Opportunities within “circularity” in the food and beverage sector have been analyzed by considering the entire circular economy loop, from the field to the table: each stage, starting from the agricultural models, through the productive process of food industry, the packaging of products until the consumers behavior at home could give a positive contribution to a circular model. These contributions could have a positive impact for example in waste prevention, resource efficiency (water and energy included) or extension of life-cycle products, as shown in the image below. Some factors such as partnerships, applied research or innovation could act as key-factors at any step of the cycle.
First stage: Agriculture
Nowadays, more and more companies from the agricultural sector (including the smallest ones) are trying to enhance the potential of their waste with the aim of getting both economic and environmental benefits: in fact, the recovery of waste could represent a supplementary income for farmers and a way to diversify the production. Depending on the type of waste, farmers can recover material or energy - or both.
Biogas plants represent the “win-win” solution to integrate the management of waste with the production of digestate and biogas, both economically profitable (see the Italian best practice Agribioenergia).
Statistics (from European Biogas Association) show a growing trend of the number of biogas plants all around Europe, therefore showing the promising potential of this technology:
The evolution of the number of biomethane plants in Europe shows an even more increasing trend (source: EBA)
Type of waste
With regard to biogas plants, different types of waste could represent an incoming resource: for instance, animal manure and slurries, crop residues, organic waste from dairy production, food industries and agroindustries, wastewater sludge and organic fraction of municipal solid waste.
There is another relevant waste stream towards the agricultural sector: all organic waste (also from separated collection) that are treated and composted will be used for improving the quality of the agricultural soil.
Second stage: Agro-food industry
The food industry and the agro-industry are sectors where the industrial symbiosis and circular economy can express their full potential thanks to the great amount of organic residues generated throughout the productive process. Finding an alternative way to waste disposal means reducing both environmental impact and costs related to the treatment; but it also means saving resources, as they can be replaced by recovered materials.
The whey (by-product that is produced in large amounts within the dairy industry) is the most popular example of a recovered by-product, given the huge amount produced and its nutritional composition. Whey is used for the production of feed (in particular for the nutrition of pigs and beefs), but also for the production of several derived substances (such as lactose and proteins). Whey is also used for human food (i.e. milk powder for baby food) and for other food industry processes (chocolate, ice-cream, confectionery product, etc.).
Nowadays, researchers are more and more focused on how to produce high value products from bio-based residues, with a growing interest from the pharmaceutics and cosmetics sectors. These sectors are in fact looking for natural ingredients that are suitable for replacing synthetic substances. As a matter of fact, food by-products are still very rich of active substances (sugar, minerals, organic acids, dietary fibers and bioactive compounds, as polyphenols and carotenoids, analogously to their edible counterparts) and they are produced in large amounts as shown in the following table (Barbulova et al., 2015):
Another forefront kind of recovery of agricultural by-products or waste is the production of bio-polymers: those bio-chemicals derived from biomass can partially replace chemicals from fossil raw materials, traditionally used in petrochemical industry, thus providing economic and environmental benefits. Lastly, as previously described, agricultural waste can be valorized though the production of bioenergy.
All the above mentioned enhancements of agricultural biomass have not the same added value, as shown in the biomass pyramid below that suggests the preferred uses of biomass (European Union, 2013):
Besides waste recovery, the food and beverage industry can give a relevant contribution to a circular model in terms of water efficiency. Sustainability in the use of water can be represented both by:
In both cases, the contribution of technology and innovation is crucial. Reusing water, even if properly treated, is very complicated in the food and beverage industry due to very strict legislative requirements for products intended for human consumption. So, the reuse of water is mostly dedicated to parts of the production plant such as power systems or cooling systems (see the Italian best practice Granarolo).
Type of waste
Basically every kind of activities in the agro-industry sector provide a large set of waste and byproduct that belong to the family of biomass.
Third stage: Distribution
A circular approach at the distribution stage may include: sustainable transport and sustainable packaging. About transport, sustainability refers mainly to low emission vehicles but circularity needs a wider perspective in order to be carried out: for instance, there are some promising experiences in the “sharing” approach, which is one of the business activities of the RESOLVE model, created by Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation (). Business can overcome the idea of ownership and benefit from goods and services, thanks to the sharing approach with other business and the rental service. This option leads to cost savings and environmental benefits.
An interesting opportunity is the sharing among different logistic service companies: thanks to an IT platform, the logistic needs of different companies can be matched and compared, thus finding the best travel option for moving pallets more efficiently (NolPal example: minimizing the trips of empty pallets). With regards to packaging, the challenge is finding a balance between food storage (to keep safety and nutritional proprieties of the product) and the environmental impact of the packaging waste.
Packaging can be reduced both in weight and volume in order to reduce the final waste but also to make the transport of products efficient. Packaging can be produced by using recovered and recycled materials, with a particular attention to food contact. In addition to that, the more forefront and performing packaging can contribute to extend the shelf-life of food products: they are the so-called “ActivePackaging”, which release substances that enhance the performance of the packaging itself. This system helps to reduce food losses (see the Italian best pracice AMP recycling).
Type of waste
All separated fractions of waste (in particular plastic, but also aluminum, glass and paper) can contribute to generate secondary raw materials for the packaging industry, thus allowing to save finite resources.
Fourth stage: consumption
At the consumption level, the most important activity from a circular point of view is the reduction of food waste, which represents a big ethical, economic and environmental issue (FUSIONS EU project, 2016). Retailers can give their contribution by donating surplus stock of products that cannot be sold anymore but are still edible (damaged packaging, proximity of expiration date, etc.). The same strategy can be followed by school canteens and hospital kitchens in relation to cooked yet uneaten meals. In both cases, retailers and caterings, the food is donated to charity organizations that distribute it among the people most in need, thus achieving both a social and an environmental aim (see the Italian best practice Last Minute Market).
On the consumption level, the demand for ecological/green/organic products from the consumers must be considered. The awareness towards the environmental aspects related to the food consumption is growing in the society, making people more conscious and demanding for “healthy food”. This demand is satisfied for example by the environmental certifications and labeling, which certify the green profile of the product and/or of the process while making the consumer aware of the origin of the product and its circularity. The EPD (environmental product declaration) is a verified and registered document that informs transparent and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of the products. It is used a lot also for food products, in which a very good example from Italy is the Barilla group, which has 61 food products certified, covering the 69% of its whole production.
Another solution for reducing food waste is the collection and composting of organic waste from households. This second activity is a recovery action, while the above mentioned action (retailers and caterings) can be labelled as a prevention. The compost produced then comes back to the first stage of the circular economy loop of the food and beverage sector: agriculture.
Type of waste
At this stage, waste is basically food waste: as already explained, organic waste, if correctly collected and properly treated can be transformed into compost, useful for agriculture activities.