Turns out creating circular food systems is not as easy as pie

What exactly does "circular food" mean? My brain immediately conjures up a donut, although pie also qualifies.

To Merijn Dols, circular food means eliminating waste from the systems that feed us. Not just finding a use for the obscene amounts of food that lands in the trash — roughly 150,000 tons each day in U.S. households alone — but designing systems where waste doesn’t happen.

If you find it difficult to wrap your head around how, exactly, that would work, don’t feel bad. As a circular food scholar and senior director of research and development at Danone North America, Dols is as expert as they come on the subject, and even he struggles.

"I feel inadequate," he said, during last week’s GreenBiz webcast looking at the state of the circular economy. "I’m unable to simply and clearly explain to our teams, the roughly 3,000 product developers that come to work every day to create the food of the future, how to make it circular."

Circularity is complex, but understanding the concept and putting it into practice is easier in some industries than others. Anyone who’s ever traded in a car can comprehend the basic idea, even if they weren’t thinking about environmental impact at the time. Circularity eliminates waste by enabling consumers — both individuals and businesses — to use products longer, return or replace products, or even share a product with other consumers.

I can envision a circular economy for automobiles, electronics, appliances, industrial machinery; it all makes sense, even if the details around goals and roadmaps and metrics get complicated. But food? This one’s more challenging, which is probably why the food industry lags its counterparts in developing circular systems.

If Dols and his colleagues have anything to do with it, the industry won’t lag for long. Danone is working with other food and beverage companies on a four-point plan to jumpstart a "revolution in food," which Dols laid out during the webcast.

  1. Develop a common language;
  2. Create a design guide, a simple set of principles to guide designers as they experiment with solutions;
  3. Determine an easily accessible set of metrics to measure the social and ecological impact of food products;
  4. Provide iconic examples that make circularity in food tangible and real.

In the next six months, Danone and its partners will announce initiatives on each of these points, in an effort to lay out a clear roadmap for circular food, Dols said.

This sort of step-by-step process could be helpful in other industries as well. A 2018 survey by financial services firm ING found that 62 percent of American companies plan to move toward circularity, and 16 percent already use circular economy principles. Still, most companies are in the early stages of understanding what the circular economy means, and how they can work within it. ING surveyed 300 executives in the automotive, consumer electronics/telecoms, food/agriculture and healthcare industries.

The reality is that the nitty-gritty details such as language and metrics create a challenge for everyone. 

"We’ve struggled with the metrics piece as well," Alexis Ludwig-Vogen, who heads up environmental sustainability and compliance at retailer Best Buy, said during the GreenBiz webcast. "We’re so used to measuring carbon emissions, which has a protocol. With circularity, there’s nothing."

Still, companies such as Best Buy are ahead of the game. Manufacturers and retailers of consumer electronics began repairing and refurbishing products, and recycling materials long before talk of a circular economy became commonplace. Best Buy’s Geek Squad repair service dates back to 2002. Today it’s made up of 20,000 agents who repair 5 million products a year. The company’s recycling program, one of the largest retail programs in the country, launched in 2009, with a 2020 goal to recycle 2 billion pounds of electronics and appliances, regardless of where they were purchased. Today, the company is close to meeting that goal, Ludwig-Vogen said.

More recently, Best Buy entered into a partnership with HP Inc. to design the first closed-loop printer, made of reprocessed plastic from old printers brought in for recycling. The new closed-loop HP printers are for sale at Best Buy.

The food industry is also making headway on plastic packaging. Danone is one of dozens of big brands partnering with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on its New Plastics Economy initiative. Creating circular systems for what comes inside the packaging will take more time. 

"If we look at the examples that are typically quoted when we talk about circularity and food, they’re mostly focused on converting waste streams into new products," Dols said. "These are great steps, desperately needed, but are they truly circular? Do they get to the underlying issue? Or are we simply optimizing within the current system and reducing the harm? I believe we have to go back to the drawing board and create a food system that actually does good rather than just reducing the harm, a regenerative food system by design."

I think I may need some coffee with that donut.