Food waste and circular economies

| 11th October 2018
Food in the rubbish bin
Flickr
The idea that one man’s trash is another’s treasure has been thrown around for decades, but could taking it literally help to tackle food waste?

The circular economy model aims to mitigate waste by creating closed loop systems, but how wide that loop is drawn varies.

Approximately 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in the EU annually and the consequences seep far beyond homes, businesses and landfill sites.

Along with associated economic losses, and the ethical matter of disposing food in a world where eleven percent of the population are undernourished, wasting food amounts to a huge squandering of natural resources.

Through committing to UN Sustainable Development Goal 12.3, the EU endeavours to halve food waste at consumer and retail level by 2030 and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. The establishment of the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste bolstered this goal, but  novel approaches are needed to support a growing population .

Avoidable waste

This circular economy model aims to reduce waste streams by reusing waste as a resource elsewhere.

The EU aims to transition towards this in many areas and in their Action Plan for the Circular Economy, it’s potential for food waste mitigation is recognised.

The circular economy model can apply to food waste but it’s not a one-size fits all solution. Determining the type of food waste involved is key to deciding the most appropriate way to deal with it according to Eoin White, a Research Development Specialist with AgroCycle – a Horizon 2020 funded project addressing agri-food waste.

White explained: “Residue is used to define unavoidable waste, such as fruit skins. They’re a natural part of producing food. The other is wasted food and that’s very much leftovers; things that should and can be eaten but due to consumer behaviour, poor storage and management practices, end up becoming waste.”

While unavoidable food waste can have high value secondary uses, the focus for tackling avoidable waste should first be on prevention: “If the goal is just to utilise this wasted food elsewhere, there’s no incentive to reduce it.”  

Loop logic 

Hilke Bos-Brouwers, senior Scientist Sustainable Food Chains at Wageningen University and Research, said: "Once this distinction is made, it’s important to seek out the best possible new destination for a waste stream."

Bos-Brouwers, a scientific coordinator for the FUSIONS (Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising waste prevention Strategies) and REFRESH projects, said: “With unavoidable food waste, we must valorise it with the highest value possible. You can interpret value on many levels but it basically involves keeping it as close to food as you can.”

If not fit for human consumption, high value applications could include animal feed, biomaterials, and ingredients. While recognising the potential to convert food waste to bioenergy and compost, Bos-Brouwers says it shouldn’t be the first resort.

Prioritising high value applications forms the basis of the cascading principle  ̶  an idea that prioritises material uses for biomass before energy uses to prevent raw materials being lost.

White explained: “You could take potato peel, burn it and get a little bit of energy. Technically that’s recycling. But there’s a lot of value in that potato peel. You should try to take as much as you can from it and when everything is taken out, then you can burn or compost it.”

Integrated approach

The circular economy model aims to mitigate waste by creating closed loop systems, but how wide that loop is drawn varies. Internal loops may be preferable as they can ensure resources are conserved with given product lifecycles.

Food waste occurs at production, retail and consumer levels and the circular economy approach can be integrated at all stages.

For example, AgroCycle is partnered with Fraunhofer in Germany, IPCF-CNR Institute in Italy, and Demeter in Greece to help develop innovative products such as straws and cups using potato pulp and rice bran fibres from the agri-food industry, notes White.

Bos-Brouwers noted that innovations also happen where supply chain partners meet up. Her Wageningen UR team provided the example of a retail franchiser and a catering expert who recognised the potential to work together and were supported with knowledge on supply chains, logistics, legislative issues and business models. They founded a company that repurposes retail and food processors surplus into marketable products. Based in the Netherlands, this successful initiative is now known as De Verspillingsfabriek.

Households generate over half of the EU’s food waste and while its inconsistent nature make it difficult to find high value applications, apps such as OLIO allow consumers to share their unwanted food.

Instilling confidence 

The recently revised EU Waste Framework Directive now includes a definition for food waste but a level of ambiguity still remains.

Bos-Brouwers said: “In the definition, when something becomes waste, it’s with the intention or the action to discard. Yet, if some entrepreneurs want to collaborate using the sideflow of one company as a resource of the other, they could run into permit problems trying to transport the sideflow as they’re not a waste management company.”

Instilling trust in new approaches to food waste can also be challenging. White added: “I don’t think you get the multiplier effect if it’s only enforced. It’s important to find the right nudges or confidence levels with the [large groups involved] to get them on board.”

“The research community plays a vital role, not by making this more complex, but by investigating what can be done with a fresh look.”

Introducing standards for material passports would help to instil trust within producers and consumers, who may be uncertain how a material created from biomaterials compares to its traditional counterpart.

Shared responsibility

While finding new destinations for unavoidable food waste is celebrated, food waste prevention when possible is preferable. 

study conducted by Oldfield and colleagues at University College Dublin found that food waste minimisation results in the greatest reduction of global warming, acidification and eutrophication potential when compared with other food waste management approaches.

Lisa Ruetgers, who is currently doing a PhD in food waste and market solutions in Coventry University argued that “everybody is responsible food waste reduction.”

Checking the fridge before shopping, sharing or freezing leftovers and purchasing imperfect produce can help at consumer level, while retailers can offer imperfect items, avoid overstocking shelves and inform consumers of best storage practices. Legislation is also very important.

Ruetgers added: “All approaches are needed and need to be aligned, ideally top-down as well as bottom-up. I don't think you can blame just one part or solve the problem by just one approach.”

This Author

Amy Lewis is a freelance science journalist from Dublin, whose work has been published in Science, The Scientist, Australian Geographic, the Irish Times, among other publications. She specialises in environmental stories and is keen to highlight some of the major environmental challenges being faced globally.

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