The circular economy, combined with responsible food

Posted on 23 May 2018.

How can the circular economy promote more sustainable food. The 2C conference organized by the Veolia Foundation on May 15th reported on this leading priority at global level.

"80% of the content of our bins is recyclable"

The second Circular conference in 2017 was organized by the Veolia Foundation and took place on Tuesday May 15th at La REcyclerie. These conferences are mainly intended for students, and share the main priorities of the circular economy, with better resource management, with the former. These conferences are led by the CliMates network of young people and involve different contributors depending on the conference topic. Responsible food was the key topic of the day on this occasion.

"We are consuming more resources than the planet can provide", reiterated Amélie Rouvin, who is in charge of the Circular Economy commitment for Veolia, to introduce the event. Since the 1970s, we have been consuming more natural resources than the planet can regenerate in one year. At this rate, we could find ourselves needing the equivalent of 2.5 planets per year by 2050…

How did we reach this stage? The main reason relates to population growth. 7 billion human beings currently live on planet Earth, and we are expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. This population comes with proportional water, food and energy requirements.

In this context, our current linear economy system – extract resources, produce, consume, throw away – is not sustainable. We throw away over 4 billion items of waste each year, and only one quarter of this volume is recycled. We need to change approach and switch to a circular system, where one person's waste becomes another person's resources. The good news? "80% of the content of our bins is recyclable" according to Amélie Rouvin.

We often tend to associate waste re-use with recycling. In fact, the circular economy has seven cornerstones: recycling, re-use, repair, product-service systems, ecodesign and industrial and territorial ecologies.

Negative external factors

In terms of food – the focal point of this conference –, the priority is to guarantee access to food for the entire world population, while protecting and regenerating ecosystems (biodiversity, soil, water, air). Today's consumers have higher requirements: they require quality food, at an affordable price, and are increasingly concerned by animal welfare.

The current production system comes with extremely negative external factors. 30% of greenhouse gas emissions produced worldwide are indeed due to food. This figure is generally due to food waste: approximately 1/3 of world production is thrown away every year.

This waste is produced at all stages of the value chain: from agricultural production, to the transformation into a finished product, and from traders to consumers. In France alone, we throw away 8 million tons of food each year, i.e. 150 kg per inhabitant.

The circular economy can indeed help to design effective treatment and recovery systems to transform organic waste into resources. Either by redirecting flows which can still be used, or by transforming waste into energy (anaerobic digestion) or into compost.

A priority for public policies

In France, responsible food is a key priority, and at the heart of public policies. In 2015, the law on the energy transition laid down the initial milestones for the fight against food waste. In 2016, the Garot law led to progress by prohibiting food distributors from considering unsold items, which can still be consumed, as unsuitable for consumption. The law also requires large supermarkets to conclude a convention with associations to donate their unsold items.

The Circular Economy roadmap, published by the government on April 23rd, 2018, intensified the battle yet again, particularly by setting the target of totally eliminating all biowaste from bins by 2025. In fact, biowaste represents 22 million tons in resources to be re-used.

Finally, after the large-scale meetings on food organized between July and December 2017, a draft law is currently being drafted. The extension of the Garot law to the entire collective catering segment, both private and public, is particularly under consideration. This means that hospitals and collective catering sites – to mention just a couple – could soon be prohibited from scrapping products which could still be consumed.


Saving the planet with what we eat

According to Jean-Luc Fessard, a journalist specialized in the environment and founder of the Bon pour le Climat association, the best means of reducing the environmental impact of food starts with what we eat.. The average meal in France leads to 2.5 kg of CO2 emissions (ADEME figures). If the meal is beef based, emissions climb rapidly to 5 kg of CO2, while a plant-based meal will lead to less than 500 g of emissions.

In his book, Ça chauffe dans nos assiettes, which won the 2017 Book award from the Veolia Foundation, Jean-Luc Fessard includes details of the three key criteria for an ecological meal: seasonal products, produced locally, with plenty of fruit and vegetables wherever possible. "The problem is not that we eat too much protein, but rather that we don't eat enough fruit and vegetables. We need to re-establish a balance between the two." On this basis, a few weeks ago, when the French media announced that burgers had dethroned the traditional ham and butter sandwich, Jean-Luc Fessard published an article to remind readers that this event was mainly bad news for the planet. Keep this point in mind: go for ham and butter, not a burger!


Fighting food waste is matter of culture and education

Eqoshère was created in 2012. This digital platform connects various public and private contributors and associations to re-use food waste. "Our algorithms can be used to precisely qualify sources of unused products at all stages and redirect these products to treatment sites where they will become a resource", explained Xavier Corval, founder of the start-up. However, as Xavier Corval specifies: reducing food waste goes beyond downstream aspects – i.e. the waste; upstream factors must also be considered. Eqosphère teams therefore take action on the premises of customers to audit waste flows and reduce factors throughout the value chain. After this audit, they propose launching new processes (in terms of management, purchasing, sorting, etc.) and training staff to adopt a real anti-waste culture. And the results are there. For example, consider Leader Price, where Eqosphère's action led to the recycling of 500 tons of food produce in 2017. This saved 200,000 m3 of water: used to water the plants and create the finished product, as well as destroy the waste. 400 members of personnel also received training in how to reduce waste. According Xavier Corval, "the educational aspect is a priority in the fight against waste, and must also start young, at school".