Public policy and regulations have a major role to play in preventing food waste and ensuring that all food waste is treated in the most efficient environmental manner. Technology will also play a role in encouraging less waste and ensuring advanced food waste treatment solutions.
By Conor Dowd
Food waste is a massive problem globally, contributing to more than 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. However, combatting food waste requires all stakeholders to play their part, including recycling and waste management companies. Sustainable food production and consumption is a collaborative effort where everyone needs to think and act on their environmental impact. Organizations, companies, and individuals are working on ways to use technologies, resource efficiency, and education to reduce the environmental impact from the food we eat.
Food Waste Collections
Many countries and some U.S. states are beginning to mandate collections of food waste from households and businesses. In the UK, household food waste will need to be collected separately from dry recyclables each week by local authorities. Those that already collect it (believed to be around one quarter) will need to continue, while others will have until 2024 or 2031 to transition depending on contracts (the latter date for those that have contracts in place for energy from waste or mechanical biological treatment).
The European Union has also taken a strict approach. By December 2023, it will be obligatory for Member States to have separate bio-waste collections. For households, this means food and garden waste can be collected separately, and for catering companies, food must be collected separately from other recyclables and waste. It will also be prohibited to landfill or incinerate this material from the same date.
While the U.S. has a Federal goal to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030, it does not have similar plans for separate food waste collection. Some states are pushing ahead with their own laws. With a population of 40 million people, California is leading the way with residents set to be required to put food waste into separate collections by 2025. This material will need to be composted or converted into energy. Businesses in the state are now required to have food recycling programs in place and donate surplus edible food to food banks or other similar organizations.
Since July 2020, Vermont’s 625,000 residents have been banned from throwing food waste into their trash cans. These are currently the only two states introducing food waste collections, but others are expected to follow.
Mitigating Food Waste Emissions with Technology
If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind the U.S. and China. With more countries and states introducing food waste collections, this is likely to require more logistics expertise to collect the biomaterial and then transport it to treatment facilities such as composters and anaerobic digestors.
Currently, municipal or business collections may only require one vehicle for residual waste, and maybe another for dry mixed recycling. But moving forward, collection patterns may involve residual waste collection, food waste collection, then separate collection of dry mixed recycling (the latter may be achieved by vehicles with separate compartments) or potentially separate collection of individual materials.
This will require more vehicle movements, and more efficient use of existing vehicle fleets. Route optimization technology enables companies to optimize routes and reduce fuel use. This helps to ensure that waste management firms are also reducing greenhouse gas emissions through optimized routes.
It means if you are collecting food waste, residual waste, and dry mixed recycling on separate routes, these can all be optimized for fuel efficiency while meeting customer expectations.
Of course, this will also mean optimizing trips to treatment facilities too. With many countries seeking to ban treatment of food and bio-waste in landfill and energy from waste plants, industrial composting and anaerobic digestion will become more commonplace.
In 2017, there were 17,783 anaerobic digestion plants in the European Union that generate biomethane that can be used alongside natural gas or used to generate electricity. A fertilizer is also produced by these plants that use bacteria to break down organic waste (and also sewerage). In the U.S., there were more than 2,000 anaerobic digestion plants in 2020.
According to the World Biogas Association, if all available food waste was collected and recycled using anaerobic digestion plants, between 880 to 1100 TWh of energy could be generated, enough to meet the electricity needs of 112 to 135 million people. This would also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by 510 to 560 Mt CO2 equivalent, which is similar to the annual emissions of the UK.
The waste hierarchy has prevention at the top, as avoiding waste in the first place is always the most sustainable option. Some waste management companies may decide that helping their customers to prevent food waste might be the most sensible and commercially beneficial option. Rather than introducing complex new separate food waste collection routes, it might be more sustainable to work with customers on ways to reduce their food waste output.
Another benefit of this is the marketing aspect, showing that the business takes sustainability seriously. In 2020, Veolia UK became the first waste management company to join the UK Food Waste Reduction Roadmap that aims to get businesses to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2030. At that point, 185 organizations had committed to this initiative including supermarket chains Aldi, Morrisons, and Tesco. Veolia said it would work with its customers to reduce food waste, and ensure that it not only would be redistributed to people in need, but also highlighted its composting and anaerobic digestion services.
Some European countries such as Ireland operate a pay by weight billing system to provide incentives to businesses and households to segregate their food waste into bio-waste containers for collection and this measure has boosted bio-waste recycling in Ireland to more than 10 percent of municipal waste arisings and created a network of bio-waste treatment facilities that generate renewable energy and biofuels.
Globally, prices of food, fuel, and other commodities have risen sharply in the past year. This is likely to mean shopping habits will change as people have less spare cash to spend. It may also lead to less food waste, as consumers seek to maximize household budgets by wasting less food.
Another trend is more reuse models, with many retailers and manufacturers experimenting with reusable containers and refill models. Manufacturers such as Kellogg’s and Unilever have trialed refill solutions where consumers take a container and refill it in store rather than using traditional packaging. This also has the potential to reduce food waste, as consumers can buy volumes they need rather than what comes in the traditional packaging.
A Coordinated Effort
Fighting food waste across the food chain from farm to fork is an urgent necessity given that it creates significant greenhouse gas emissions. This effort will require coordinated effort across all stakeholders, including famers, food producers, distributors, food service companies, government, and the general public. Public policy and regulations have a major role to play in preventing food waste and ensuring that all food waste is treated in the most efficient environmental manner. Technology will play a role in encouraging less waste and ensuring advance food waste treatment solutions. | WA
Conor Dowd has worked at AMCS since 2016 in a variety of sales and marketing management roles. He is currently Senior Product |Marketing Manager. Prior to that, he worked for more than 12 years as Commercial Director at a large international recycling company with operations in North America, United Kingdom and Ireland. Conor is passionate about the use of digital technology to promote sustainability and drive behavioral change. He can be reached at [email protected].