Fighting food waste with strong commitment and optimism

Fighting food waste with strong commitment and optimism

February 04, 2021

Fighting food waste with strong commitment and optimism

Interview with Enzo Favoino, scientific coordinator of Zero Waste Europe and researcher at Scuola Agraria del Parco di Monza

I fear that the agenda on this issue isn’t sufficiently developed, but some important things have undoubtedly been done,” explains Enzo Favoino, who boasts three decades of experience in sorted collection, recycling and composting. “There is still a long way to go in tackling waste and food waste, but I’ve found that several steps in the right direction have been taken over the years,” adds Favoino, who is also an expert in EU waste legislation and one of the founders of the European Compost Network.


What is Europe's position on the issue of food waste?

As things stand, Europe has set a goal of achieving a 50% reduction in food waste. This is currently an aspirational rather than a legally binding goal. In 2023, however, during the periodic review of European legislation, Europe specified that it would evaluate the introduction of legally binding food waste reduction objectives.


Where in the supply chain is waste still high?

It is extremely important is to understand and standardize how food waste is measured throughout the chain, bearing in mind that much of the waste occurs before the final consumer, even in our own countries. In the West, the end consumer is undoubtedly also contributing to this waste, but currently, as shown by the “UnWrappedreport published by Zero Waste Europe, waste also occurs at other stages. The report shows, for instance, that the introduction of disposable packaging has not reduced waste as much as one might think, but has simply moved it upstream to where packaged products are prepared.

Are there European countries that are particularly attentive to the issue of food waste?

There are various ad hoc laws and initiatives at national level. In France, for example, food waste has been defined as a crime. This is a very harsh approach which risks causing some sub-optimal practices to go underground. 

Italy, on the other hand, has preferred to highlight the problem with the “Gadda law” (Law 166 of August 19, 2016), which is more focused on consultation, seeking to improve the mechanisms of recovery chains for charitable purposes, providing tax incentives and simplifying administration and organization. This Italian law is now often cited in Europe, together with other national laws, as an example of good practice. 


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Why are we still wasting so much?

Essentially no one every thought it was a problem, or rather it was approached more from an ethical standpoint (as shown by the many charitable initiatives). Then people became aware of the environmental consequences of food waste: for example we now know, given all the analyses of the food production life cycle (processing, distribution, etc..), that there is embedded energy in every product that reaches the end consumer. It’s as if every time the food item loses weight or volume, we lose the energy incorporated into it along the supply chain. This is why, even for the related ethical reasons, the EU has stated that waste must be reduced, a commitment that will undoubtedly be given greater impetus in the context of the Farm to Fork strategy recently discussed at European level

Can reducing food waste contribute to achieving the circular economy?

When I began to deal with composting in Italy in 1990, Germany already had a law on the circularity of materials that urged people to compost organic waste. The Netherlands made a similar move in 1995, but in the rest of Europe the situation was at a standstill and no common strategy was even being considered on this issue. Then, in 2018, the approval of the Circular Economy package, article 22 of the framework directive, established a duty to ensure the sorted collection of organic waste across Europe. Italy is ready for this now, as 80% of the population are already linked to sorted collection schemes

The same thing is happening as regards waste reduction. In the past, nobody thought it was a problem, but when you start talking about it, you immediately realize the great potential and the immensity of the related environmental issues

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So how do we reduce food waste?

At ZeroWaste we are often described as dogmatic, but actually we are very pragmatic. We are very keen to point out that “Zero Waste” is simply a toolkit to translate the vision of the circular economy into operational reality

We should start by saying that not all possible actions occupy the same position in the hierarchy: we should always take a “cascade” approach in which we aim for the best possible use, then, if that is not feasible, we move to plan B, and if even that is not possible, we go to plan C, and so on. 

Applied to food waste, this translates into “Feed the humans, then feed the animals, then feed the soil.” Therefore, as far as possible, the purpose of recovery should be to feed humans, then to produce animal feed (obviously if the food still has its nutritional value) and finally to make compost and produce organic fertilizers for the land. 


Who should we focus on to reduce food waste?

It is definitely important to raise awareness among consumers, to get them to really change their behavior. I am essentially optimistic and I am sure that, with the right messages, we can help people recover waste and perhaps use it in a creative and fun way.

I also believe that a major part of the recovery effort can be focused on food that is close to expiry in large-scale distribution.

Of course various kinds of inducement are needed. Economic stimulus and the new European regulations are however the perfect ground to apply the environmental care criteria required by the circular economy. Let's not forget that the circular economy package is first of all a major project to improve the efficiency of the European production system and that as a result it brings environmental benefits. 


And in the rest of the world?

In the rest of the world the situation is very different or in any case very varied. Some countries are only just beginning to set up their environment ministries.

Other advanced and economically developed countries like ours, such as the USA, Canada and Australia, are several years behind us in establishing policies and strategies (and often follow the EU example at a distance) although distinctions need to be made: in the USA there are 50 different states and in some (California) virtually European standards have been reached in the definition of policies for this sector, while in others not enough attention is yet paid to these environmental issues.


Does optimism remain however?

I am optimistic. Or rather, I tend to be an optimist in lean times and a pessimist in times of plenty. I always try to offset an excess of one against the other because no victory (and no defeat) is forever. 

There are always highs and lows, but they do gravitate around a straight upward trajectory. If I look, for example, at environmental practices and regulations in Europe over the past 30 years, there has definitely been an improvement in terms of air pollution, greenhouse gases, waste management, etc. Of course there are also fluctuations and setbacks but they never take us back to the starting point. I see everything from a historical perspective and I have seen an improvement in the relevant rules and practices. And as a chain reaction, this generates further optimism and gives us the energy to continue to strive in the right direction. 

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