Discarded food becomes a resource

Discarded food becomes a resource

January 31, 2020

Discarded food becomes a resource

Thanks to the intervention of specific microorganisms, and in some cases even with the use of cutting-edge technologies, food waste can be enhanced by transforming it into useful and sustainable goods.

Food that is thrown away every day does not necessarily have to end up in a landfill or incinerator, it can become a precious resource within sustainable food systems and a circular economy. Experts from all over the world have understood this, knowing that this enhancement is also one of the best approaches to overturn a situation that has grown to worrying proportions, with 1/3 of the food produced for human consumption lost or wasted in the various stages of the food supply chain. Confirming this interest in the enhancement of wasted food is also the fact that research on the topic has increased by 90% from 2009 to 2018. A scientific article published in the journal Bioresource Technology takes stock of the situation, describing the sources of waste and the new guise that food waste can assume. 

Source of the waste

28% of arable land is occupied by food that is wasted or thrown away. It is also estimated that by 2025 the amount of urban food waste will be 138 million tonnes greater than in 2005. Furthermore this waste generates 3,3 billions of tons of CO2 every year, contributing greatly to greenhouse gas emissions, and that wasting food also means wasting water, labor and energy. Where does all this “food waste” come from? The cultivation, but above all the processing of cereals and pulses, produces large amounts of waste products that can be used in various ways, even as animal feed. 

For fruit and vegetables, the situation is very complex: often these products are considered “waste” when the consumer (or retailer) decides they are no longer acceptable. For example, according to FAO data, 3-13% of potatoes produced and harvested in the UK never reach the customer and are discarded by supermarkets. Then there is dairy waste (about 29 million tons every year in Europe), waste derived from edible oils, meat, eggs and fish, in addition to household waste (over 30 million tons of waste is produced by Chinese kitchens every year) and agricultural waste.

Energy from waste 

Landfilling or incinerating food waste risks causing serious harm to the environment and is not a good solution to the problem of waste, especially as this waste can be converted into biofuels and electricity. Oil and fat can be used to produce biodiesel, which is currently made using expensive raw materials that could be replaced by food waste. The same goes for the production of bioethanol from low cellulose food waste, while the fermentation that uses discarded food allows biohydrogen to be generated using less energy than traditional methods, to the extent that it has become the preferred production method. 

In addition, methane, electricity, bioplastics and organic fertilizers can also be obtained from food waste. But none of this would be possible without the tireless action of numerous bacteria which, through aerobic and anaerobic processes, allow a waste product to be transformed into a precious asset: a rapidly expanding sector of biological research, in search of the perfect microorganism. 

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