How global cities can tackle their food waste

Written by: David Newman | Published:
David Newman is president of the World Biogas Association

According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, 1.6 billion tonnes of food is lost and wasted globally every year, inflicting severe environmental and socio-economic damages.

Poor management of food waste causes the loss of natural resources, human health issues, pollution of rivers and seas, the generation of methane emissions from dumps and landfills, and a missed opportunity to recover valuable energy, organic matter, nutrients and water contained in food waste.

To illustrate the scale of the environmental impact, managing food waste sustainably could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 518 million tonnes, which is the equivalent of taking all the cars in the EU off the road.

In 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) committed all UN Member States to end hunger, ensure access to clean water and sanitation for all, make cities sustainable (including by “paying special attention to municipal and other waste management”) and take urgent action to combat climate change. Without the sustainable management of food waste, these commitments cannot be met.

As a result of continued global urbanisation, over 70% of the human population will live in cities by 2050, meaning there is a pressing need to improve the management of food waste in urban areas in particular. Urbanisation means that cities are really at the forefront of leading this challenge to manage food waste; they are where most people live and where innovation spreads most quickly.

What should be done with food waste?

This is the backdrop for our new report, Global Food Waste Management: An Implementation Guide For Cities, that the World Biogas Association has written in collaboration with the C40 Cities Food, Water & Waste Programme.

The report aims to help policy- and decision-makers in cities around the world improve their food waste management by providing a background to the key issues surrounding food waste and clear evidence to support the implementation of food waste collections and treatment alternatives. It shares the experience of cities that have taken a lead and acts as a guide on how to deliver sustainable urban food waste management in practice.

The most effective way to reduce the impact of food waste is to minimise its production, preventing it where possible; indeed, one of the SDGs targets reducing food waste generation per capita by 50% at the retail and consumer level by 2030.

To achieve this commitment, cities and nations should introduce regulations or voluntary initiatives designed to reduce food waste levels by influencing consumer purchasing habits and redistributing food to where it is needed.

However, some food waste is unavoidable. This remaining material should be collected separately from other waste streams (to enable maximum recovery of energy and nutrients) and delivered to an appropriate processing facility so that it can be recycled. Collecting food waste separately also allows it to be measured, making the scale of waste generation evident – this in itself can cause a reduction in the original production of food waste as individuals and organisations become more aware of its impact.

There are a number of options available for processing food waste: these include composting, gasification, pyrolysis and biogas technologies. While each option offers advantages and disadvantages, biogas technologies are the best from an environmental point of view as they enable renewable energy generation (through the production of biogas) and nutrient recovery and the building of organic matter in soil (through the co-production of a nutrient-rich biofertiliser). Biogas technologies make use of naturally occurring microorganisms to break down waste and recover up to 60% more energy from food waste than other technologies.

What can global cities do?

Cities have a responsibility to create solutions to climate change. Fortunately, they also have a real capacity – and will – to do so. The movement to separately collect food waste is growing, with New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, San Francisco, Mexico City, Milan and many others already separately and regularly collecting their food waste from millions of citizens, either on a voluntary or obligatory basis.

Our report shows that towns, cities and nations managing their food waste sustainably stand to benefit hugely in terms of reducing emissions, improving energy and food security, and improving human health. With food waste treatment technologies already mature and able to be rolled out quickly, cities have it within their power to make the changes required.

Reducing food waste and managing it more sustainably has the potential to deliver significant tangible benefits to the lives of millions of people around the world, as well as protecting the natural environment upon which we all depend for a sustainable future.

The urgency of climate change and global human health issues mean that action on food waste cannot wait – let’s take this opportunity to solve this problem, for the benefit of this and future generations.

David Newman is president of the World Biogas Association

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