What you put in the wraps is of greatest importance for the carbon footprint. Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr.com/CC BY

How public canteens can minimise their carbon footprint

The combined measures of buying only organic produce and excluding meat and fish from meals could reduce the carbon footprint from public meals by more than 40 per cent.

Public catering services is a large sector in Europe, serving meals in schools, hospitals and other public institutions. Around half of them are self-managing public bodies and the other half are businesses contracted through public procurement.

In a recent Italian study, researchers compared different interventions that could be incorporated as criteria in a green public procurement procedure and ranked them after their impact on the carbon footprint (see table). As their baseline, they used the existing school catering services in the city of Turin.

In the baseline, the production of the ingredients was responsible for 78 per cent of the carbon footprint of a meal. Unsurprisingly, interventions that altered the ingredients or the way they were produced had the greatest impact. The most effective measure, reducing the carbon footprint by 32 per cent, was to exclude meat and fish from the menu and replace them with eggs, cheese, and protein-rich vegetables. It must be noted that the carbon footprint from cheese was on the same order as meat, but no vegan or non-dairy option was considered in this study.

Second best, reducing emissions by 11 per cent, was to use only organic ingredients. If these two measures were combined the carbon footprint was estimated to shrink by as much as 42 per cent. The weakness of these two proven effective interventions is that they can encounter resistance within the organisation. The former because of social and cultural concerns and the latter because the higher price of organic produce might strain the budget.

Some of the easier apples to pick were several interventions in waste management. Serving tap water is such a fundamental and simple measure that it should not require green procurement to happen. Composting and recycling are also easy once the routines are in place.

Another area for interventions is to reduce the impact from energy used for cooking, storing and serving meals. Simply buying certified renewable energy was proven to be the most effective measure, second to the more hands-on project of installing local solar photovoltaic panels to generate one’s own electricity. In addition, the latter could have an educational advantage not taken into consideration by this study. In comparison, it is not that effective to invest in new, more energy-efficient appliances. This is because the study is based on the fact that most kitchens have already installed relatively energy-efficient appliances and upgrading a fridge with an energy efficiency standard of A+ to the next level of A++ only gives a limited effect. But for this measure there can be great variation, if a kitchen has old appliances significant energy savings can be achieved if they are replaced.

The transportation of food is the field where there is the least potential to have an impact on carbon emissions, according to the study. Improving the local distribution of food is more important than buying locally produced food. It is worth pointing out that this study only ranks the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. There might be other sustainability gains from buying local produce, not least of social and economic nature. This actually implies to all of the interventions.

Some of the interventions studied cannot be combined, for example you cannot use both washable and bio-based disposable tableware at the same time. But if all the measures that can, in theory, be combined, are actually implemented, there is an estimated net potential to reduce the carbon footprint by 63 per cent – almost two-thirds.

Kajsa Pira

Source: Modelling, assessing, and ranking public procurement options for a climate-friendly catering service. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, INPRESS 1-21 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-017-1306-y

Table: Summary of the of the 11 interventions assessed. Listing their the relative reduction of the carbon footprint compared to the baseline scenario for the full catering service.



Reduction of carbon footprint   Difficulties in application
Food production        
100 per cent organic    −11.39% Medium (difficulties related to the certification schemes)
Exclude meat and fish    −32.14%    High (difficulties related to social, economic and nutritional issues)
Food transport        
Buying local food      −0.20%  Medium (difficulties in providing enough local food of the requested quality)
Improvements in local distribution of food        −0.74% High (difficulties in the urban dimensions and need for facilities)
Cooking, storage, and serving    
Adoption of energy efficient appliances −1.88%   Medium (difficulties related to the labelling of professional appliances)
Installing solar PV to cover electricity need −4.81%  High (difficulties related to economic and logistic issues)
Certified electricity exclusively from renewable sources −6.02% Medium (difficulties related to economic issues)
Waste management    
Washable tableware        −1.97% Medium (difficulties related to costs and to the creation of facilities for cleaning)
Disposable bio-based tableware        −0.88% Low (no significant difficulties revealed)
Tap water −2.34%  Low (no significant difficulties revealed)
Optimisation (80%) of the recycling of inorganic waste −3.03%   Low (difficulties can be overcome by the training of operators)
Optimisation (90%) of the composting of organic waste −3.04%  Low (difficulties can be overcome by the training of operators)

Green public procurement for food and catering

The EU criteria for green public procurement criteria for food and catering services date from 2008 and are currently under revision. A third draft of a technical report was published in July and the final version is expected to be published in December or January. Some of the proposed improvements include:

  • A higher level of ambition for purchasing organic products
  • Clear guidance on the promotion of plant-based meals in catering services
  • Good provisions for food/beverage waste prevention, including the recommendation of a system that allows customers to provide their feedback on the size of food portions and the quality of prepared meals
  • Mandatory provision of tap water
  • A mandatory provision to allow for reusable cups in vending machines

Documents for the revision process can be found here: http://susproc.jrc.ec.europa.eu/Food_Catering/stakeholders.html


In this issue