Spain Has a Plan to Tackle Food Waste

It involves doggie bags and grocery store fines.

couple dining al fresco in Mallorca

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Spain is cracking down on food waste. A draft of a new bill aimed at fighting food waste was approved by the country's Council of Ministers in June, and will now proceed to Parliament. Once approved, the law could take effect in early 2023. 

The goal is to reduce the amount of food that goes to waste, which is currently estimated to be around 1,300 tonnes annually. That works out to roughly 68 pounds (31 kilograms) per Spaniard, valued around €250 (equivalent in USD). While more than half of that waste takes place at home (54%), the bill is aimed more at the retail and hospitality sectors, though it does address the entire production chain.

Luis Planas, Spain's agricultural, fisheries and food minister, has described the law as a "pioneering judicial instrument" and the first of its kind in the country that is modeled on similar laws in Italy and France. He also framed it as an ethical move.

From the Guardian: "[It] would allow the government to tackle inefficiencies in the food chain and curb the resulting economic, ethical and environmental costs. 'In a world where unfortunately hunger and malnutrition still exist, these are things which weigh on everyone's conscience,' [Planas] said."

Medium- and large-scale retailers and restaurants will be required to present plans for food waste prevention and disposal, including a "hierarchy of priority destinations" that outline what happens to surplus food. Donating to food banks is encouraged, as long as the food is still safe for consumption. If it's starting to go bad, the bill suggests repurposing it in safe ways, such as making juice or jam. If it's not good for human consumption, then the item can be used for animal feed or in the production of biofuel or fertilizers.

Bars and restaurants must provide free packaging for guests to take food home if they have not finished it. While standard practice in North America, this is not common in Spain, either for cultural reasons or for the fact that portions tend to be much smaller; think of the popular tapas-style dining that revolves around multiple tiny plates of food. 

When supermarkets have food nearing expiry, they must sell it at discount or donate it before it goes bad. The law goes on to say that "all companies in the food chain are required to encourage sales and use of in-season, local and organic produce as much as possible."

There will be hefty financial penalties for businesses that fail to comply. These fines range from €6,000 to €150,000 (equivalent in USD). Not having a food loss and waste prevention plan in place could cost a business anywhere from €2,000 to €60,000. Second offenses cost even more, as much as half a million Euros.

This appears to be a bold and significant step for the Spanish government, depending on how thoroughly it is implemented. France's law, passed in 2016, has been criticized for not changing much other than media scrutiny. It also has relied on fairly high tax incentives (up to 60% of the food's inventory value) to encourage donations, rather than penalizing retailers for not doing so.

It is impossible to outline a perfect approach, but we know that food waste deserves far more attention throughout the developed world. Any measures to inform and spur people to action are an improvement. It's a serious issue, with approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption going to waste, which amounts to nearly 1 billion tonnes and generates 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing this waste could go a long way toward curbing emissions and fighting the climate crisis.