Closing the Loop: The Circular Economy

Our complex global food system is tightly interwoven beyond what we see on our plate. Land usage, public health, water waste and even social class are all affected by the food that is grown and how it travels. What happens after consumption has also borne scrutiny over the past few years, with the hidden waste of landfill ‘dug up’ for public attention. Horrifyingly, if our food waste were a country  it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world.

The Circular Economy is a global movement across all industries to waste less and create products that revive the system rather than simply drop resources out of it. In short, the Circular Economy means designing out waste from your supply chain and processes. Savvy customers are increasingly calling on the products they buy and suppliers that transport them to evidence that they are actively changing their behaviour.

This trend shows the ability for newcomers to capture and re-purpose a waste product and transform trash into a thriving organisation, whilst simultaneously helping the planet. Two sectors inventively engaging in circular principles to transform our food system are dairy and bakery, with existing organisations building them into the manufacturing of their products and new businesses that are dedicated principally to these processes springing up.

The World Economic Forum  have taken a woeful view of current circumstances, disparaging a broken system with the statement: “There are no healthy choices in an unhealthy food system. While we are increasingly encouraged to eat more responsibly, we have to acknowledge that the negative health impacts of current food production are mostly unavoidable. Whether you choose an apparently healthy salad or a burger, you are still consuming food that undermines your health and wellbeing.” Nutritional value cannot be the only way that a food’s health is measured; how it is produced, packaged, transported and sold are intrinsically linked the health of a product.

“Firms that align their business models to the transition to a net zero world will be rewarded handsomely. Those that fail to adapt will cease to exist.”

Mark Carney, COP25 

Milk can be used as a classic example of diverting waste and feeding value back into production – and there’s one side of supply in particular that’s making a comeback. “Dairy farming has traditionally featured circular practices for thousands of years. In circular dairy, farmers have two natural assets, the cow and the land. The farming system should be modelled with the focus on using these assets for their natural strength,” says Carel De Vries,  dairy expert and former agro-engineer and dairy farmer. Many of the farmers and dairy supply partners that we work with also adopt these regenerative practices,  convinced that amongst other outcomes, they make for a more delicious product. As we prepare in this article to leave the farm, we move on to examine what happens from dairy to doorstop, when milk adopts a circular outlook.

Glass bottle milk is once again capturing the UK’s imagination, with morning deliveries from an electric vehicle (chosen less for their eco-credentials and more for their ability to glide unnoticed through residential streets at dawn) on the rise. The nostalgia-evoking doorstop bottles can be sanitised and reused around 25 times before being recycled. Younger generations – that is, those age 40 and below  – are driving this trend and our current state of lockdown may see more households adopt the practice.

The past couple of months alone have seen a rise in popularity of dairy deliveries, as people request more goods direct to their home. Our own supply partners can confirm this trend, with Dan Reid, our resident dairy expert relaying conversations with them: “I was speaking to Pensworth  at the beginning of April and they were approached for 500 new doorstep calls on one day and 600 the day before. Cotteswold were offered 780.”

Veterans of glass bottle delivery, Cotteswold have retained this method since their inception in 1938. Chairman of Cotteswold, Roger Wellman explains how they innovated upon a classic: “Years and years ago when organic milk was at the forefront, and everybody wanted organic, you could only get organic milk in a plastic poly-bottle. I thought it was contradictory, as organic milk needed to be in a glass reusable, returnable bottle, because it’s all the same green thinking. We were the first dairy in the country to put organic milk and sell it through a glass bottle for the benefit of us and also the benefit of the customer.”

“The circular economy presents a promising pathway to meet the dairy sector’s growth and sustainability challenges, yet achieving a truly circular dairy sector that is regenerative for the environment and the economy is no easy task.”

Circle Economy for the World Dairy Summit 

Our attention should now turn to what a circular approach would involve for a waste product, rather than waste packaging – and there is a lot that can be reclaimed. An astonishing 30%  of all food grown doesn’t even make it to the table; 500 million people could be sustained by food that is thrown away. Bakery and bread waste is phenomenal. In fact, it’s estimated in the UK that we throw away 24 million slices  a day – and that’s just from homes. We can all relate to how those enthusiastic cheese toasties from the start of the week quickly turn into three stale slices at the bottom of the bread bin by Friday. But all is not lost! There are people diverting the slices that don’t quite make it to our homes into other forms of bread, beers and even bioplastics.

Toast Ale  are a London based brewery, whose brewing process replaces virgin barley with waste bread. They actively specify in their impact report that they have embraced the Circular Economy, adhering to a ‘3P’ (People, Planet and Profit) business model. Café chain Gail’s Bakery repurposes the bread of yesterday to make other forms of bread for the following day. Branded ‘Waste Bread’, leftover loaves are blended into a fine breadcrumb mixture that can then be baked in a sourdough loaf. The company state that they are driven to become a zero-waste organisation, with other examples including day-old croissants – now a touch disappointing when served with a coffee – being filled with indulgent cheese and bechamel to make Croque Monsieur.

There are a variety of options across different scale businesses to close-the-loop; from small to large, there is value to be extracted from thinking more responsibly. One project thinking big about bread reimagines a transformation beyond baked goods. European project BREAD4PLA  are demonstrating the ability for bread waste to be transformed into biodegradable plastic material, polylactic acid (PLA). Suitable for large-scale production, PLA can then be used as the packaging for the fresh bread going to market; a truly circular bread economy.  While many bio-degradable products are made from new resources and require land and energy-heavy processes, being able to create the product from what would otherwise be wasted can revolutionise the food and manufacturing system.

The wheels are firmly set in motion to transform existing models. When asked by fooddrinkeurope,  81% of organisations across all sectors stated that they are trying to identify harmful practices and install new ones to eliminate waste. Making a small difference can be the step to a bigger change and doesn’t have be too daunting. According to AHDB,  in 2018 classic glass bottle milk delivery had around 3% of the sector, but with anecdotal stories rolling in of a spike in requests for dairy deliveries it seems that change is a-coming. So too when it comes to bread. Even the biggest of brands are getting on board, with high street giant Marks & Spencer  slicing and baking their leftover baguettes to make crunchy crostini. We’ll soon see if these changes are here to stay, but with a stark business case for embracing the circular economy, we’d bet they are.