Where does food waste go in the end?
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 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)
- The average municipal waste generated in 2017 in the EU is around 487kg per capita (Eurostat, 2017)
- Bio-waste, on average, accounts for 37% of total municipal waste in Europe, but differs considerably between member states (Bräutigam et al., 2014; European Environment Agency, 2016)
- The door-to-door system has proven to be the most appropriate for increasing bio-waste collection (European Commission, 2015)
- Specific countries deal with municipal waste differently (OECD, 2019). Currently over half of EU municipal bio waste is not recycled or repurposed:
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.
- 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.
- Incinerators combust waste and in the process recover heat to produce energy through steam
- Burning waste for energy undermines Europe’s recycling efforts by diverting waste to incinerators instead of having it reused or recycled (European Commission, 2015; European Parliament, 2008)
- The EU has now taken initial steps by cutting funding for incineration (Zero Waste Europe, 2018). while separate collection obligations still prevail (Zero Waste Europe, 2018)
Why is it a problem?
- Incinerating food emits greenhouse gases and destroys the potential for nutrient reuse (ILSR et al., 2008)
- Incinerators emit more CO2 per unit of electricity than natural gas, fired and coal-fired power plants (ZeroWasteEurope, 2015)
- Incinerators release 3 times as much nitrogen dioxide and 28 times as much dioxin as coal plants to produce the same amount of energy (EPA, 2014; EPA, 2007)
- Causes short and longterm health effects such as cancer, respiratory system, and hormonal defects (Sharma et al., 2013; Thompson & Anthony, 2009; The Natural Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine, 2000; Friends of the Earth, 2002)
- Toxic bottom ash and fly ash are leftovers that further harm the environment if not disposed of properly (Suzuki, 2013; AENews, 2008)
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.
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
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)
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.
- Produced after organic materials (plant and animal products) are broken down by bacteria in an oxygen-free environment, a process called anaerobic digestion (BioConstruct, 2008)
- The converted gases, methane and CO2, are then suitable for energy production to generate electricity, produce fuel or heat through biomethane (Achinas et al., 2017)
- The nutrient-rich digestate can be treated into fertilisers (Environmental and Energy Study Institute, 2017; European Commission, 2013)
- Biogas production reached 18 billion m3 methane (654 PJ). representing half of the global biogas production across 17,400 biogas plants (Scarlat et al., 2017)
- Europe is the world's leading producer of biomethane for the use as a vehicle fuel or for injection into the natural gas grid producing 1.4 billion m3 methane (Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, 2017)
- 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!