Cutting food waste every step of the way

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Bruno Rossignol, head of RESCO - Catering and Shops - at EPFL. A.Herzog/EPFL 20
Bruno Rossignol, head of RESCO - Catering and Shops - at EPFL. A.Herzog/EPFL 2019
Every year over a billion tons of food worldwide are thrown away or perish, at a hefty environmental and climate cost. September 29 is International Food Loss and Waste Awareness Day, a reminder of the importance of taking action at every stage of the supply chain. EPFL is taking pioneering measures in this area.

Growing enough food is only the first step - we’ve also got to make sure it gets distributed and consumed with no waste. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 30% of the food produced globally - or 1.3 billion tons - is wasted every year. In Switzerland, the average annual figure is around 2.8 million tons.

Only about a third of global food waste is due to consumers buying too much food. The remaining two-thirds occurs earlier in the supply chain, during either storage, shipping, processing, distribution or some other part of the logistics process. And this holds true for all types of food. Waste can happen, for example, when fruit and vegetables are thrown away because they’re not ripe enough or don’t meet size and shape criteria, when food perishes in a warehouse or when products get contaminated during processing. In Switzerland, these two forms of waste amount to 330 kg per person per year and make up 25% of our food-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment.

Food waste takes a considerable toll on the environment. Valuable natural resources - arable land, water, energy and labor - are wasted when the food they are used to produce ends up in the trash, while carbon is emitted every step of the way. Some 10% of global carbon emissions, which is more than twice the percentage from air traffic, is due to food that never gets consumed. There’s also the sizable impact on consumers’ wallets. According to the WWF, the average Swiss household throws out over 600 francs worth of food per year.

High-precision food management

Here at EPFL, a revolution is under way. It’s being led by Bruno Rossignol, the head of our food services department, who was appointed in 2019 and quickly laid out an ambitious strategy. "The first thing we did was review all existing processes," he says. "Then we updated our entire value chain, from producer to consumer, in an effort to closely align with environmental and climate standards. That included prioritizing sustainable methods, local and seasonal produce, healthy dishes and more vegetarian options."

A number of concrete measures have been introduced under the new strategy. For instance, EPFL restaurants installed 450 meters in their kitchens to track their energy use; set up around 30 smart trash containers that calculate the carbon emissions associated with discarded food; and put together a list of 2,600 approved products that meet environmental requirements. "We’ve taken all threatened fish species and greenhouse-grown produce off our menus," says Rossignol. The restaurants also stopped using disposable tableware in 2021 and are in the process of introducing additional vegetarian meals - the target is 80% of their menus by 2030, up from 50% in 2020 and 10% in 2018.

In short, EPFL restaurants are restructuring their entire network of farmers and suppliers in order to shorten the path from farm to table. They’re also closely monitoring everything that’s bought and eaten on our School’s campuses, using that information to minimize waste and adjust purchasing volumes as needed. They’re being helped in these efforts by a comprehensive food-management system developed in association with Robert West, the head of EPFL’s Data Science Laboratory.

The initial results are encouraging. The average CO2-equivalent emissions of an EPFL restaurant meal decreased from 6.1 kg to 4.1 kg in just two years, and the goal is to reach 2.5 kg by 2030. These ambitious goals make EPFL a pioneer in this area.