On Food Waste, The US Could Learn a Lot from Europe

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The U.S. tosses a staggering $161 billion worth of food every year. While numerous efforts are underway to address that problem, they are taking place mostly at the local level or in the business sector. While that is necessary, national- and international-level policy has a role to play as well. And that is one area in which Europe is far ahead.

So, how did Europe leapfrog the U.S. in food waste policy? Karen Luyckx, coordinator of the Pig Idea campaign at the European NGO Feedback, a leader in the food waste movement, said it was Tristram Stuart’s book “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” that really shined the light on the issue in Europe.

“The incredible grassroots movement that followed in the shape of Disco Soups, gleaning and Feeding the 5,000 events … throughout Europe was instrumental in getting local-, national- and EU-level authorities to start understanding the issue and the popular appetite to do something about it,” Luyckx told TriplePundit.

It is noteworthy that Stuart’s book is focused on the big picture — looking at the global causes, and impacts, of food waste. This broad perspective has been a mainstay of European efforts to reduce waste. And what followed was quite groundbreaking, particularly in some of Europe’s biggest countries.

France passed a historic law requiring all large supermarkets to donate unsold food to farms or charities. Italy followed soon thereafter with a law that provided millions in incentives for grocery stores to develop better systems to donate food waste.

In Germany, government officials are aiming to reduce food waste per-capita by 50 percent by 2025. This allows the country to work in conjunction with nonprofits like those running Restlos Gluclich, a restaurant that serves only food items rejected by other vendors. Germany’s excellent recycling and waste management system – they banned traditional dumps back in 2005 – also helps.

It’s not only individual countries making progress in Europe, but there is also momentum for change at the multinational level. The European Union functions as a single market, allowing for the free flow of goods and labor across its borders. This gives the EU power to regulate and develop strategies for much of the continent because, as we know all too well here at TriplePundit, sustainability is a not a national issue but an international one. And food waste is no different.

“Many supply chains run across borders, and so it makes sense to tackle waste resulting from barriers, issues and unfair trading practices in the supply chain from a cross-border perspective,” Luyckx explained.

The European Commission, the chief executive body of the EU, is now working to develop food waste guidelines for the entire 28-country block, as part of a wider program called the Circular Economy Package. By looking at food waste within the larger goal of achieving zero-waste, the Commission can develop strategies that, ideally, will allow the entire continent to be on the same page.

So, why is the U.S. so far behind our brethren in Europe? Part of it is our extremely decentralized waste management system, which puts collection systems in the hands of thousands of different municipalities across the country. Moreover, many of the laws that regulate food waste are at the state level, despite the fact that much of the food we consume crosses state boundaries regularly. And these laws can vary greatly.

Politics is also to blame. Since 2010, when food waste became a global issue, the U.S. has seen unprecedented gridlock in Congress. This kept sustainability out of national-level policymaking — something that is, unfortunately, unlikely to change with the incoming administration. That means good, common-sense and nearly universally-supported measures, such as Congresswomen Chellie Pingree’s (D-Mass.) two bills, the Food Recovery Act and the Food Date Labeling Act, remain stuck in committee.

This is not to say that Europe has solved the food waste problem. It remains an issue there, though at smaller scale than here in the U.S. That’s why Luyckx wants to make clear Europe has a lot to do. EU-wide rules for food waste are not yet set, and some policy barriers remain to what she sees as one part of the solution – turning some waste in to animal feed.

Still, the progress Europe has made in such a short time is remarkable. The EU is heading in the right direction, and unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the U.S. as a whole. We could learn a lot from our neighbors across the Atlantic — and see how strong national policymaking, coordination within and across borders, and dedication can ensure that government supports the burgeoning food waste reduction movement.

Image credit: Tax via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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