Food and drink industry urged to quit virgin material use and embrace circularity

20 January 2023, 12:32 PM
  • New research has revealed that the industry is too reliant on virgin materials and needs to shift to reuse

Food and drink industry urged to quit virgin material use and embrace circularity

Leading environmental compliance data specialist Ecoveritas has issued an urgent call to action on circularity as research shows more virgin materials have been consumed in the past six years than during the entire 20th century. 

The eagerly anticipated Circularity Gap Report 2023 has found that we live in the ‘overshoot era’, where the rising material extraction of over 100 billion tons/year has shrunk global circularity from 9.1% in 2018 to 7.2% in 2023.

The environmental impact
With the climate crisis already a very real problem for the food industry to tackle, this new research has highlighted the urgency of the situation.

As Andrew McCaffery, global EPR director explained, “We are at a critical inflection point to halt global warming. Having been held back by short-termism and poor policymaking, we are now finally evolving to meet the moment.”

In fact, according to Catherine Conway, founder of Unpackaged, “The Ecoveritas Research shows that we cannot afford to wait in implementing solutions to reduce the plastics used in food and drink packaging, the volume of single-use plastics placed on the market is growing exponentially; and with the growth of the middle class globally, this is only set to increase.”

Ending reliance on virgin materials
Currently, more than 90% of materials are either wasted, lost or remain unavailable for reuse for years as they are locked into long-lasting buildings and machinery. 

The report highlighted the power of circular materials management and minimising consumption towards sufficiency levels to achieve thriving ecosystems for both the planet and people. It also flags the huge potential to increase the global economy’s use of secondary materials and the global economy’s reliance on new virgin materials.

As Andrew explained, “We are becoming less circular at a time when we need to accelerate circularity to support climate biodiversity and pollution action. For something that is a sphere, our planet is becoming less and less circular each year.”

But according to Catherine, “It’s not just about minimising the production of virgin materials for food and drink products, we have to fundamentally rethink how we deliver food and drink products to consumers – whether in-store or online.”

Promoting circularity
The report found that a circular economy could not only reverse the overshoot of planetary boundaries, but it could slash the global need for material extraction by about a third.

In fact, according to Andrew, “Shifting behaviours towards circularity is our society’s strategy to boost economic sustainability. A move away from the end of life of packaging being Waste Management and move towards it being Asset Management.

“One significant sign towards creating greater circularity is the proliferation of Extended Producer Responsibility frameworks. Governments across the region are stepping up to enact regulations with real teeth to support the overall systems we can invest in at scale.”

But how can the food and drink industry shift to this kind of system? For Catherine, “The food supply chain – from producers to retailers – need to work with government to fundamentally rethink how we deliver food and drink products to consumers from a linear system to a circular one.

“All players in the supply chain should be following the waste hierarchy to reduce single-use packaging where possible and move towards reusable systems where packaging is needed. 

“There are plenty of examples of successful reuse systems for both consumer and transit packaging in place across the UK and globally; what’s lacking is the vision, and appetite for change, from the industry.”

Andrew concluded, “We must reuse, educate ourselves on recycling, and reduce food waste, which can be stopped if we control our collective greed. We are surrounded by circular start-ups, professionals, and consultants. We read new reports, playbooks, and roadmaps every day, but we are not changing the reality, the system. We must use this big jump in the wrong direction as an unequivocal catalyst for change.”

close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing