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Achieving Sustainable Food Systems in Amsterdam: What is the Municipality’s strategy?

Achieving a circular economy

The municipality of Amsterdam (or Gemeente ) has the ambition to create a fully circular economy within the city by the year 2050. A circular economy, as opposed to a linear economy, is a system in which no waste from supply chains or consumption is generated: any residual materials from production, sales or individual expenditures are re-used and fed back into the cycle. The municipality’s target for 2030 is already to halve the use of new raw materials within the city (citation). But how can Amsterdam’s progress be tracked? Well, the municipality has implemented a circular monitor, which is a series of charts that show the weight of raw materials wasted or re-used overtime as well as CO2 emissions generated by respective categories of materials produced/consumed.

Veganism and Organic Waste in the context of a circular economy

The Amsterdam municipality recognises food and organic waste streams as one of the three value chains of focus for achieving a circular economy. The following three key ambitions are featured in the circular economy policy:

  • Short food chains that provide a robust sustainable food system

  • Healthy and sustainable food for the people of Amsterdam

  • High-quality processing of organic waste streams

In both their circular monitor report and 2020-2025 circular economy strategy documents, the municipality makes it clear that to reach a circular economy, it is not only vital to eliminate waste, but also to produce/consume more environmentally conscious materials. Indeed, the authors of the 2020-2025 strategy document state in the development direct section that Amsterdam must "Encourage healthy, sustainable and plant-based food consumption by all inhabitants". Additionally, the circular monitor report shows that meat and dairy production is a significant contributor to global warming: based on an analysis of dutch dairy cows, producing 1kg of cheese is estimated to generate the equivalent of 10.7 kg of CO2. A similar amount can be said for beef production. Furthermore, according to the monitor, around 165kt of meat and dairy products are consumed annually in Amsterdam. However, it is unclear how many animal products are wasted, either by consumers or businesses. The carbon footprint of eggs production is also not specified in the monitor report.

Figure 1 - (Amsterdam Circular Monitor pdf, p.17)

Nevertheless, quantifying the environmental footprint of multiple types of dairy products as well as meat products indicates a true concern for revolutionising the diets of Amsterdam’s inhabitants. Numerous scholarly articles and reports on sustainable diet scenarios neglect the ecological footprint of dairy products and exclusively focus on the meat industry: the transparency of the municipality here on the problematic excessive consumption of dairy in Amsterdam is highly commendable!

Overall, the Amsterdam municipality’s report suggests that adopting more plant-based diets as well as cancelling out food waste go hand in hand, if a circular economy is to be achieved. However, is the municipality’s vision sufficiently realistic?

Is creating a circular economy in Amsterdam possible?

Can the municipality contribute to food waste reduction in Amsterdam? Yes! But is it capable of making the city’s food system fully circular? This is uncertain. Indeed, the information the Gemeente has to offer on its website isn’t always promising. For example, the published reports contain confusing figures and statistics:

"Food waste is estimated to be 30% worldwide, and 20% in the Netherlands. Specifically for meat and dairy, the waste percentages are 10% and 8%, respectively. This waste is added to the amount of consumed products." (Amsterdam Circular Monitor pdf, p.17)

This series of statistics is difficult to understand: Is 30% of all food produced wasted, including at the harvest stage? Or is it the food that makes it to shops and factories? The same questions apply to the figure on meat and dairy waste. The meaning of the last sentence could also cause confusion to some readers (including myself): in the Netherlands, is 10% of the meat ready for consumption wasted by consumers, or is it 10% of the 20% of food waste estimated nationally? And what about Amsterdam specifically?

Figure 2 - (Amsterdam Circular Monitor pdf, p.30)

This stream diagram also gives little relevant information on the path that different forms of food waste take, since a large part of these food and organic waste stream paths is unknown. What is also unknown from the diagram is which food waste is combined with other waste materials (plastic, paper etc), and where such products are re-used/disposed of. The overall lack of data undermines the credibility of the municipality’s plans. Information available to the public should be written clearly and unambiguously.

In the broader context, it is important to note that working towards a circular economy is one of the EU Green Deal’s key targets. Therefore, Amsterdam’s plans are aligned with EU requirements.

However, is the intention behind creating a circular economy truly sustainable? Indeed, the municipality’s reports repeatedly express the goal to continue capitalist growth at the same time as create a "sustainable city". For example, the municipality explains on its website that their circular monitor report is based on the Amsterdam city Doughnut model. The municipality states the following:

"The model describes how societies and businesses can contribute to economic development while still respecting the limits of the planet and our society."

This statement follows the assumption that economic growth does not need to slow down for a circular economy to work. This assumption is deceiving since we would have to rely on costly, highly efficient technologies to ensure less waste is generated while businesses grow and production continues to increase. Sustainable business in general is a flawed concept, due to the Jevons Paradox: if a firm produces an item more efficiently, (by generating less waste to make it, for instance), the cost of production will be reduced, which means that the demand for this item will increase and consumption will grow. Thus, this means that more materials must be used to produce more, with more energy. If nothing is wasted in the process, then technically the economy would be less linear, but pollution and comsumerism will persist meaning that the purpose of the circular economy is defeated. Here, the Amsterdam municipality is basing its sustainability goals on a flawed model, and those involved with the municipality must remain mindful of this.

How could the Municipality improve its plans?

What lacks here is data accessible to the public, and perhaps sufficient data on food and organic waste in general. The municipality could fund data collection on food waste from different specific sectors: for example quantities of food waste generated from local grocery shops, or supermarkets, or restaurants and hotels separately. Research on packaged food waste and the kind of waste materials the food is wrapped in could also be done. Already acquiring this kind of information could help the Municipality take a different, perhaps less growth-agnostic approach.

How to find out more

This blogpost has only touched upon a few components relevant to food and organic waste management: The Amsterdam municipality also plans to scale up high quality processing of biomass and food waste streams, increase the separate collection or organic waste from businesses and households, to name two more goals.

To find out more details about these targets on food and organic waste management, first click here!

After clicking, open the pdf on the 2020-2025 circular strategy and go to p33.

Happy learning!

Written by

Calypso Gunnell Joyce

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