Fighting food waste: Europe’s cities step up to the plate

Share knowledge, engage citizens

From Ljubljana to Lisbon and Bruges to Milan, European city authorities are working with others to deliver sustainable food systems and reduce food waste. Cooperation and citizen education are key to their success.

Food and food strategy have long been considered outside of cities’ area of expertise. But increasingly, municipal authorities are coming to recognize the central role food plays in society. Today, a number of cities in Europe are integrating food strategy into policymaking to tackle issues such as social deprivation, public health and environmental degradation.

They have realized one effective way of boosting environmental performance and citizens’ wellbeing is through reducing food waste. Coordinating action among a range of stakeholders is vital if cities are to deliver those improvements.

Leveraging local knowledge

Cities are in a unique position to support ‘bottom-up’ food initiatives, where ideas come from the community and are supported by policy changes. At the nexus of local and national actors, cities can play a pivotal role in bringing together the national government, businesses and local grassroots organizations to target food waste reduction.

For instance, Milan’s administration responded to public concern over restaurant and household food waste figures (estimated at more than five million tons across Italy a year) by reducing the ‘waste tax’ to incentivize donating surplus food to local charities. Working with local agencies and businesses, Milan was able to reduce waste and feed the city’s food-poor population.

Meanwhile in Bruges, the local authority established the Food Lab, which brings together diverse city and regional government stakeholders to discuss ways of tackling food waste.

“This initiative has helped form a project where volunteers collect leftover vegetables from grocers and make soup for disadvantaged people in the local area,” says Mieke Hoste, Alderman for Environment, Social Affairs and Tourism in Bruges. “It has also helped us identify areas for reducing food waste in the city’s healthcare and education establishments.”

“We can reduce food waste and bring about societal benefits”

- Anja De Cunto, EUROCITIES

Benefits beyond waste reduction

But it’s not just about making sure people don’t go hungry. By targeting food waste reduction, cities can leverage local connections to achieve other goals.

“In Gothenburg and Athens, city authorities have worked with public and private sector waste management agencies to divert food waste towards producing fertilizers and biogas that fuels local public transport,” says Anja De Cunto, food specialist at EUROCITIES, a network of more than 140 European cities that aims to put the urban dimension of economic, social, sustainable and political development on the EU’s agenda. “These kind of initiatives have the dual effect of reducing food waste and bringing about societal benefits.”

A prime example is Turin, where the municipal government has teamed up with retailers, waste agencies and a refugee support organization on an initiative that sees migrants collect surplus food from the weekly market and redistribute it to people in need.

In cities like Bruges and Turin, surplus produce from markets are redistributed to people in need.

Joined-up thinking

Inspired by the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact and helped by organizations like EUROCITIES and a range of EU-funded platforms and initiatives, cities are collaborating across Europe to share best practices and devise further ways of tackling food waste.

The EU’s Horizon 2020 program funded a collaborative project between four cities (Lisbon, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Genoa) that brings together various stakeholders to develop circular economy solutions to transform waste into value. Lisbon, for example, is working on creating an online tool that measures and reports on food surplus. Results will be shared among all participants in the project.

One of EUROCITIES’ functions is to facilitate this kind of cooperation between cities. “We’re here to promote more collaboration between cities across Europe, encourage them to share their experiences and help identify what can be done from a legislative perspective at a European level,” says De Cunto.

“We also published an in-depth study on city-level food policy last year and, more recently, ran a webinar and issued a publication on food waste that gave examples of how cities are working together to tackle the issue.”

“There no common standards for measuring food waste in the EU”

- Anja De Cunto, EUROCITIES

The right measurements

Chief among the challenges for cities is awareness, both at a municipal level in identifying and measuring waste and at a broader level through educating the public and institutions on how best to tackle it.

“Food waste is not regulated in the EU currently and each city has a different way of measuring it, so there are no common standards,” says De Cunto. “Tracking the data is a challenge, but one Milan is trying to overcome by working with the FAO [the Food and Agriculture Organization at the UN] to create a common set of key performance indicators that can be used by all.”

Studies show restaurants and consumers are the largest cause of food waste in most cities.

At the same time, EUROCITIES has helped promote not-for-profit organization FoodWIN’s waste evaluation methodology, which Bruges has employed alongside university research to identify the main areas of food waste throughout its region.

This analysis showed restaurants and citizens accounted for most of the food wasted in the region, a situation common in most cities.

“We get the best results by engaging citizens”

- Anja De Cunto, EUROCITIES

A cultural shift

“We’ve found we get the best results by engaging citizens. Because more than 80 percent of Europe’s population lives in urban areas, cities are the best place to do that,” says De Cunto. “So cities across Europe are running campaigns in schools, on social media and with neighborhood-level groups to raise awareness with the ultimate aim of driving cultural change.”

Tackling preconceptions to bring about cultural change has been one of Bruges’ main challenges too, as Hoste explains.

“We faced objections from some citizens,” she says. “But when we involved people in the decision-making process and built consensus through cooperation and engagement, we were able to overcome them.”