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Combining Life Cycle Assessment and Costing for Food Waste Prevention and Valorization

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Global estimates (FAO 2011) suggest that about one third of edible food produced is lost or wasted along the supply chain. This inefficiency causes wastage of natural and economic resources. FAO estimated the cost of food wastage at US$940 billion (FAO 2013, 2014). Food waste prevention would thus allow for saving these resources, potentially feeding more people, and reducing environmental pressure from the food system (e.g. FAO 2013, Kummu et al., 2012, Vittuari et al. 2016).

Due to the magnitude and urgency of addressing food waste, the United Nations included in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) a target (SDG12.3) to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level and to reduce losses along production and supply chains. In addition, the European Commission aligned itself to the UN target in its Circular Economy package, which has food waste as one of five focus waste streams and contains measures aimed at the reduction and reuse of food waste, from production to consumption and end of life (European Commission, 2015).

The transformations required for preventing and valorizing food waste willhave their own economic and environmental impacts. Private and public decision makers thus will need robust, consistent and science-based approaches to inform their interventions. Life cycle approaches – such as Life Cycle Assessment LCA (ISO, 2016; EC, 2010) and Life Cycle Costing (LCC) (e.g. Hunkeler et al., 2008) – are often suggested as useful tools to analyze both the economic and environmental impacts of waste prevention, valorization, and management. By allowing comparative analysis within or across the waste hierarchy, the combined use of LCA and LCC approaches can ensure a better understanding of the impact of specific interventions, as suggested also by the EC directive on waste (EC, 2008, paragraph 4).

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is well established in studying environmental impacts of food waste (FW), but no systemic approach for practitioners has been developed to date (Corrado et al., 2017; Gruber et al., 2016; Notarnicola et al., 2016; Unger et al., 2016). Life cycle costing (LCC) has been applied to FW only in a limited number of studies and without consistent practices (De Menna et al. 2016). In general, the goal and scoping phase (e.g. problem assessed or system function) can be characterized by a large flexibility, thus leading to various effects in other methodological aspects. Results from FW related studies are therefore not comparable, causing potential misinterpretation by non-experts. Even experienced LCA and LCC practictioners could find difficulties in making specific methodological choices related to FW or an integrated approach for LCA and LCC, as both the ILCD handbook (EC, 2010) and the guidance on product environmental footprints – PEF (EC, 2013) focus on the driving product of a system, rather than waste flows.

The EU H2020 funded project REFRESH (Resource Efficient Food and dRink for the Entire Supply cHain) aims to contribute to food waste reduction throughout the food supply chain, and evaluate the environmental impacts and life cycle costs. Within the REFRESH project , the objective of this study was thus to develop a consistent approach in combining LCA and LCC, specifically to assess impacts of prevention of resource inefficiencies, new/novel valorisation options and waste handling options relating to side-flows in the food supply chain.


In a first step of the REFRESH project, literature on LCA and LCC of food waste was systematically reviewed to identify relevant methodological aspects. Sources included existing LCA and LCC standards documentation, academic journal papers, policy guidelines, and case studies on FW. The specific aim of the review was to identify possible approaches, main differences among studies,standards and protocols, main challenges and knowledge gaps. Detailed results and list of sources of this review are presented in two REFRESH reports (respectively Unger et al., 2016 and De Menna et al., 2016).

As far as LCA of food systems is concerned (Unger et al., 2016), several sources provide guidance on environmental assessment of food systems, but they leave a lot of room for LCA scoping. For example, standards and generic guidelines cover many products and services, but they do not provide step-by-step instructions on how to perform an LCA. Thus food waste stakeholders, who may have a deep understanding of their system but only a generic knowledge of LCA, would not find straightforward answers to specific modelling questions. Common issues include:

  • Selection of attributional or consequential types of study;
  • Estabilishing appropriate and coherent functional unit and system boundaries connected to the question(s) being addressed;
  • Addressing multi-functionality (allocation vs. system expansion) and product substitution issues;
  • Selection of impact indicators and interpretation of results.

As far as LCC is concerned, the review identified a widespread array of existing definitions and approaches (De Menna et al., 2016). Additionally, only a limited number of case studies were retrieved. These are mostly concerned with municipal FW management, and only a few included prevention issues. The following challenges could be identified:

  • Lack of detailed recommendations for combining LCC and LCA;
  • Use of LCC in case of consequential LCA studies;
  • Differences between cut-off levels / scoping boundaries;
  • Relevant cost categories for FW;
  • Inclusion of economic impact indicators other than cost;

Based on the identified challenges, a specific framework was developed with the aim of providing a step-by-step assessment guidance for food waste practitioners (Davis et al., 2017). The framework is composed of a introductory section on study purpose definition, three decision trees – respectively on assessment situation(s), costing approach, and type of study (footprint vs. intervention) – and two sets of recommendations.

The framework was first submitted to and reviewed by selected LCA, LCC, and FW experts and practitioners within the REFRESH consortium. Then, it will be tested with selected case studies in a later task of the project.

Results And Discussion

The overall structure of the framework is provided in Fig. 1. First, the assessor needs to identify the purpose of the study. As highlighted by existing standards and literature, the question addressed in the goal and scope phase can result in very different outcomes in terms of methodological choices. In the current framework, the main elements to includein the description of the purpose of the study are:

  • Indication of the product/process under analysis (what product, waste flow, and characteristics?);
  • Decisions on:
  • Whether the goal is to assess a current situation or changes to an alternative scenario,
  • Whether prevention is included or foreseen, and
  • Whether some value is or will be involved in management of the side flow.

Once the purpose of the study is estabilished, the next step is to identify whether the flow under study should be considered a driving product or a side flow (Davis et al, 2017). A flow of the food supply chain can be characterized as a driving product whenever it represents the main reason for the supply chain to exist. This means that in some agro-food processes there can be several driving products, all of which are justifying a certain share of the studied system.

On the contrary, any wasted edible and inedible part of food – including wasted flows of driving product(s) – can be defined as side flow. The main difference with the driving product is that an assessor would like to minimize it, rather than producing more of it. In the REFRESH framework, since the focus is on impacts of food waste, guidance and recommendations are provided with reference to the assessments of such side flows. Instead, no guidance is given on the evaluation of driving products.

Once the purpose and subject of the study are defined, it is important to identify the potential situation(s) to assess. A practitioner could for example want to evaluate impacts of a specific prevention measure or estimate potential costs and impacts of a prospective pilot plant. While side flows and life cycle stages may be different, any given assessment situation will share certain methodological commonalities.

To categorise systems suitable for the assessment, the concept of “REFRESH situations” (RS) has been developed (Unger et al.; 2016, De Menna et al., 2016; and Davis et al., 2017). The REFRESH situations (RS) include: Prevention of side flow (RS 1), side flow valorisation (RS 2), valorisation as part of waste management (RS 3), and end-of-life treatment (RS 4). REFRESH situations can take place at any point/process within the life cycle, within the remit of any stakeholder (including consumers) and are independent of the perspective taken, i.e. of the producer of side stream or the receiver. For each REFRESH situation, specific recommendations on setting of system boundary, functional unit(s) and handling of multi-functionality in relation to the stated problem are provided (beside other aspects). This categorization was then translated into a decision tree meant to help practictioners in the selection of relevant situations.

Since several LCC approaches exists (Hunkeler et al. 2008), another decision tree was developed for the selection of the most appropriate choice. Specifically, the integrated framework foresees the combined use of LCA and LCC. Therefore, the assessor, depending on the initial purpose and the deriving typology of costs that he might include, can choose between Conventional, Societal, and Environmental LCC. Since Conventional LCC does not have consistent boundaries with LCA while research is still needed on several aspects of Societal LCC, the Environmental LCC is the recommended approach.

Subsequently to RS and LCC approach choice, the last decision tree is related to the modelling approach to be used. In fact, depending on the question asked by the assessor, the appropriate modelling could differ. In particular, the framework builds on the distinction between attributional and consequential approaches and coherently identifies two type of studies: footprint studies and intervention studies.

Studies that are evaluating the impact deriving from a product (e.g. providing a snapshot of a valorized product from a side flow) and are not focusing on the consequences on other parts of the economy can be defined as footprint studies of side flows. Therefore, the modelling approach in this case is the attributional one. In such case, the study is usually referring all impacts on the valorized product from the side flow. Footprint studies can be carried out only for RS2, 3, and 4.

On the contrary, if the aim of the assessor is to estimate the effects of certain changes in a system (e.g. changing from waste management to the prevention of a side flow), then an intervention study should be carried out. In this case, the end/future situation (including RS1) is compared to the current situation and impacts of all changes are evaluated. Therefore, the modelling approach is consequential and the functional unit is constituted by the prevented/valorized/managed side flow.

Finally, the framework provides two sets of recommendations on selected issues for LCA and LCC, respectively for footprint and intervention studies. In the specific, indications are provided for:

  • Functional unit
  • System boundaries
  • Multifunctionality
  • Cut-off principles
  • LCA inventory and cost modelling
  • Impact assessment (separate and combined)
  • Interpretation of results.


This study aimed to develop a consistent approach, combining LCA and LCC specifically to assess impacts of prevention of resource inefficiencies, new/novel valorisation options, and waste handling options related to side flows of the food supply chain.

Several challenges and methodological issues were identified through a literature review of LCA and LCC of FW. A specific framework was then developed to provide a step-by-step assessment guidance for food waste practitioners. Recommendations are provided on the study purpose definition, specific typologies of assessment situation(s), costing approach and methods, combined LCA and LCC modelling.

Recommendations are applicable to all levels of the waste hierarchy stating a generic order of preference for handling of side flows. The food waste hierarchy provides guidance on the identification and selection of the most preferred interventions.

This approach can support informed decision-making and in the long term promote the design of sustainable and cost-efficient interventions and more resource efficient food supply chains. Finally, food loss and waste reduction present also relevant social (e.g. availability of food) and political implications that should be considered together with the results obtained from any LCA and E-LCC.

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