What is a Circular Food Economy? By Bethany Hossner
What is a Circular Food Economy? By Bethany Hossner

What is a Circular Food Economy? By Bethany Hossner

What is a Circular Food Economy?

Hillside Solutions is a trash company that picks up recyclable and compostable waste from restaurants, food rescue organizations, and community gardens before they have a chance to reach landfills. As a commercial composting facility, Hillside Solutions prides itself on the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, turn food waste into nutrient-rich soil, and feed hungry populations in the Omaha metro area.

Currently, between 30-40% of food produced is wasted before it has a chance to be consumed in the United States (FDA, 2022). In addition, it is estimated that roughly 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions directly come from food that goes to waste (UNEP, 2021). Unfortunately, this is evident in the percentage of food waste found in landfills. One of the most sustainable ways to combat this issue is through the framework of a circular economy.

What is a circular economy as it relates to the food industry?

A circular economy is simple. It is a nonlinear model of production and consumption that moves in a constant clockwise cycle. Unlike a traditional linear economy, which is solely focused on mass production, a circular economy is sustainably designed to produce resources while simultaneously reducing waste. A well-known and simplified version of a circular economy is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. A less-known phrasing of the circular economy is “closing the loop.”

Materials in a circular economy rotate in a clockwise cycle which starts with designing, producing, distributing, consuming, collecting, and recycling. After material is recycled, the circle restarts from the beginning and continues to repeat. The ultimate mission of a circular economy is to reuse and recycle resources continuously, essentially it is a zero-waste design.

When we reflect on the stages of a circular economy through the lens of the food industry it all makes sense. A zero-waste design can easily be achieved through the practice of composting. For instance, the plants that are grown for consumption absorb pollutants that are found in the air, soil, and water. As the food is being grown, microorganisms work with the soil to feed on the pollutants. The nutrients that are created from the soil and microorganisms are given to the plants. Humans and other living organisms feed on plants, consuming the nutrients as well. When the leftover food waste is composted, rather than being thrown out, the nutrients are given back to the soil. This aids in the growth of new plants for food and the cycle continues on repeat.

Sustainability is often viewed as a broad term, encompassing various specific elements such as circularity. Circularity simply means that a product is designed to be reused in the supply chain rather than being wasted in a landfill. Therefore, circularity ties into the concept of sustainability. As more products are being reused and recycled, fewer are being overexploited and consumed at an unbalanced rate.

What are the benefits of a circular economy in the food industry?

Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution, food consumption has been a part of a linear economy, which focuses on mass production with an end goal of excessive waste. Unfortunately, the current economy is only 8.6% circular while the extraction of resources is predicted to increase by another 70% by 2050 (UNEP, 2021). Specifically, the current linear economy is at a disadvantage in the food and agriculture industries.

One disadvantage of a linear economy is that it is based on the framework of producing, selling, and disposing of food and other products. This leads to the overconsumption of natural resources and an immense increase in waste. Since a linear economy thrives on extracting and consuming raw materials, CO2 emissions, and greenhouse gasses increase. These increases negatively impact the environment and human health.

Another disadvantage of a linear economy in the food industry is the overexploitation of workers. Through mass production and consumption, the linear economy is solely focused on the end products themselves. In order to meet the ever-increasing needs of production, workers are overexploited and their needs are neglected. However, hope is not lost.

As previously mentioned, sustainability is often viewed as a broad term, encompassing various specific elements. Alongside circularity and environmental protection, sustainability is also composed of social and economic aspects. From an economic standpoint, circularity has many benefits. In order to guarantee the success of a product, such as food in a circular economy, people are required to develop unique plans and aid in production and maintenance. This opens an opportunity for a new line of jobs in the market. As a result, there would be further economic growth. Globally, it is estimated that the economy would benefit from more effective circular resource use by $2 trillion a year by 2050 (UNEP, 2017).

Outside of the increase in job opportunities for maintenance and recycling, there will also be a push for further innovation and new businesses will sprout. Fortunately, the linear line of thinking is becoming a thing of the past. Today, there is a highly economical demand for effective resource use. This means that the most successful businesses will jump on board with circularity and thrive on delivering food products and services with a lessened use of raw materials.

In a circular framework, all materials and nutrients are reused in a constant cycle which means that no raw materials are needed to be further extracted for use. This is substantially more environmentally friendly than the methods of a linear economy. As mentioned previously, a simple way of viewing the circular economy is to reduce, reuse, and recycle food and other products. This sustainable cycle uses fewer resources, which decreases CO2 emissions. A circular economy also eliminates waste altogether. This means that food waste and other resources are no longer being stored in landfills where they emit greenhouse gasses. The zero-waste aspect is possible in the food industry when each part of the food supply is used to its full potential after consumption. Composting food waste provides more nutrients for new plant growth which leads to an ever-flowing closed-loop system.

Why should people in the food industry be more active in this model of thinking?

Individuals and businesses should be more active in the circular model for economic and environmental benefits. A local circular model can be created through the teamwork between compost farms, community gardens, and restaurants.

When pertaining to food waste, Hillside Solutions has an on-site compost farm that takes food waste and turns it into nutrient-rich soil. The soil is then donated back to local community gardens to grow even more food. Hillside Solutions also reaches out to educate the public on the benefits of composting.

The community gardens help grow food to feed the neighborhood, provide fresh foods to local restaurants, and give further food waste back to composting farms to be turned into soil. Additionally, community gardens give food to hungry populations by donating produce to food rescue centers.

Local restaurants that are given food from community gardens in turn give unused food to food pantries or rescue centers. Any food waste from the restaurants can also be sent to compost farms to be turned into nutrient-dense soil.

How to sign up for commercial composting:

If more food waste centers, community gardens, and restaurants could close the loop, it would have many economic and environmental benefits.

Ultimately, becoming an active member of the composting community and circular economy is easy. If your company or organization wants to reduce the impact of climate change, promote local sustainability practices, feed the hungry, and “close the loop” then you should schedule a meeting with a sustainability consultant today. Hillside Solutions is eager to work alongside passionate, driven, and devoted members of the local community who wish to change the world one compost at a time.