Resource Efficiency and Waste
We need to fundamentally transform the way we produce, consume and live, in order to preserve nature’s ability to provide for us. Let’s produce more with fewer inputs and see waste as a resource. Bio-waste — mainly food and garden waste — is a key waste stream with a high potential for contributing to a more circular economy, delivering valuable soil-improving material and fertiliser as well as biogas, a source of renewable energy.
About 60% of bio-waste is food waste. Reducing the demand for food by preventing food waste can decrease the environmental impacts of producing, processing, and transporting food. The benefits from reducing such upstream impacts are much higher than any environmental benefits from recycling food waste. The Sustainable Development Goals' target of halving food waste by 2030 has helped to put preventing food waste high on the policy agenda in most European countries. Approximately 88 million tonnes of food is wasted every year in the EU along the entire food value chain. This corresponds to about 20% of all food produced. Because of its considerable volume, the EU's common objectives for waste management cannot be met without addressing the bio-waste stream. If not managed well, this voluminous waste stream poses significant environmental and economic threats.
New opportunities are arising for turning bio-waste into valuable bio-products and biofuels, with a focus on well-defined bio-waste streams from food processing and agriculture. Much research is investigating the many challenges to be tackled. As there is often a gap between laboratory research and its transfer to industrial-scale commercial application, improving the uptake and application of research findings needs collaboration between researchers, industries and governments. Bio-waste has considerable potential to contribute more widely to the circular bioeconomy through, for example, being processed into fertiliser, soil improvers and non-fossil fuels. Under the EU's circular economy action plan, efforts to use bio-waste as a resource have gained additional traction, and technical developments going beyond the current end products of bio-waste treatment, such as biogas and compost, are emerging. In a circular economy, bio-waste is directed to treatment options that use the waste as a source of valuable resources such as nutrients, organic substances and energy. For example, composting and anaerobic digestion are biological treatment methods that may be classified as recycling when the compost or digestate produced is used as a recycled product, material or substance, and, in the case of its use on land, it results in benefits to agriculture or ecological improvement. Anaerobic digestion also produces biogas that can be either used to generate heat and electricity or upgraded into a low-carbon biofuel. There are also other emerging and innovative technologies that aim to valorise bio-waste as products or energy. In addition to the environmental benefits, separate collection and recycling of bio-waste may also create new employment opportunities. Generating biogas from agricultural residues and bio-waste is a well-established practice in many countries and has, for example, been mentioned by North Macedonia as an opportunity to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create employment in rural areas.
Introducing separate bio-waste collection usually requires an initial investment by the public sector, but cost-benefit analyses have shown that the overall economic outcome for both citizens and the waste management organisation is positive if the whole waste management system is optimised. The actual costs depend on many factors, including the collection system (door-to-door collection or containers on the roadside), population density, collection frequency and weather conditions.
In recent years, various new concepts for creating new materials and products from biomass, including bio-waste, have received significant attention. Processing facilities in which biomass is converted into valuable products such as chemicals, biofuels, food and feed ingredients, biomaterials or fibres are called biorefineries. Integrated biorefineries combine the production of bio-based products and energy from biomass. Biorefineries use different types of organic feedstocks, including bio-waste. There are 803 biorefineries in Europe, 136 of which report taking in waste streams. Bio-waste can be a valuable resource for recycling and energy generation. Currently there is much ongoing research looking at valorising bio-waste as bio-products and biofuels, although there are still many challenges that need to be tackled.