Can cities lead action on food waste?
A newsletter about food systems, climate change and everything connected to them
Well, Slow Food and Zero Waste Europe thinks so. They’ve come up with guidelines for European municipalities to slash food waste, with examples from places across Europe, ranging from big cities like Paris and Milan to smaller places like Porto and Mouans-Sartoux.
The short, easy-to-read report is meant to serve as a wake-up call of sorts to cities to tackle the issue and not wait for national level initiatives.
Because of their “unique position in the food supply chain”, cities can create “a waste-free local food system” in both direct and indirect environments, the authors said.
Why is food waste a problem?
Because every time we throw away food, we are wasting all the time and resources - land, water, energy, manpower, fertiliser - that goes into growing, harvesting, transporting and packaging it, whether it’s a carrot, a slice of bread or scraps of meat.
When that food goes to rot in a landfill, it also releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is actually more potent than carbon dioxide because it traps 28 times more heat, and we are just wasting far too much food. For more details, below is a link to a previous issue where I did a deep dive on this issue.
What’s new here?
Well, a lot of the talk around reducing food waste put the onus of reducing it on consumers and households. How we shouldn’t buy too much food or only perfect-looking produce. How we should eat more leftovers. How we shouldn’t bin surplus food and instead exchange/give it away. How we should compost at home. There are campaigns, books and apps for all of that.
But here, the authors rightly understood the important role of policymakers at a local level. That they have much more power than individuals who already are juggling far too many things in their lives.
Don’t get me wrong, we should all do our part, but I have often thought it’s a cop-out for corporations and officials to pretend we actually have the influence to control vast, extremely profitable and highly complex food supply chains.
So, what does it say?
It said local authorities to follow the Food Waste hierarchy (above).
“Cities should prioritize prevention and should therefore take action to avoid the generation of food waste in the first place. When prevention is impossible, food should be redistributed for human consumption before being recycled into animal feed, composted, or converted into energy through anaerobic digestion. Thus, food waste strategies should include a combination of actions across different sections.”
“Redistribution and donations should remain solutions of last resort, and need to be complemented by rethinking the local food system,” it added.
I’m summarizing the suggestions into five parts.
- Take holistic approaches to reducing food waste
- Promote local food systems
- Educate & raise awareness among consumers
- Establish green public procurement rules
- Improve local waste management systems
How about those case studies?
These are the most interesting parts about this report and shows what is possible, if only our representatives are willing to tackle this problem. Perhaps with our urging, they will be?
Paris - In 2015, the City of Light (population - 2.18 million) adopted the plan de lutte contre le gaspillage alimentaire (plan to combat food waste), which aims to slash food waste by 50% by 2025.
As part of that plan, the city encourages Parisian food shops to sell near-expired food products, promotes bulk stores businesses that operate without disposable packaging, and supporting the development of systems for the collection/processing and donation of unsold food through specialised local associations.
It also set up a door-to-door collection of separated organic waste including food waste generated by households, restaurants, and food markets. These are then turned into bio fertiliser in anaerobic digestion facilities and used in agricultural fields surrounding Paris instead of chemical fertilisers.
Milan - The fashion, industry and business capital of Italy (population - 3.14 million) also has plans to cut food waste by 50% by 2030, as part of its Food Policy.
To achieve this, the municipality worked with Assolombarda (the association of companies operating in the city) and the Polytechnic University of Milan to come up with some solutions. This included a pilot project called the Local Food Waste Hub which recovers food surpluses from local supermarkets and canteens and redistributes it to people in need through local neighborhood networks.
In 2018 alone, the city of Milan saved and donated 6,995 tons this way, equivalent to over 13 million meals. A food bank organization manages the actual food redistribution through the Hub, but other local charities are also involved. The project is complemented by a 20% tax reduction for supermarkets and canteens that donate the food. Assolombarda created a label dedicated to food donations to signal the virtuous businesses.
Porto - Home to the world-famous port wine, this small city (population - 215,000) committed in 2017 to becoming a circular economy by 2030 and food waste is a key part of this.
The city has been promoting urban and peri-urban agriculture through vegetable gardens since 2003. The city now boasts 13 of them, managed by volunteers and supported by the city on technical stuff like management of monitoring. The city also manages six fresh markets which acts as a link between consumers and local producers.
It also has three restaurants which redistribute which would otherwise be thrown away to people in need. A fourth one is to open soon. The restaurants served 580 health and nutritious meals a day in 2020.
Ghent - This chilled city in northwest Belgium (population - 262,000) made 10 hectares of land it owns freely available for local farmers to produce food that can be sold to residents. An online help desk offers help to the 42 schools and 25 community gardens that are part of the project.
The city has also developed an online interactive map where citizens can see a list of several sustainable initiatives related to food, including about 40 locations where they can freely pick fruits that are about to be wasted.
Mouans-Sartoux - The pretty little town (population - 10,000) just 20 minutes north of Cannes has been serving 100% organic food in its canteens since 2012. The local government was able to afford this by slashing food waste, including by offering two portion sizes (small and large), according to the report.
“In canteens, food waste is weighed daily, and amounts to an average of 38g per meal compared to the 150g national average.”
This has reduced the cost of meals. Currently, 70% of the food served is local and 96% of the children eat at the school. Most of the vegetables to the three school canteens, about 1,300 meals a day, comes from the organic municipal farm.
What does Thin think?
Well, the featured case studies provide interesting snapshots of what the cities are doing but it is mainly that - a snapshot. Keeping the guidance short and readable means it will actually be read by people who need to see this, but it also left me wanting more, particularly in terms of independent assessments of how successful these initiatives have been and whether they are sustainable.
But as a tool to nudge municipalities to take action? I hope it’ll bring results.
Stories from the Mekong Region
For the past three months or so, I’ve been mentoring seven journalists from the Mekong region with their data-driven, environmentally-focused stories as part of the Mekong Data Journalism Fellowship.
They have been toiling away for months working on these pieces, reaching, researching, interviewing, trawling through massive databases, extracting the data and then making calculations based on these data to test their hypotheses, which range from the impacts of hydropower dams in the Mekong and the precipitous decline in fish catch Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, to the scale of rare earth mining in northern Myanmar and the destruction of mangrove forests in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Delta.
Well, the stories are starting to come out and I feel very privileged to have helped these talented journalists and to have worked with some very smart data crunching experts, all of whom, I should add, are from Myanmar! So here are a few that have been published.
Mekong fishermen struggle to survive by Van Nguyen from Vietnam News
Data exposes flaws in Mekong Delta resilience plans by Nhin Tan Thuan for The Third Pole
Rare Earth mining in Kachin State poisons local livelihoods and environment from Kachinwaves (only in Myanmar language currently. We’re getting it translated but you’ll need a plug-in for now)
Floods and Migrants of Vietnam Mekong Delta: 25 Lessons from the Numbers by Le Thu Mach and team for Dan Viet (again only in Vietnamese but this is also being translated)
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail email@example.com.