Closing the Loop: How the Circular Economy Improves Food Sustainability and Resource Productivity

Circular economy

There is no shortage of buzzwords floating about in today’s over-saturated media landscape. And no more so when it comes to food, waste and the environment.

It’s hard to know which trends are here to stay and which will go the way of low-fat diets, margarine, and cronuts. The circular economy is one such term you have no doubt heard of at one point or another.

We’re here to fill you in on what exactly the circular economy is, how it impacts your food, and its role in creating a sustainable and secure food future.

Let’s first put things into perspective. Here are some recent numbers on food loss and waste from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UNFAO):

  • Roughly one third of food produced for human consumption — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted every year.
  • These food losses amount to around US$680 billion in industrialised countries and US$310 billion in developing countries.
  • Each year, consumers in rich countries waste 222 million tons of food. This is almost as much as the entire net food production of 230 million tons in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The amount of food lost or wasted every year equals more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop, which was 2.3 billion tons in 2009/2010.
  • Breakdown for global food losses and waste per sector per year: 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables; 35% for fish; 30% for cereals; and 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy.

Now just let all that sink in for a moment. That’s a huge amount of food going to waste each year. This massive loss of food results in a wasted opportunity to feed the world’s growing population. Not only this, it also generates adverse economic and environmental effects. If only there were a way to reduce our food waste while maximising our resources.

What Is the Circular Economy?

Let’s start with the basics. The UK’s leading resource on the circular economy, a charity called the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), defines the circular economy as:

An alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

This means that rather than viewing the production process as linear – inputs going in, waste material going out – we take a more circular, iterative approach.

So rather than inputting raw materials and resources, and simply discarding the surplus or waste, those materials are collected and recycled for some other purpose. This extends the life and utility of the resource itself while also reducing waste. It’s a win-win for the economy and the environment.

The Circular Economy in Food

The concept of a sustainable, nonlinear economy can be applied to a wide range of industries and applications. Likewise, a circular economy can create value across many sectors within the food industry.

Industry confederation FoodDrinkEurope explores the “ingredients” needed for instituting an industry-wide circular economy. These factors stem from the need to preserve “the value of resources (raw materials, water and energy) that go into producing food and drink products for as long as possible while also paying attention to: prevention, resource efficiency, environmental performance, sustainable sourcing, consumer awareness.”

So what does this look like in action?

Let’s start with origination – the farmers and agricultural producers growing our food. Many crops don’t even make it past this first stage, spoiling quickly in storage and having to be discarded. FoodDrinkEurope is working with farmers to find sustainable solutions to these problems. They include producing higher quality ingredients, and improving storage and logistics capacities. This way less food goes to waste and ingredients stay fresher longer.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are striving to both preserve the inputs – water, energy, and other resources – that go into food production, and create new products from leftover by-products and ingredients. By-products are used as animal feed while waste can be turned into fertiliser and energy sources.

Take the humble potato. Instead of simply throwing out cut-offs, companies are turning these waste pieces into other food products. Potato trimmings can be used to make hash browns. Potato starch can be used in the production of bioplastics.

Innovating in the Circle

Closing the loop takes a little creativity and innovation. bio-bean is a case in point. The company recycles 50,000 tons of coffee grounds a year into energy-efficient coffee logs. These provide a sustainable, second-generation biofuel that can be used as an alternative to wood.

bio-bean collects its waste coffee from retailers across the UK. This reduces the volume of grounds sent to the landfill and cuts costs for companies that would normally have to pay for commercial disposal. Again, the circular economy is a win for business and for mother nature.

Other by-products, that would normally be destined for the landfilled, like juice pulp and mashed oats are also finding new life.

LA-based Pulp Pantry collects fruit and vegetable pulp from commercial juicers to create a line of healthy snacks. Founder and self-professed “food waste warrior”, Kaitlin Mogentale, has made it her mission to deliver affordable and nutritious food to all, while addressing the broader issue of food insecurity.

Likewise, Toast Ale’s journey from bread to beer inhabits the circular mindset. They turn the heel-ends of loaves, usually discarded during the production of pre-packed sandwiches, into delicious malty ales and refreshing lagers. Now you can have your beer and eat it too!

The creation of new technologies and production techniques present ever-greater opportunities for companies to grow in the circular economy. Food brands stand to benefit greatly from adopting methods and mentalities that promote greater resource productivity.

By closing the loop, we become better stewards of our resources and ensure that our food is sustainable and secure. To come full circle, it looks like the circular economy is one of those buzzwords that is here to stay.