By DAVID NEWMAN, PRESIDENT OF THE WORLD BIOGAS ASSOCIATION
Globally, food waste has become an increasingly recognised environmental issue. Not only because 800 million people globally suffer from hunger, but the environmental impacts of producing food that is then discarded can no longer be overlooked. Food management is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and according to the FAO, approximately 1.6 billion tons of food are lost and wasted every year with a global cost of approximately USD 2.6 trillion. This includes not only the value of the wasted food itself but also a host of other factors – greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, nutrient loss, reduced yields, wind erosion, and pesticide exposure.
As urbanisation increases, more food is being produced and more food is being wasted. Particularly for cities, wasted food creates severe environmental and public health consequences. But it also presents opportunities to make a positive impact. It has been estimated that managing food waste sustainably could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 518 million tonnes per year globally, which is the equivalent of taking all the cars in the European Union off the road.
Cities and nations are already acting in various ways to reduce and treat food waste. Some countries, like France and Italy, have made it a legal obligation for supermarkets to donate left-over food, and have reduced taxes to stimulate this. Private and public initiatives have multiplied in major cities, like London, where charities such as FareShare have become major distributors of edible food left-overs.
Separate collection of food waste makes treatment much more efficient as major cities like Milan and San Francisco have demonstrated. New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, Mexico City, and many others, are starting to separately and regularly collect their food waste, either on a voluntary or mandatory basis. However, whilst there is a number of good examples from a few cities, there is a huge amount to be done. Most cities are not collecting food waste regularly; few cities are treating food waste and prevention policies are yet to become mainstream. The opportunity is enormous but the barriers to implementation have also been extremely difficult for cities to overcome.
National and city authorities can take action immediately to reduce and capture the resources available in food waste and turn these into compost, biogas, transport fuel, soil improvers, power and energy for heating and cooling.
The reduction and treatment of food waste is one of the most significant actions cities can take to reduce their carbon footprint. And importantly, food waste treatment technologies can be implemented within a short timeframe and cities have most of the powers to do so.
Fortunately for city practitioners, more resources on food waste management are becoming available. The World Biogas Association and the C40 Cities Food, Water and Waste Programme have partnered to produce a technical report on Food Waste Management and Treatment Alternatives, intended to assist city decision-makers to find sustainable and effective solutions to the challenge of improving their food waste management with a detailed overview of anaerobic digestion as a treatment alternative.
The Global Food Waste Management: An Implementation Guide for Cities report provides a wide ranging overview of how cities can deal with food waste and adopt best practices to reduce the negative impacts of untreated food waste and create positive impacts related to energy, soil quality and human health.
The report also benefits from first-hand experiences from cities that are already reducing their food losses and transforming their food waste into a resource, such as the case of Rotterdam.
Rotterdam is no exception to the worldwide trend of food waste in cities, producing approximately 38,400 tons of food waste annually. A small part of this stream has started to be collected separately as organic waste and is processed to make biogas and compost. Rotterdam is also home to a number of social initiatives and enterprises focused on preventing food waste, including the 'voedselbanken' (or food banks) which distribute discarded food from larger supermarkets to low-income citizens, or festivals where large amounts of discarded food is prepared and eaten by and for Rotterdamers.
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb and David Newman
“Cities worldwide have to focus on one of the greatest challenges of our century: to ensure balanced progress in terms of economic growth, quality of life, safety and sustainability. Therefore, we welcome the report from WBA and C40 because it gives a series of implementation guidelines which will be useful on how to use wasted food to produce fuels, nutrients and heat. This is one way we can reduce the impact of climate change and shift the economy as we know it into new models, structures and meaningfulness.”
– Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb
In closing, better food waste management in urban areas represents an opportunity to cut into emissions while resolving other issues around energy, soil quality, waste management and human health. The technologies to achieve these goals are mature and deployable now and the World Biogas Association can support cities in their transition.