Food waste

Producing food that is not consumed results in unnecessary CO2 emissions, biodiversity loss and land and water consumption. Twenty-five per cent of Switzerland's nutrition-related environmental impact is caused by avoidable food waste. This equates to around half of the environmental impact of the country's motorised private traffic.  

Food Waste
© Shutterstock

Environmental impact of avoidable food waste

The Institute of Ecological Systems Design at ETH Zurich has calculated the environmental impact of avoidable food waste linked to food consumption in Switzerland. This impact could be avoided if the food were eaten rather than wasted, and therefore less food needed to be produced. In addition to the ecological impacts, food waste also has economic consequences. Discarded food generates costs all along the production and value chain, and it is ultimately consumers who pay those costs.

The environmental impact of one tonne of avoidable food waste varies greatly depending on its constituent products and where the wastage occurs in the value chain. Figure 1 shows how many environmental impact points (eco-points, or EPs) per kilogram of avoidable food waste are incurred by households and the catering industry. The priority should be to avoid wasting foods that cause particularly high environmental impacts or that generate large quantities of waste. In households and the catering industry, discarded bread and bakery products, fresh vegetables, pork and beef have the biggest environmental impact.

The food categories with the greatest environmental impact per kilogram of avoidable food waste are meat, coffee and cocoa beans, butter, eggs, products imported by plane, oils and fats, fish and cheese. Special care should be taken not to waste these products. Fruit, vegetable and potato losses are also environmentally significant, because although these products have a smaller environmental impact per kilogram, they are thrown away in large quantities. The size of the symbols in Figure 1 indicates the quantity of food lost in each category.

 
Which types of food waste have the biggest environmental impact?
Figure 1: Environmental impact in eco-points (EPs) per kilogram of avoidable food waste in households and the catering industry. The higher up the chart the category is, the greater the environmental impact per kilogram. Reusing food waste may mean that less animal feed, compost, etc. has to be produced. The environmental benefits of these savings have been taken into account in the calculation and in the chart.
© FOEN

Food consumption in Switzerland generates 2.8 million tonnes of avoidable food waste per year at all stages of the food chain, both in Switzerland and abroad. Moreover, an area equivalent to half of all the agricultural land in Switzerland is used to grow food that ends up being discarded at some point along the value chain. Approximately 556,000 tonnes of avoidable food waste is generated in agricultural production, accounting for 13% of the environmental impact of all such waste. Over 80% of this loss occurs abroad in the agricultural production of imported products.

Food wasted in processing (approximately 963,000 tonnes) is responsible for 29% of the environmental impact of avoidable food waste, while the 279,000 tonnes wasted in the wholesale and retail trade account for 8%. Some food loss in Switzerland arises in the production of export products and is not therefore counted as Swiss consumption. Such losses account for around 5% of the environmental impact of all avoidable food waste.

Figure 2 also shows that half of the environmental impact of all avoidable food waste is generated by household (approximately 778,000 tonnes) and catering industry (approximately 210,000 tonnes) consumption. This stems, in particular, from the fact that food waste at the end of the value chain has a higher environmental impact, on average, than food waste incurred at the beginning. Each stage in the production and value chain consumes more resources and generates more emissions, due to transport, processing, storage, packaging, preparation, and so on. In addition, food waste in the processing industry and, to some extent, agricultural production tends to undergo higher-value recovery (most notably as animal feed) than waste at other stages of the food chain. The resulting products (primarily animal feed) mean that environmental credits totalling up to 12% can be applied.

This shows two things: firstly, avoidance measures at the end of the food chain (households, catering industry, retailers) are particularly important for the environment and, secondly, optimised recovery/recycling of food waste can only generate a fraction of the environmental benefits of avoiding such waste altogether.

 
Environmental impact of avoidable food waste in Swizterland
Figure 2 shows the environmental impact of food loss along the Swiss food value chain in trillions of eco-points (EPs). This includes losses in foreign supply chains of food consumed in Switzerland (consumption perspective). The percentages indicate the contribution of each stage in the food chain.
© FOEN

Food loss in Switzerland from farm to fork

Since 2013, the FOEN has been working with the agriculture, food and catering industries as well as retailers and households to collect data on food waste. The following studies identify all the food lost or discarded in Switzerland along the value chain from farm to fork (disposal perspective). The FOEN publishes the figures both in tonnes of fresh matter and in tonnes of dry matter.

In Switzerland itself, a total of 2.6 million tonnes of food waste is generated annually (weighed as fresh matter). At least two thirds of this is avoidable, meaning that the food is edible when it is discarded or was edible at some point prior to disposal. The rest consists of inedible components such as bones and banana skins (unavoidable losses). Losses abroad relating to imported foodstuffs are not included in the 2.6 million tonnes.

The data paint a comprehensive picture not only of the quantities of food loss in all sectors but also of the disposal of this food (see Figure 3 and Table 1). Of the 2.6 million tonnes of total food loss, around half is processed into recycled fertilisers and soil conditioners or converted into biogas for energy generation. 31% is turned into animal feed and around 21% is sent for thermal treatment in waste incineration plants (WIPs), where the waste is incinerated and the released energy harnessed. A small proportion of still edible food is donated. 


The data paint a comprehensive picture not only of the quantities of food loss in all sectors but also of the disposal of this food (see Figure 3 and Table 1). Of the 2.6 million tonnes of total food loss, around half is processed into recycled fertilisers and soil conditioners or converted into biogas for energy generation. 31% is turned into animal feed and around 21% is sent for thermal treatment in waste incineration plants (WIPs), where the waste is incinerated and the released energy harnessed. A small proportion of still edible food is donated. 
Total amount of food waste in Switzerland from the perspective of disposal (fresh matter)
Figure 3: Total amount of food waste in Switzerland from the perspective of disposal (measured in tonnes of fresh matter)
© FOEN

By recycling method

Thermal treatment

Material recycling/ energy recovery Animal feed Donated Total

Agriculture

2,000

173,000

49,500

 

224,500

Food industry

28,500

190,000

722,000

9,500

950,000

Retail trade

3,000

84,000

8,000

5,000

100,000

Catering

29,000

255,200

4,350

1,450

290,000

Households

480,000

520,000

 

 

1,000,000

Total

542,500

1,222,000

783,850

15,950

2,564,500

Table 1: Total amount of food waste in Switzerland from the perspective of disposal
Figures in tonnes of fresh matter

The analyses also suggest possible causes of food waste and ways to prevent it. The following five sections briefly summarise the studies with respect to each sector. The studies can be downloaded (in German) via the links at the end of the sections. 

Agriculture

Of the food produced by Swiss agriculture for human consumption, almost 225,000 tonnes (fresh matter) is not used for its intended purpose and ends up as food loss. Around 173,000 tonnes of this consists of harvest residues that are applied to the fields as fertilisers or soil conditioners, either directly or after fermentation. A further 49,500 tonnes comprises harvest residues or harvest waste that are fed to livestock and thus kept in the food production cycle. Around 1% of the waste (approximately 2,000 tonnes) is sent for thermal treatment in WIPs. In total, approximately 90% of food loss in agriculture (200,000 tonnes) could be avoided.

The main causes of these food losses are industry standards in downstream sectors, technical conditions and inappropriate storage. Extrapolating the cost of goods based on a standard value of CHF 3 per kilogram, the agriculture industry loses approximately CHF 600 million a year from avoidable food loss.

 

Food industry

Total food loss across all sectors of the food industry is around 950,000 tonnes. Approximately a quarter of this is unavoidable, comprising inedible components or edible residues for which there is no consumer demand such as vegetable peelings or bones. The quantity of avoidable food loss is around 715,000 tonnes. These figures are taken from a study involving a material flow analysis that breaks down food losses by industry sector. This shows that the tuber processing industry (potatoes, for example) generates the most food loss, at around 388,000 tonnes. However, this sector also has the highest proportion of inedible components, at just under 70%. The smallest amount of loss is incurred by the cereals and bakeries sector, with just over 43,000 tonnes.

The two main reasons for the losses are:

  • the lack of sales markets for by-products such as bran; 
  • current technology: the food is edible but the waste cannot be avoided with current processing methods.

The bulk of the food loss incurred (around 75%) is fed to livestock and thus remains in the food production cycle. Around 20% is converted to energy (biogas) or recycled as compost. Only a small proportion (less than 3%) goes to WIPs for thermal treatment. Donated and downgraded goods account for a very small percentage (under 1%).

 

Organische Verluste aus der Lebensmittelindustrie in der Schweiz (PDF, 3 MB, 16.10.2016)Massenflussanalyse nach Branchen. Ursachen/Verwertung. Wissenschaftlicher Schlussbericht ZHAW im Auftrag des BAFU

Retail trade

For the purposes of this study, the term 'major distributors' refers expressly to branches of Coop, Migros, Aldi, Lidl, Denner, Spar and Volg. According to the study, the Swiss retail trade and major distributors generate around 100,000 tonnes of food waste in total each year. Around 95% of this could be avoided. The majority of this waste falls into the 'unsold food' category, with distribution losses accounting for most of the waste (oversupply, storage or warehouse planning and transport).

Disposing of 95,000 tonnes of edible, and therefore avoidable, food waste costs the retail trade an estimated CHF 10 million a year (fermentation and composting). Adding in the costs of the goods themselves, based on an average basket price of CHF 6.50 per kilogram, the major distributors lose over half a billion francs per year. Around 97% of annual food loss in the wholesale and retail trade is donated, used to produce animal feed, recycled or converted into energy, with 3% being disposed of thermally in WIPs for epidemiological reasons. 

 

Catering

The FOEN report 'Nahrungsmittelverluste im Detailhandel und in der Gastronomie in der Schweiz' divides the catering industry into cafés/restaurants and hotel kitchens, in-flight catering, medical and socio-medical establishments, school and company catering, and military barracks. The largest percentage of food waste occurs in cafés/restaurants and hotel kitchens, which in Switzerland account for 290,000 tonnes per year, or 7 tonnes per kitchen. This equates to 124 grams per meal, made up of raw organic waste and leftover food. Across the catering industry as a whole, most avoidable food waste is assumed to be caused by distribution losses (preparation of too much food) and preference losses (plate leftovers). Around 68% of total losses, up to 200,000 tonnes per year, could be avoided. The equivalent of 90% of annual food loss in the catering industry is recycled or converted into energy, being used to produce biodiesel, biogas and compost. The equivalent of 10% is disposed of thermally in WIPs.

Disposing of edible, and therefore avoidable, food waste costs the catering industry an estimated CHF 20 million a year (fermentation and composting). Adding in the costs of the goods themselves, based on a standard value of CHF 5.50 per kilogram, the catering industry incurs costs of around a billion francs a year. 

 

Private consumption by households

Swiss households generate around one million tonnes of food waste every year, just under half of which (around 480,000 tonnes) ends up in general refuse and is incinerated. Approximately 170,000 tonnes of food waste is collected separately and recycled into fertiliser or biogas. The remainder, just under 350,000 tonnes, is disposed of either through home composting or as animal feed.

The main reasons for the high level of avoidable household food waste are a general lack of awareness of the waste generated and of the value of food, insufficient knowledge about shelf life and storage, as well as insufficient knowledge about ways to make use of leftover food. The FOEN's analysis also shows that good green waste facilities provided by local councils, with separate collections, helps to significantly reduce households' food waste by making them more aware of what they are throwing away. 

Reports: 

 

Disposing of still edible, and therefore avoidable, food waste costs Swiss households over CHF 600 per person per year. Across Switzerland as a whole, this equates to costs of more than CHF 5 billion (see Beretta & Hellweg 2019).


Towards less food waste

On 8 March 2013, the Federal Council adopted a measure to reduce food waste as part of the Green Economy Action Plan. Among other things, this has resulted in a stakeholder dialogue and the implementation of a number of initial measures.

In 2015, Switzerland and more than 190 other countries adopted the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This calls on Switzerland and the other signatories to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3). Achieving this goal could reduce the environmental impact of avoidable food waste caused by Swiss consumption by around 40–60%. The overall environmental impact of nutrition would decrease by 10–15% and the greenhouse gas effect of nutrition by 9–15%.  It is estimated that the amount of food waste disposed of in WIPs would fall by 29% and in composting and fermentation plants by 12% (Beretta & Hellweg 2019). Implementation of the SDGs thus has a significant impact on waste generation and should be planned in cooperation with the waste management industry.

With the adoption of the Chevalley postulate (18.3829) on 5 March 2019, the National Council has mandated the Federal Council to produce an action plan on food waste prevention. This will include existing and, where appropriate, new, voluntary measures as well as accompanying measures by the federal government. An evaluation will take place, probably in 2024, to determine whether the measures set out in the action plan are sufficient or whether adjustments are needed. 

 

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Last modification 25.10.2019

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