period. By setting the targets, the government signaled the businesses, and they responded to it by increasing diversion. In the current target, for example, general food retailers (grocery stores) are expected to reduce their food waste to 44.9kg for each one-million-yen sale by the end of FY 2023. As this target is more ambitious than the previous one, the industries are encouraged to scale up their actions.

However, increasing efforts in the retail and foodservice sectors have not resulted in enough food waste reduction by its total weight. The retail sector managed to reduce the total weight slightly year by year from 2013 to 2018, but he foodservice busines increased the weight of food sent to the incinerator or landfill without recovery.

This shows the limitation of the intensity target.

In contrast, the US invited businesses that are willing to take their own initiative to reduce food waste to join a group of “U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions.” The member companies committed to halve their food loss and waste from their domestic business operations by 2030. The pledged companies either choose an absolute basis target or per-customer basis target for 50% reduction and also consider the definition of food loss and waste. As of May 2021, 34 companies in the grocery, restaurant, food manufacture, food services, and hospitality and entertainment businesses joined the pledges. These include nationwide supermarkets and restaurant chains. For example, Walmart reported that they achieved 90 million fewer wasted units in their fresh department in 2018.

Available food size

The portion size of food can also affect the amount of food waste generated. Although portion sizes vary, people’s portion preferences is significantly different in the three countries. The food businesses are aware of such differences and adjust the size options available on their menus. For example, in McDonald’s in the US, people can order a box of 40 pieces of chicken nuggets, but a 20-piece-box is the largest in the UK, and a 15-piece-box in the biggest in Japan. Another global fast-food chain restaurant, KFC, also captures the difference in appetite in each country. While a US customer can buy a 16-piece chicken bucket, a customer in the UK can only order a 14-piece bucket, and a customer in Japan can only get a 12-piece bucket.

Although portion size is not the single and conclusive factor of food waste in the foodservice sector, the data shows that food waste from the US foodservice sector is 64kg per head, which is the largest among the three countries. Japan only marks 15kg in food waste from food service. The UK follows it with 17kg. [Table 1] For this reason, portion size in restaurants should be considered as a contributor to food waste from the foodservice sector.

Redistribution to people

The three countries have also promoted the redistribution of food from those who have surplus to those who are in need. Among them, the US approach is distinctive. Food donation is an area that the federal government initiated its action, although waste management is the area the states have primary authority to regulate. The federal government minimizes the liability risk that deters businesses from food donation due to the potential lawsuit risk. Federal tax incentives also push businesses to distribute unnecessary but edible food. In addition, an extensive network consisting of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries across all 50 states and Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico facilitate food donation.

Like the US, there are over 2,200 food banks, including 1,300 food banks established by a trust and 900 independent food banks, in the UK, which have a large capacity in aggregate to distribute food to people in need.

In contrast to these two countries, the food bank network and its capacity in Japan are still in the development phase. The number of food banks in Japan is estimated at around 110, and they suffer from budget constraints and workforce shortages even though the intention is to expand operations.

*Minako Kageyama Tanaka is an LLM candidate at UCLA Law.

Comments are closed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: