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Waste not want not!

13 January 2020

David Murray explains why urgent action to adopt circular economy principles into food supply chains is critical to help minimise food waste. 

With roughly one- third of the food produced in the world lost or wasted each year, food manufacturers, policy makers and retailers are under ever-greater pressure to incorporate sustainability into food processing. However, the complexity of food supply chains means a truly holistic sustainability stance is the only way to successfully achieve this. 

While 88 million tonnes of food are wasted in the EU annually, one-in-nine people on the planet are starving or malnourished, but could be sufficiently fed on less than one-quarter of the food waste in the USA, UK and Europe each year. 

So, food waste poses an ethical issue in addition to being incredibly damaging for the environment. It takes a land mass larger than China to grow the food each year that is ultimately never eaten, and often this land has been deforested, species have been driven to extinction, indigenous populations have been moved, soil has been degraded – all to produce food that we then throw away. Not only are all of the resources wasted, but when food waste goes to landfill, it decomposes without access to oxygen and creates methane, which is 23 times more deadly than carbon dioxide. Indeed, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases globally, after China and the USA.

The circular economy concept is by no means new. Having first gained momentum in the late 1970’s, this ‘cradle to cradle’ business model aims to continuously reuse resources for as long as possible. However, few have embraced the circular model across their entire organisation in a holistic way, or across their entire supply chain and this must change. Within the food industry this means reusing ‘unavoidable waste’ such as fruit skins – for animal feed or bioenergy – which in turn will reduce the amount of food in landfill. Most imperative though is the drastic reduction of ‘avoidable’ food waste which is down to consumer behaviour, poor storage and management practices.

The green agenda
We cannot ignore the pressing issue of sustainability. By 2030 the planet will be home to nearly nine billion people, meaning that that the current challenges of resource scarcity, urbanisation, waste and pollution, rising energy costs and water insecurity are only going to become greater. 

As a result governments across the world continue to press ahead with global and national sustainable development goals. Most pertinent of these, the 2015 Paris conference saw almost 200 countries come together and reach a landmark agreement to combat climate change and push ahead with designs for a low carbon future.

The UK Government has pledged to become the first major economy in the world to commit to cut greenhouse gas emissions to almost zero by 2050. Further, in 2018 the European Union published the Circular Economy Package which includes new measures to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. 

At the same time consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally and ethically aware, choosing to deal only with companies who are seen to be ‘doing the right thing’; not just in terms of their environmental stance but in respect of eradicating poor working conditions, modern slavery and other forms of commercial immorality. 

Sustainable prosperity
The cumulative effect for modern business is a pressing focus on environmental and social impact. Investing in a comprehensive sustainability strategy is no longer ‘nice to have’ but essential for future-proofing, preparing for future legislation and, in turn, ensuring a good CSR profile which customers, stakeholders and investors will buy into.

One British supermarket is leading the way in its commitment to reducing food waste by pledging to Courtauld 2025, an ambitious voluntary agreement to make food and drink production and consumption more sustainable. In 2016, the retailer announced that its operational food waste fell by 9.4%, compared to the previous year, equal to nearly 2,800 tonnes of food. It is also the first grocery retailer to send zero operational waste to landfill, tackling food waste in many innovative ways.

These may be large scale examples but the principle remains the same for all business disciplines; future success will rely on embracing a sustainable strategy which goes further.

Full circle
Here the remit is to apply a regenerative economic framework that carefully manages existing resources to ensure products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible while, conversely, applying greater focus as to how new products are designed, how their input materials are sourced, how they are manufactured and how sub-products are reused and recycled.

Bureau Veritas recommends that the circular approach is broken down into a four step process. To begin with it’s about identifying circular opportunities in the existing supply; can the product or parts of it be reused, remanufactured or recycled? Take a fridge, for example; while the screws and internal lighting may not be of sufficient quality to be reused and therefore recycled, the main body of the fridge could be reassembled with new parts and sold as a new product. 

Equally important is the efficient use of resources. Secondly then, businesses should take the time to gain a holistic understanding of the current levels of consumption, particularly metals, minerals, energy and water. The principle here lies in looking towards renewable energy and other greener alternatives in a bid to slow, narrow and ultimately close energy and material loops, thereby maximising eco-efficiency. 

Next, with the basics firmly in place, the focus becomes on creating radical innovation in the supply chain and production process. Take, for example, the chemicals industry which can now use renewable feedstock, which is partially derived from waste, for various chemical processes instead of fossil fuel. Or the packaging industry which is now able to create packaging from organic matter, such as seaweed and sugar cane, which is biodegradable. Yes, this requires blue sky, out the box thinking and a complete departure from a linear mind-set, but it is vital if we are to achieve a truly circular loop.

A helping hand
Of course, making the transition to a circular economy can be a daunting process because of the sheer number of processes and volume of materials involved in production. However, aside from making saving on resources, businesses that adopt these principles will also save money. Indeed, the World Economic Forum estimates that there is a potential $1tn to be saved by businesses adopting the circular economy mode.

While there is still some way to go in tackling the issues of food waste in the food industry, organisations such as WRAP are leading the way in highlighting the importance of waste management within the food industry and are helping to introduce the circular economy to policy makers, manufacturers and retailers.
There is also a wealth of knowledge, advice and support available from industry experts. Bureau Veritas, for example, has developed Circular+ – a suite of sustainability auditing and certification services – to help companies develop a powerful approach to the circular economy which can be continuously adapted in line with evolving needs. In addition it is able to provide a helping hand throughout the entire circular process; from making recommendations for change through to leveraging the various supportive standards. 

There is no question that the business model of the future will be circular. Amid the very real threat presented by climate change, ensuing government and consumer onus alike, the age-old industrial model of ‘make-sell-dispose’ is no longer plausible and businesses must go further. The recommendation must therefore be to take the leap and close the loop! 

David Murray is technical director for sustainability at Bureau Veritas.

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