10 innovative European food waste solutions
Food waste is a global problem, with approximately one third of the food produced for consumption being thrown away. This has serious environmental implications, with spoiled food estimated to cause 10% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe, the issue needs to be addressed urgently. A report from Feedback EU in 2022 reveals the European Union bloc alone wastes over 153 million tonnes of food annually, exceeding the amount it imports.
To combat food waste, in 2015 the EU committed to halving per capita food loss and waste at retail and consumer level by 2030. The Commission plans to propose legally binding targets to reduce food waste across the bloc by the end of 2023. While governments across Europe are trying to tackle the problem with more sustainable schemes and legislation, significant efforts are also coming from a range of small and large-scale groups – from start-ups developing upcycled ingredients to supply chain solutions and community-led initiatives.
In Spain, addressing food waste has become a priority. Since January 2023, supermarkets and retailers have been asked to offer products near their expiry date at a discounted price and donate the rest to local food banks and co-operatives. Restaurants must also offer customers doggy bags to take home their leftovers, with fines imposed on businesses that fail to actively reduce food waste.
At a time when the country’s agri-food tech sector is seeing huge growth, start-ups such as MOA Food Tech are figuring out innovative ways to turn waste into nutritious products. The company uses fermentation and artificial intelligence to turn agricultural by-products like crop residue, molasses, and cereal bran into alternative proteins. “MOA’s proposal is to develop functional, nutritious and sustainable ingredients from renewable raw materials”, says Bosco Emparanza García, founder and CEO of the company. The powdered ingredient is high in protein, B vitamins and omega fatty acids and can be used as a flavour enhancer (due to its umami flavour) or functional ingredient for various applications, including plant-based cheese, meat analogues, bread, and sauces.
MOA is currently running 17 commercial pilots with different companies, including international food groups Sigma, Barilla, and Thai Bev in Thailand.
As it strives to transition towards a circular economy, Sweden has tried to home in on addressing food waste. The country is working towards two national targets – to reduce total food waste by at least 20% by weight per person between 2020 and 2025, and to increase the share of food reaching retailers and consumers by 2025 to limit food loss.
Running since 2018, Resterkocken (meaning ‘the leftovers chef’) is a competition for schoolchildren held in the southern Sala region. Children are encouraged to develop new recipes using food that would otherwise be discarded at home, with a cash prize offered to the creator of the best recipe. The initiative was developed by waste management companies in the south of Sweden.
Another European country with a fair share of sustainable solutions is Denmark. Last year, the government announced plans to use citizen’s food waste to create biogas for the nation’s natural gas network. The country is also home to the internationally successful app Too Good to Go, which shows consumers what unsold food is available at their nearest cafes, supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants.
One business pushing the boundaries around repurposing food waste is Reduced, which raised nearly €3 million in 2022 for its fermented flavour enhancers made using vegetable and protein by-products leftover from food production. These include bones from bull calves leftover from milk production which are used to create a meat-based stock, and mushrooms rejected for retail sale to create a plant-based stock with a strong taste of umami. The company says it’s working with several partners in the food and agricultural sector to determine what food is leftover most and to continue developing and testing new products that use up waste.
Statistics from the British charity WRAP show UK businesses and households throws away approximately 9.5 million tonnes of food waste a year. To tackle the problem, a wide range of initiatives have emerged including the sale of ‘wonky’ produce – fruit and vegetables that don’t reach retailers’ aesthetic requirements. Launched in 2016, Oddbox, provides a subscription service for boxes of ‘wonky’ produce. Following its success, some supermarkets now sell their own boxes. Earlier this year, Sainsbury’s launched its £2 ‘Taste me, Don’t Waste Me’ selection, while Lidl has had a 5kg £1.50 ‘Too Good To Waste’ box on offer since 2019.
Among the growing list of initiatives in the UK is Waste Knot, a company linking farmers and chefs to surplus vegetables that haven’t passed regulations to leave the farm. Some 7% of all crops grown in the country never make it to our plates, the company says, which amounts to more than £1 billion of food being wasted. While aesthetic requirements do prevent produce from getting past pre-farm gate, they aren’t the sole reason says Jess Latchford, founder and Director of Waste Knot. “[The food is wasted] mainly because farmers have to grow over by 10 to 15% to mitigate against circumstances which they can’t control, such as weather or stones in the soil that might make a wonky carrot.”
To avoid throwing out edible, nutritious produce, Waste Knot supplies surplus goods to businesses across the country, including large catering companies like Sodexo, Compass, Charlton House and the WSH. It is also the largest fruit and vegetable supplier for food poverty and waste charity FareShare. Both companies recently celebrated the distribution of five million meals in January 2023 after three years working together.
When it comes to hitting targets, the Netherlands plans to be the first to make significant progress with food waste. The country has run the United Against Food Waste campaign since 2018, with the ambition to reach 50% reduction in food waste between 2015 and 2030.
A Dutch company working towards this goal is One Third, which develops fresh produce scanners to improve farmer and distributor knowledge of shelf life, helping them decide if a food product is fresh enough to be sent to the retailer, or whether it could be repurposed. The scanner, which was unveiled at CES 2023, uses AI to predict shelf life of fruit and vegetables. “[It] combines an easy to use near-infrared (NIR) scanner with a software platform and a unique AI powered digital twin database of different fresh produce”, explains Laurens Drapers, Chief Product Officer at OneThird. “Combining this data with images and other relevant environmental data, AI algorithms determine internal and external quality. This enables inspectors to accurately and instantly measure the freshness and predict remaining shelf-life of perishable produce to within a single day through accurate readings of dry matter, sugar (brix), amino acid and chemical compositions.” It has been tested on strawberries, avocados, tomatoes, and blueberries, with plans to expand the database and algorithms to include up to 10 foods by the end of 2023, including grapes, pears, bananas, and mangoes.
One Third currently works with Albert Heijn in the Netherlands, as well as with growers and distributors in Belgium, France, the UK, Morocco, and Canada. It also has plans to expand to Germany and Spain. The company raised just under €3 million earlier this year to develop its technology and help it enter markets elsewhere in Europe and the US.
In 2016, Italy introduced a new law to reduce the 5.1 million tons of food was recorded to be wasting annually. The bill asks restaurants, supermarkets, and other food retailers to donate food waste to charities. In 2020, the country also introduced the CosìperNatura project in the organic supermarket NaturaSì, which would allow ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables to be sold for half of its retail price.
The country is also home to SenzaSpreco (meaning ‘Without Waste’), an initiative established by the Le Mele di Newton (Newton’s Apples) cooperative group based in Florence. The organisation offers an online platform for farmers, manufacturers, and retailers to sell produce at a discounted price to other companies, charities, and the public. The group also provides consultancy to businesses to help them reduce their own food waste and organises various education workshops and events for adults and schoolchildren.
In 2019, Germany introduced a National Food Waste Reduction Strategy, aiming to halve food waste from retail and consumers by 2030 and find ways to limit food losses within the production and supply chain.
The country is home to multiple food waste innovations including Freshflow, which develops an automated forecasting tool to help supermarkets predict stock needs. It says the AI technology can place ‘the perfect order for every product’, by analysing a long list of real-time factors – such as weather, shelf life and local events – to predict demand for fresh products like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. The company is currently working with one of Germany’s biggest retailers, as well as a fast grocery delivery company in Eastern Europe.
Also fighting waste at retail level is Sirplus, a nationwide online supermarket selling food products that would otherwise go to waste for around 70% less than the retail price. The business rescues food that has been rejected by other shops for either being misshaped, near or past the best before date, or for having a printing error on the label.
Greece has the highest annual per capita rate of food waste in Europe, according to the UN. With households wasting around 142kg of food per person every year. It also has one of the lowest scores in Europe for its policy response to food loss and waste on the Economist Food Sustainability Index.
The non-profit organisation Baroume is the most prominent food waste initiative in the country. Founded in 2011 in the aftermath of the Greek government-debt crisis, the group collects surplus food via public donations to serve meals for those in need. Baroume is partnered with over 650 charities, soup kitchens and municipal social services across the country, allowing people to easily find a donation point in their neighbourhood. Since 2012, the group has served more than 30,000 meals a day.
Since 2016, France has implemented laws prohibiting supermarkets from discarding unsold food and encouraging donation to charities. Mass catering companies and food manufacturers have been obliged to donate unused produce since 2019. More recently, the country also introduced an anti-food waste label for large and medium-sized retailers to help consumers recognise which supermarkets are making active efforts to limit waste.
Starting as a pilot in Paris in 2017, the social enterprise Les Alchimistes collects and processes commercial food waste into compost without the need for centralised infrastructure, while also providing jobs in areas with large unemployment. The company’s team collects food waste by bike from large-scale restaurant chains, supermarkets and corporate or school canteens, with each bike able to carry around 200kg of organic waste during a ride. Once collected, the waste is turned into compost at a local site, and then sold in bulk in outlets across the country. Les Alchimistes operates across the Île-de-France, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, Toulouse, Nantes, and Réunion Island regions.
Despite the efforts, it’s hard to measure the real impact of there initiatives due to the lack of accurate data collection on food waste throughout the supply chain. This information is essential to identify areas for change, says Latchford. Speaking about the UK, she explains: “on a pre-farm gate waste level basis, the data is just not there, because it requires farmers to put in the time and technology to measure exactly what they’re wasting and that’s really hard science to guess.”
Governmental support is also crucial to achieve food waste targets. “We are only one piece of the puzzle,” explains Drapers. Impact investment for instance isn’t growing fast enough, representing “only 0.5% of the European mainstream investment market.” Echoing this sentiment, Latchford says while change must come from those in power, “it’s not going to because there’s too much money involved in the system. Once we can look at food as more than a commodity – like we look at new oil or cars – it will change”. It seems that great initiatives alone won’t solve Europe’s food waste problem.