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The concept of a circular economy – one in which products and materials are kept in continual use rather than going to waste – has gained traction in recent years. As consumers demand action on sustainability, many food and drink businesses have opted not to wait around for legislation to force them to change their ways – instead, they’re taking charge on circular economy initiatives in their own businesses.
The biggest areas in need of a circular economy revamp in the food and drink sector are food waste and plastic packaging. According to the charity WRAP, around a third of all food that is produced is thrown away, while plastic, which can play an important role in protecting food, contributes around 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions.
Finding ways to reuse and reduce plastic and food waste is an important task for the years ahead. Changing our food system is something that the circular economy group the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says would be “one of the most impactful things we can do to address climate change, create healthy cities and rebuild biodiversity”.
Here, we take a look at how the food industry can change its ways and shift to a more sustainable system.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy for food is one where waste does not exist, but where by-products such as packaging can either be composted or turned into new products, such as fabrics for the fashion industry.
This is exactly what Reborn has set out to do. The company recently teamed up with drinks brand Moët & Chandon to transform plastic waste from on-trade venues in central London into yarn, which was then made into Moët & Chandon uniforms and merchandise.
Reborn founder Zak Johnson believes this approach can help food and drink businesses tackle the single-use plastic problem. “The food and beverage sector needs to rethink plastic use but not for the reasons you think,” he explains. “I don’t believe single-use plastics are the enemy necessarily; they are only single-use if used once. What if we reused this plastic waste?
“We believe in recycling plastics to create multi-uses that stop us from needlessly using our natural resources,” Zak tells Speciality Food. “Using innovative plastic recycling solutions at events and F&B locations will drastically reduce new plastics entering the ecosystem.”
Elsewhere, companies are working hard to find innovative ways to keep all plastics inside a circular system rather than sending them to landfill. The grains and pulses brand Merchant Gourmet recently launched a new recycle scheme by teaming up with recycling specialist Enval, that will allow its food pouches to avoid the bin.
The team expects its new scheme will prevent 100,000 pouches from entering landfill in the first year alone. Richard Peake, managing director of Merchant Gourmet, says the brand is “fully focussed on closing the loop on plastic recycling”.
“Local councils in the UK currently do not recycle our pouches, so we’ve been searching for the right recycling partner to create a scheme that makes all of our pouches recyclable,” he says. “Our mission is to make it easy for our consumers to limit their impact on the environment”
Eliminating plastic waste is only half the battle, however. Food waste is another issue that the sector is beginning to address.
Thanks to Covid-19, 2020 was a tough year for tackling food waste. While self-reported food waste in homes dropped substantially in the first lockdown, producers that were hit by supply chain issues and closed restaurants faced sending their products to the bin.
Since pubs were first ordered to close in March 2020, around 87 million pints have been thrown away, the British Beer and Pub Association estimates.
However, some savvy businesses have found ways to keep their excesses from going to waste. For example, Speciality Food recently reported on a forward-thinking collaboration between distiller In The Welsh Wind, Bluestone Brewing Company and Orkney Craft Vinegar that saw 3,000 litres of beer bound for landfill transformed into vinegar.
Heineken has also sought to tackle Covid-induced beer waste. The brewing giant has processed more than 83,000 50 litre kegs – the equivalent of seven million pints – which it has turned into green energy. Since May 2020, the business has created enough power to heat nearly 28,000 British homes for a day. “We’re always looking to find new innovative ways to brew a better world, and this solution is a win-win for drinkers and reducing our impact on the planet,” said Matt Callan, brewer and operations director at Heineken.
Finding ways to keep the food sector’s waste from ending up in landfills will only continue to move up the list of the industry’s priorities in the coming years. While larger businesses may have the resources to pursue equally large sustainability initiatives, small food and drink independents have shown that through collaboration and innovation, they can make a big impact.
Organisations are beginning to prioritise a sustainable transformation for SME producers and retailers, too. Scotland Food & Drink’s new Greening Your Business toolkit provides practical support for SMEs looking to reduce their environmental impact, including circular economy opportunities.
Creating a circular economy will be a huge undertaking, but indie food businesses can begin playing a role in shifting towards a more sustainable system today by taking charge in their own operations.