Where does food waste go in the end?

Out of sight, out of mind

Most of us are unaware of where the food we waste actually ends up, nor do we know about the direct and indirect consequences of this. In the worst case scenario, food waste is collected and then either disposed of in landfill or incinerated. Still today, only less than half is recycled into biogas and compost, or reused for animal feed within the EU.

The collection of food waste

The way we dispose of food has a huge knock-on effect on the earth’s delicate ecosystems. At an international level, the largest waste category is organic waste (food and green), making up 44% of global waste. It is estimated that organic waste can rise up to 56% on average of total municipal waste in low-income countries, 53% in middle income countries, and 32% in high income countries (World Bank Group, 2018).

There are currently no compulsory EU rules on collecting organic waste. 13 Member States have implemented their own initiatives on collecting bio-waste including food waste separately door-to-door (EURActiv, 2017)

A. The worst case scenario

Still today, much of the bio waste is not recycled or repurposed. Bio waste, and with that food waste, either us on landfills or is incinerated to make energy. On landfills, food decomposes and enters soil and air, severly damaging the environment and the surrounding communities. Incinerators on the one end may produce energy, but at the same time they also fuel a wasteful mentality in businesses and consumers, whilst also impacting people and the environment. These two options are most definitely the worst case scenario.

Landfills: The disposal of food waste

  • In the EU alone, there are roughly half a million landfills (The Financial Times, 2018). By 2016, biodegradable municipal waste needs to be reduced to 35% of the amount of that was landfilled in 1995 (European Union, 1999)
  • Landfills around the world are running out of space (Curry & Pillay, 2012)
  • Food waste makes up 21% of landfill volume (FAO 2016)
  • In the US, it is estimated that 22% of food waste ends up on landfill (EPA, 2015)
  • In Australia, 5 million tonnes of food end up as landfill, enough to fill 9,000 Olympic sized swimming pools (OzHarvest, 2019)

Why is it a problem?

  • Short and long-term health effects such as cancer, birth problems, allergies, headaches amongst others may be caused by neighbouring landfills (Maheshwari et al., 2015; Saffron et al., 2003)
  • As rain falls on landfill sites, organic and inorganic constituents dissolve, forming highly toxic chemicals that leach into groundwater and can even impact soil fertility in surrounding areas (Scienceing, 2018) 
  • Methane emissions, released from the anaerobic decomposition of organic material, are a damaging greenhouse gas that leads to climate change. Learn more here

Incineration: The recovery of food waste

Why is it a problem?

B. Waste as a resource

By 2035, The EU wants to recycle 65% of all generated municipal waste (European Commission, 2018). Within a circular economy, food waste should no longer be disposed on landfills or incinerated. Food waste should instead be seen as a valuable resource that can one end be reused as animal feed. Here, instead of using other protein sources, food waste can be repurposed into food.  On the other end, food waste could also be used be recycled into biogas or compost that can then be used for energy or as fertiliser respectively. 

Animal feed: The reuse of food waste

The world is currently witnessing a massive rise in meat and dairy consumption. As more people consume it, more will have to be produced. This puts significant pressure on our planet's natural resources and climate. The option is therefore to reuse food waste instead of harvesting cereals or crops on land that otherwise contained tropical rainforests.

  • A five-fold increase in the total consumption of meat has been recorded globally since the mid 1940s (Proteinsect, 2016)
  • Global production of meat is projected to more than double from 229 million tons in 1999/01 to 465 million tons in 2050, and that of milk to grow from 580 million to 1 billion tons (FAO & LEAD, 2006)
  • 80% of agricultural land and over 30% of land surface is already used to graze and feed farmed animals (FAO & LEAD, 2006; OurWorldinData,2017)
  • Total EU protein crop production currently supplies only 30% of the protein consumed as animal feed in the EU; with most imports coming from Brazil and United States (ITC, 2017)
  • The EU imports annually around 17 million tons of crude proteins (European Commission, 2018)
  • These imports represent the equivalent of 20 million hectares of cultivated land - more than 10% of the EU’s arable land (Proteinsect, 2016)

There is an urgent need to address the EU’s protein deficit and to replace imported protein crops with alternative European sources

  European Parliament, 2011

An untapped potential

  • It is estimated that approximately 3.5 million tons of former foodstuffs annually are processed into animal feed in the EU with the potential to increase this to 7 million tons (Quadram Institute, 2018)
  • If Europe were to recycle food waste as swill on the scale achieved in East Asia, this would reduce the land required to produce pig feed by 20%, an area the size of Wales (Zu Ermgassen et al., 2016)
  • Black Soldier flies can turn food waste into an alternative protein, while additionally producing a by-product that can be processed and turned into fertiliser or biodiesel (Proteinsect, 2016)

Biogas and composting: The recycling of food waste

Food contains a huge amounts of resources. These resources are rich in energy, nutrients and minerals. Instead of letting them decompose or burning them, the option would be recycling them and giving them new value. Food that was otherwise wasted can therefore become a resource to produce energy through biogas or to become an invaluable, natural fertiliser for other crops and plants.



  • Process of aerobically (with oxygen) decomposing a mixture of organic matter through micro-organisms, and later used as fertiliser (EcoProducts, 2014)
  • In vessel composting has become a popular choice whereby food waste is decomposed in an enclosed environment, with accurate temperature, moisture and oxygen control and monitoring (RecycleNow, 2016)
  • In the EU, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg are the only countries that compost or digest 20% or more (European Commission, 2015) 
  • To find out more on how people compost across Europe, see here
  • Want to start your own compost? Have a look at some cool tricks and tips on how to make it work!