Why Zero Waste Cities are at the heart of reaching 2030 UN goals

Jamie Crummie, co-founder of Too Good to Go, explains how Zero Waste Cities are imperative to reaching UN food waste targets.

Five years ago, the UN General Assembly set an optimistic goal to halve global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030. But the five-year anniversary of this blueprint passed last week, and lofty ambition has not turned into action.

Governments that produced their own plans in reaction to the SDGs have the power to create change for 50 per cent of the world’s population - if they act on them. However, a tiny 12 per cent are measuring their food loss and waste, and a mere 15 per cent are taking real, scalable action.

One of the reasons tackling food waste can feel so difficult is because it’s such a complex issue. Each segment of society has specific and individual challenges. Developing a perfect system to save food in a school canteen is unlikely to address the problem of composting in homes. This is made worse by a lack of ownership: national and international targets like the UN goals are important, but they can easily feel like someone else’s problem.

This is where cities and their local policy leaders can make a difference.

Cities are not just uniquely well-placed to tackle food waste, they are uniquely responsible for creating it in the first place. Resource-guzzling and densely populated, they account for a whopping 75 per cent of global carbon emissions despite covering just 2 per cent of the earth. Food waste at consumption level, right when we should be eating it, accounts for 70 per cent of all food waste in the EU, and an eye-watering 83 per cent in the US. And the problem is only going to get worse: by 2050, two-thirds of us will be living in cities.

They also have some added pressure, the 2015 Paris Agreement requires cities to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent - and this is likely to be hiked up by the EU to 55 per cent before the end of 2020.

So, where do we go from here?

The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how citizens interact with city centres. Despite the attempts to lure workers back to city centre office spaces, footfall has flatlined, with as much as 39 per cent of the UK workforce continuing to work from home.

But there is an opportunity for cities to take advantage of this transformative era we find ourselves in. There has never been a more pertinent time to address the sustainability of city centres, driving environmental change and making them a place where people want to be.

Cutting food waste is one of the best ways to get there.

Cities have the infrastructure, relationships and local knowledge to translate food waste from something abstract into something tangible. Because they are able to see, in granular detail, where food waste is occurring, they can take much more targeted action and drastically speed up progress. The municipality has eyes everywhere, from school canteens, to household recycling bins, to the trucks that collect food waste from outside corporate buildings.

To stand any chance of hitting the 2030 goals, we need cities to start playing a much larger role.

Achieving this won’t be easy, but it can be done. Paris is an excellent example. After discovering its citizens were throwing out unpackaged food at a rate of twice the national average, it developed a food waste reduction plan that included creating information kits for local stores, putting dedicated stands for unsold goods at local markets, and raising consumer awareness through zero-waste brunches. The city now believes it can cut its food waste in half by 2025.

Closer to home, Bristol is preparing its bid to become a gold level Sustainable Food City in 2021. Thanks to its pioneering ‘Going For Gold’ initiative, local government and food organisations are brought together to drive change at all levels. Its website has a wealth of information on actions that can be taken by individuals, food businesses and other companies to encourage a collective change in attitude towards food. Each time an action is taken and logged, it is clocked on a live counter so that each group can measure their progress.

But individual initiatives and campaigns can only go so far. To help us win the fight against food waste, we must take the lessons from Paris, Bristol, and all city stakeholders and turn them into a framework that can be used by cities everywhere. This framework should be built around four core principles: separating organic from all other types of waste; measuring and tracking what is being wasted and by whom; redistributing surplus food using one of the many freely available cost-effective solutions; and, finally, transforming any food that can’t be eaten into energy, fuel or animal feed.

The clock on the 2030 climate goals is ticking more loudly every day. With the pandemic throwing a spotlight on the food system and prompting many of us to re-examine our relationship with food, now is the time for mayors and city governments to show political leadership, setting concrete targets and working hand in hand with the entire city so that ‘zero food waste cities’ can become a reality.