The Role of Food Waste Legislation and How to Get it Right
Kat Heinrich
08 June 2022

Over the past five years since launching BFW, we have found examples where cities and governments have substantially reduced food waste volumes to landfills or incineration.

A common thread across many of these jurisdictions is food waste legislation, such as:

  • in Milan (Italy) and Malmo (Sweden), where households and businesses are required to sort their food waste for separate collection
  • in San Francisco (US), where households and businesses are required to sort their compostables (including food waste, yard waste and other organics) for separate collection
  • in Massachusetts (US), where large food waste generators are banned from disposing of food waste in the trash
  • in France where supermarkets (over a certain footprint size) are required to sign an agreement with food rescue organisations to donate their surplus, edible food

Food waste legislation comes in many forms: it has been introduced by different levels of government (from city by-laws to state/regional or national laws), targeting different food waste generators (residents vs. businesses or both) and with varying levels of enforcement (from soft to hard). Here are some of my top reflections on the role that legislation can play in tackling food waste and how to get it right.

1) Give organisations the confidence to invest in food waste solutions

Getting food waste out of landfills and incinerators is a chicken or the egg dilemma. You need substantial volumes of source-separated food waste to justify investments in collection and processing/redistribution infrastructure. But most food waste generators (like restaurants) aren’t going to bother source-separating their food waste before services are available to collect and manage it (and that’s fair enough!). Introducing food waste legislation can give organisations the confidence to invest in developing food waste services and infrastructure since they know the volumes will follow.

2) Supporting measures are a must

Residents and businesses need help understanding what the new legislation means for them and how they can meet it. Legislation needs to be supported by a well-executed communications campaign that informs people of the upcoming change, when it will occur, how it will affect them, and the rationale for its introduction. It helps explain the benefits of the change to bring people onside (be that the benefits to the environment, economy, community, and/or businesses). In addition, some people may need support with the transition. Governments can assist by rolling out programs to train/educate businesses and residents on how to meet their new obligations.

3) Enforcement helps, but you don’t need to go hard or go home

The way that food waste legislation is enforced varies across jurisdictions. One of the top performing cities is Milan, which has less than 10 percent of food waste in the residual stream. Milan takes a strong approach to enforcing its mandate on source separation of food waste, issuing about 50,000 fines per year for non-compliance.

One of the most surprising things I’ve learnt is that legislation does not necessarily have to be strongly enforced to be effective. San Francisco takes a gentler approach to enforcing its source separation mandate, using a three strikes system before issuing fines. Interestingly, the introduction of the legislation coupled with the ‘threat’ of enforcement led to a 50% jump in organic waste separation within the first month of its introduction.

4) Diversion is only part of the picture

Keep the food recovery hierarchy top of mind when designing legislation. A common focus of food waste legislation is diverting waste from landfills or incineration. It is important to think about where the diverted material will be sent and keep it at its highest value. 

Prevention is always the best option. Consider how legislation can support food prevention measures, such as food rescue activities. For food that can’t be rescued for human consumption, consider how legislation can support getting the material to its highest value (for example: sending food materials for conversion into animal feed). These outcomes may also be achieved through complementary measures, such as grants or subsidies for preferred food waste management options.

Food Waste Recovery. Image Credit: Cleanaway

5) Give a good runway

I will leave you with this final takeaway…

If you think of introducing food waste legislation, give stakeholders adequate notice of the upcoming changes. It takes time (years) to establish and/or expand infrastructure for collecting and processing/redistribution of food waste (see point #1). It also takes time to get communities and businesses ready for changes brought about by food waste legislation (see point #2). But, with a well-planned and resourced transition, it is possible to introduce legislation that is a gamechanger for tackling food waste.

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