BRUSSELS IS starting to push for a closed-loop approach which could bring enormous health and economic benefits.
Europe's new circular economy package is finally starting to make its way through Brussels. In July, the European Commission published its first consultation to garner public opinion, while in the European Parliament MEPs voted in favour of a number of measures they feel should be included in any new policy.
The original plan, binned by the incoming commission in February, focused on waste. There were stretching recycling targets (70% by 2030) and a phasing out of landfilling of recyclable materials by 2025. The plan had many supporters, though there was an admission that it was far from perfect. Of particular concern was the focus on waste rather than resource.
“We need to use our resources more intelligently, design our products with a view to their reuse and recycling, and set ambitious targets for waste reduction and recycling,” said the commission’s first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, the man in charge of seeing the “more ambitious” package through.
The new plan will probably maintain some of these targets, but some of the biggest changes could be the triggers used to meet them. There is a renewed interest in product design, as well as the introduction of mandatory recycling schemes. Landfill bans remain on the cards, as well as a move to “pay as you throw”. Perhaps more controversial was a suggestion by MEPs that, for food, biodegradable packaging should be the default option.
Outside Brussels, the lobbying and discussions continue. Some observers expect to see more bans on certain materials – perhaps like the one introduced in New York for polystyrene foam. There are those also pushing for more financial instruments such as taxes applied to single-use items that are a symbol of the linear economy (make, use, dispose). In a circular economy, so the definition by WRAP goes, “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”.
WRAP isn’t alone in pushing for food waste to be at the heart of any future plans. “Food waste is a global problem, and needs a collective solution to reduce and prevent it,” its CEO, Jane Goodwin, said recently. “I believe EU member states are well placed to take a leading role to meet this aim. And so I would expect an ambitious circular economy package to include a Europe wide commitment to achieve this.”
The idea of targets and regulation has, however, got the UK government in a sweat. A paper leaked from DEFRA, just before the MEPs’ vote in July, suggested that new targets were not the way to go. “We feel that a greater emphasis needs to be given to other measures such as voluntary agreements with industry and incentives to reward behavioural changes,” the officials said.
This was no surprise to many. Back in January at the Foodservice Packaging Association conference, DEFRA representatives made no bones about the fact that the targets laid down in the original plan were too high. The Conservatives, at least if their first three months in office are anything to go by, also appear allergic to any form of forward-thinking environmental regulation or incentives.
Voluntary agreements, including the Courtauld Commitment and the Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement, have encouraged progress. But are they enough to encourage businesses to shift from the linear models of the past to the circular models of the future?
“They do have a role, but I think if we are looking at the kind of step change involved in moving to a circular economy, then regulation is the way to go,” says Nia Owen, a consultant with Ricardo-AEA. “This will provide the certainty for businesses to move forward on this together and give them the confidence to invest.”
So what might some of these new systems look like? Some are simple and have been around for many years. “The introduction of the PET bottle in the late 1970s and the development of surrounding collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure has led to the creation of an industry standard and arguably provides one of the best examples of circular plastic flows within the economy,” wrote Jamie Butterworth, the then CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in an article for Waste Management World.
Other examples are appearing across Europe. Barcelona, for example, has developed a vision of increasing its self-sufficiency that includes the target of producing half of its food in the city and the surrounding region. Food retailer Walmart, meanwhile, has built greenhouses near or attached to its stores to shorten the supply chain of some fresh vegetables.
Others are even further down the path. Built in a repurposed industrial building, The Plant uses carefully selected tilapia, vegetables, beer and kombucha tea production to balance its waste and feedstock needs. “The fish produce ammonia-based waste that is sent through a biofilter where solids settle out and the rest is broken down into nitrates. Those nitrates are then fed to plants growing in hydroponic beds. By absorbing the nitrates, the plants clean the water, which is returned to the fish,” the website reads. Combined with a commercial kitchen and an anaerobic digestion chamber to convert remaining waste into power and steam, this is a fully closed-loop, zero-waste system.
Technology will also play a critical role in the evolution of even more exciting approaches to circular flows. Everything from precision farming techniques to reduce pesticide inputs through to the use of big data to predict demand will be employed. This can be expensive, but the savings will far outweigh any costs. And significantly.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently calculated that by 2030 the European food sector could save €320 billion (£225 billion) by adopting a system based on circular design principles. People would also end up spending less on food. “Combining lower calorie intake with an 80% reduction in food waste would mean providing a healthy diet for the European population would require up to 40% fewer calories by 2050. This could lower average household spending by 40%,” the researchers suggest.
The fact that the food system is wasteful and unhealthy is a major problem, according to the foundation’s project manager, Ashima Sukhdev. However, the principles of circular economy business models are beginning to gain traction.
“Our vision for the sector features reconnected nutrient loops that would encourage the rehabilitation of degraded land, farms that would be located close to consumers through urban and peri-urban farming, organic agriculture that would minimise the need for fertiliser and pesticides, and digital solutions that would match supply with demand, creating less waste,” she explained in a recent article for Footprint.
The economic and environmental effects of transitioning to such a food system are “staggering”, she added. “By 2050, food cost per person could be more than 30% lower than today, synthetic fertiliser consumption could fall by as much as 80%, overall CO2 emissions could fall by 60%, and water consumption could be cut by as much as 70%.”
The year 2050 is a long way off. Today, many in the foodservice sector will view the circular economy as theoretical rather than practical. The concepts are hard to decipher and the language can be impenetrable. This shouldn’t be a reason to ignore it all though. “It’s an incredibly interesting time to be looking at some of this,” says Harriet Parke, a food expert with Eunomia Research and Consulting.
In a recent Footprint Poll 76% of readers voted that "Circular Economy" needs a clearer definition.