Food waste and the food-energy-water nexus: A review of food waste management alternatives

Kelly M. Kibler, Debra Reinhart, Christopher Hawkins, Amir Mohaghegh Motlagh, James Wright (2018). “Food waste and the food-energy-water nexus: A review of food waste management alternatives.” Waste Management 74, 52-62. Online at  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2018.01.014.

Highlights: Little is known about food-energy-water (FEW) impacts of managing food waste after it has been disposed.

Food waste management options have variable FEW impacts and opportunities. Preventable and unpreventable food waste have different mechanisms of FEW impact.

A “food-waste-FEW systems” approach may maximize benefits across FEW sectors. Characterizing FEW nexus impacts of wasted food is a priority for future work.

Abstract: Throughout the world, much food produced is wasted. The resource impact of producing wasted food is substantial; however, little is known about the energy and water consumed in managing food waste after it has been disposed. Herein, we characterize food waste within the Food-Energy-Water (FEW) nexus and parse the differential FEW effects of producing uneaten food and managing food loss and waste. We find that various food waste management options, such as waste prevention, landfilling, composting, anaerobic digestion, and incineration, present variable pathways for FEW impacts and opportunities. Furthermore, comprehensive sustainable management of food waste will involve varied mechanisms and actors at multiple levels of governance and at the level of individual consumers. To address the complex food waste problem, we therefore propose a “food-waste-systems” approach to optimize resources within the FEW nexus. Such a framework may be applied to devise strategies that, for instance, minimize the amount of edible food that is wasted, foster efficient use of energy and water in the food production process, and simultaneously reduce pollution externalities and create opportunities from recycled energy and nutrients. Characterization of FEW nexus impacts of wasted food, including descriptions of dynamic feedback behaviors, presents a significant research gap and a priority for future work. Large-scale decision making requires more complete understanding of food waste and its management within the FEW nexus, particularly regarding post-disposal impacts related to water.

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