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Food: why and how large-scale waste must be stopped

22.04.2015

According to the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted each year worldwide. This represents one-third of the [annual] production of food intended for human consumption. Even if one doesn’t consider the economic impact, which is estimated at $990 billion annually, this waste has a major impact on our resources. Each year, it is responsible for the emission into the atmosphere of 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2, and it monopolises nearly 30% of cultivatable land. To meet this challenge, numerous initiatives are being undertaken to reduce waste at the source, and to use a larger percentage of the food we produce.

Reducing the amount of food wasted begins with not discarding uneaten food. A brewery in Brussels collects unsold bread at supermarkets, dries it, grinds it into flour, and then mixes it with barley malt flour. In this way, each month a half tonne of bread is recovered to produce 4,000 litres of beer. The same logic has been applied in another sector: in France, Confitures Re-Belles recovers fruit discarded by the agro-food and wholesale distribution sectors due to aesthetic considerations, poor inventory management, or overproduction, and then converts it into marmalade. A parliamentary report issued in France this month even recommends prohibiting wholesale distributors from throwing out unsold expired food so that it might be given to associations or resold in certain sectors.

Numerous communities worldwide are taking action upstream to prevent waste. Their goal is to recover food that would otherwise be discarded. Achieving this goal first requires careful selection of organic waste from kitchens and plates. The City of San Francisco in California is a pioneer in this area. It has set itself the target of “100% waste recovery by 2020”, as opposed to today’s level of 80%. It now recovers 600 tonnes of food and organic waste every day, which the city’s inhabitants deposit in ad hoc containers. All of this is then processed into compost.

Urban composting is also promoted in New York City, where the city government makes street composters available to its citizens. This initiative has also produced ideas on how to handle the 100 million tonnes of organic waste produced each year by 8 million New Yorkers. An architectural firm has come up with a plan to create ten artificial islands on which to do composting on an industrial scale. The facilities would be built below ground and have parkland on top of them. This design would avoid the costs and nuisance associated with hauling waste to landfills on the outskirts of the city. GET Innovation, a recently created French c0mpany, is betting on express composting for everyone by offering a line of composters for families, restaurants, and cafeterias that transform organic waste into animal feed in 24 hours.

Compost – ©SUEZ environnement

The other major application for food waste is of course the production of energy (biogas) via methanisation. The solution is not new, but it is increasingly gaining ground in large cities such as Hong Kong. To reduce the inconveniences of landfills (the surface area used, methane emissions, contamination of the subsoil and groundwater), the government has launched the construction of a methanisation plant with a daily capacity of 200 tonnes.

Numerous other recovery sectors will now surely be created, as a research team at the CEMEF (Centre for Material Forming) of MINES ParisTech has proven with aeropectin. Made with the pectin found in fruit peels and rinds, this material is light and durable and has super-thermal insulating properties that could be applied in buildings or refrigerators. Now we can finally find a use for our orange peels and apple cores.