Circular Economy of Food

Gina Asoudegan
Vice President
Mission and Innovation

Emma Chow
Project Manager
Cities and Circular Economy for Food Initiative
Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Merijn Dols
Sr. Director of Open Innovation and Circular Economy for Food at Danone

Ethan Soloviev
Chief Innovation Officer

Wesley Wilson
Head of Agriculture, Food and Beverage
World Economic Forum

Designing Waste out of our Food System

Circular Activator Team

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY HAS DEVELOPED a remarkable capacity to produce vast quantities of new consumer goods based on a model of extracting natural resources, creating and marketing new products to be used briefly, disposing of these products, and subsequently responding to ongoing demand by creating new products. This “take-make-waste” cycle is also known as the linear economy. The circular Economy of food is a food system that has a positive social and ecological impact, by design.

The circular economy is a framework developed in response to a linear model that uses comprehensive systems analysis to inform thoughtful design that eliminates waste and pollution, maximizes the value of natural resources, and regenerates natural systems. The circular economy of food applies these principles to food systems.

While the industrialization of agriculture has enabled us to produce more food at lower prices than ever before, the system is based on an extractive model that depletes natural resources, pollutes the environment, and generates an unprecedented volume of waste. The mounting pressures created by resource scarcity, population growth, and environmental volatility related to climate change has led food businesses, policymakers, academics, and NGOs to become increasingly interested in transitioning toward a more circular food system.

Merijn Dols
Sr. Director of Open Innovation and
Circular Economy for Food at Danone

Food is lagging when it comes to the adoption of the Circular Economy. There’s a lack of awareness. We all just assume that since food is safe for consumption, it’s okay for the planet. But that's not really the case. There are no examples of truly circular products in food. What we see as so called circular is the redirection of waste streams and side streams into new products, reducing the harm. Though this is desperately needed as we need to reduce the harm, it doesn’t address the underlying systemic flaws, it doesn’t do any good, by design.

If you really want to become circular in food, you need to have circular food by design, which means that the food should be produced and designed in such a way that has a positive social and ecological impact and it can cycle as a part of the biological nutrient cycle. To be circular is to aim for eco-effectiveness, not eco efficiency, just like any complex adaptive system, including nature."

FOOD PRODUCTION Everything involved in producing the raw food materials – whether farming, fishing, gathering, or extractive processes. (Example: Raising a cow on pasture and by feeding grain in a barn. Or planting and tending blueberry bushes, then harvesting the blueberries.) SUPPLY CHAIN Occurs throughout the process, often between each phase. Includes the processes and impacts of transportation and storage between locations of physical production and transformation. (Example: Shipping the cow to a slaughterhouse. Or packaging and shipping the fresh blueberries to a processing plant.) PROCESSING Initial transformation of raw food materials for further use in products. (Example: Butchering an animal. Or freeze-drying blueberries.) CONVERSION & MANUFACTURING Secondary transformation of processed food materials into final products. (Example: Slicing, spicing, and drying butchered meat to make jerky. Or mixing & roasting dried blueberries with dried wheat, oats, and honey to make muesli.) PACKAGING Packaging the finished product for sale. Includes effects of packaging materials and methods utilized. (Example: Packing the finished jerky in an air-tight plastic bag with oxygen-absorbing packet. Or filling a wax-coated paper bag with the muesli.) RETAILING The processes and energy used to warehouse, shelve, and in some way deliver to a customer the packaged product. Could include refrigeration. Note that Supply Chain impacts often come into play significantly here, as they do between each of the phases.(Example: The jerky and muesli sit on a shelf in a grocery store, which uses energy to light, clean, and HVAC the building. Or the jerky and muesli sit in a warehouse, are purchased through e-retail, and then shipped by parcel carrier (or drone;) to a consumer. PREPARING & EATING The processes and energy used to prepare and eat the food product at a consumer’s home or other place where they eat. (Example: Consumer stores jerky in a refrigerator (though they don’t need to), then opens the package and eats the contents. Or consumer boils water to make a porridge out of the muesli.) POST-USE What happens to the food product after it is consumed – is it put in the trash? Composted in the backyard? Sent to a municipal biodigestion facility?

In agriculture, circular economy of food proponents emphasize the importance of shifting toward a regenerative agricultural model that minimizes or eliminates the need for toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. It also prioritizes soil health and nutrient cycling, recapturing the nutrients currently lost through food waste, livestock manure, and even human waste. In some ways, transitioning toward regenerative agriculture will involve returning to traditional farming techniques such as composting and pasture-based livestock production. It may also involve new technologies and techniques like precision irrigation.

Off the farm, much of the circular economy of food discourse focuses on food waste. Globally, roughly a third of all food ends up being wasted, which squanders all the resources used for its production and distribution. In countries like the U.S., the vast majority of this food waste is disposed of in landfills, exacerbating climate change by generating significant quantities of methane, and causing the nutrients within this food to be lost rather than cycled back into agricultural production. Rising awareness of the issue has prompted stakeholders across the food system to recognize the financial, environmental, and societal opportunities afforded by food waste reduction. This, in turn, is inspiring the implementation of solutions ranging from improved inventory management to standardized date labeling, and from donation matching software to municipal composting operations.

However, to move beyond reducing loss and harm and towards a regenerative food system—a circular economy of food—we have to ensure that our food and the nutrients imbedded within can cycle as a part of the nutrient cycle. We have to design for circularity from the very inception of a product, and rethink the system using zero based design. To unlock this we will need to align on language and provide design principles and metrics for all those designing our food, including restaurants, large CPGs and emerging entrepreneurs.

Another primary area of focus for circular economy of food advocates is packaging. While food packaging has helped facilitate transport, extend shelf-life, and offer convenience to consumers and food businesses, its production often generates pollution and requires unsustainable resource extraction. Furthermore, most packaging has become single-use, and is ultimately sent to landfills, or disposed of in the natural environment. Today, circular economy of food leaders are rethinking packaging, eliminating harmful materials by design, incorporating renewable materials and reusable designs—or finding ways to eliminate the need for packaging in the first place.

Peter Hopkinson

Exeter Centre for Circularity
University of Exeter

You need partners across the entire food system. You need collaboration with farmers; collaboration with traders and companies aggregating commodities of agricultural materials in collaboration with other suppliers like packaging suppliers; you need collaboration with governments because you need the right policies in place; you need collaboration with NGOs and universities; everybody has to act together.

In a traditional food growing system, it begins with farmers—you’re not going to get a regenerative system without them—then governments and regulatory bodies, in terms of subsidies, taxation, incentives, disincentives, regulatory barriers. And what’s the role of the consumer in all this? We’ve spent half a century educating the end consumer in a specific way. Are we now looking to re-educate or educate them in a different way? Technologists might not be regarded as relevant to food, but there’s AI, the Internet of things, packaging and packaging technologies, and systems integrators working on logistics and supply chains. It’s a multiplicity of stakeholders: farmers, technologists, government supply chain integrators, food manufacturers, and food retailers. Then in the urban context, you’ve got a whole other set of people, the waste recovery reprocessing groups. Each context will be slightly different, and the value chain reconfiguration will vary from product category to product category, and sector by sector, country by country, each with their own history and legacy systems."

The Difference Between Sustainability and Circularity

Among the challenges in shifting towards a circular food system is that there exists no universally accepted definition of the circular economy of food, and differing opinions about how the concept relates to longer-established paradigms like sustainability. While most stakeholders agree that designing out waste, soil restoration, and nutrient cycling are critical elements of the circular economy of food, some experts contend that the concept also encompasses social justice and other human values; that circularity can be thought of as a model to ultimately empower all people to realize their full potential.

Food System Pressures

Food production has always been impacted by unpredictable external factors. Weather events like droughts, floods, early freezes, hail, and heavy rain; pests and blights; shifts in demand due to population changes and economic volatility have had often devastating effects on food systems. Technology has significantly reduced uncertainty; we have weather forecasting, techniques to boost crop resilience, and tools to accurately predict supply and demand. The system has become more interwoven and therefore the impact of external pressures, like droughts, have been amplified. As a result, the continued rise in commodity volatility pressures on the food system in recent decades remain, and in some ways have become more challenging.

Among the greatest pressure is resource scarcity; water, nutrients, soil, and farmland are all required by our agricultural system, but are in many cases becoming increasingly degraded or limited. Intensification and specialization have made our food systems and farms more efficient but less resilient, and more prone to shock. Hence, the impact of external factors is amplified. Torrential downpours that lead to nutrient run off on degraded soil are an example. The food system is also strained by climate change, which is shifting weather patterns, increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, and in many cases exacerbating resource scarcity. Meanwhile, global population growth will require our food system to feed more people than ever before.

These challenging conditions illustrate the value in thoughtfully designing effective, regenerative systems that eliminate the concept of waste and are resilient to external shocks. Because ultimately, the question isn’t whether these pressures will persist—it’s how effectively our systems can respond through resilient design.

Consumer Behavior

Like any other complex entity developed by humans, our food system is influenced by our values. In the U.S. and many other wealthy nations, a key driver is the pervasive culture of consumption and the expectation of plenty. The trend is mirrored in other consumer sectors: automobiles, clothing, electronics, etc. Consumers expect perpetual availability of a diversity of products at continually lower prices, and think very little about the impacts of their production—or disposal.

At the supermarket, we’re accustomed to displays overflowing with aesthetically perfect produce; we expect to find dozens of varieties of every product and hot buffets stocked full until store closing. Though most of us inherently recognize the value of food, we allow vast quantities to go to waste across the supply chain from farm to store to restaurant to our own refrigerators.

While increased public interest in the food system is shifting consumer demands and expectations, deep seated cultural values are slow to change. The cultural expectation of abundance informed the establishment of our existing food system and continues to influence its evolution

Agricultural Systems

How do we want to feed people? What kinds of food should we produce, and which factors should we consider when deciding how to go about doing so? Agricultural systems are complex entities involving techniques and processes and inputs and outputs, but they’re also a reflection of preferences and values.

The predominant industrial agricultural system has evolved to produce a remarkable volume of food at historically low prices—but it often does so while depleting scarce natural resources, generating hazardous pollutants, threatening human health, and compromising animal welfare, among other environmental and social costs.

Food systems experts now advocate a shift toward regenerative agriculture, prioritizing biodiversity, soil restoration, nutrient cycling, the protection and preservation of scarce natural resources, and concerns for social welfare.


When contemplating the food system, people tend to focus on the farms where food is produced, the stores where food is sold, and the restaurants and home kitchens where ingredients are transformed into meals to be served and consumed. What’s often overlooked is the complex system that enables food to move from farm to processor to purveyor to eater and beyond. But these processes—and the infra- structure required to facilitate them—are critical components of the modern food system.

While food supply chains were once short and simple (e.g., the farmer’s family consuming what was produced, or selling some portion directly to consumers at local markets), they’ve become much more complicated. Sophisticated infrastructure is now used to harvest, process, package, transport, track, and monitor food from farm to fork to landfill, recycling facility, or back to the farm.

Circular economy of food leaders are reassessing these systems, processes, and physical capital. How can they be re-envisioned? How can effectiveness be increased, the concept of waste be designed out, and resilience be improved while maintaining food safety, affordability, and availability?


Produced in myriad sizes from paper, plastic, metal, glass, and an emerging variety of compostable materials, packaging has become a ubiquitous component of the modern food experience. It allows food to be seamlessly moved from farm to fork, protects food during transport, extends shelf life, and re-purposes products into convenient “single use” serving sizes.

The trouble with packaging is that it’s so easy to overlook its harmful impacts. Until recently, food packaging was decidedly linear: its production involved extraction of natural resources followed by energy-intensive and often polluting manufacturing processes, it was put to brief use, and then disposed of in landfills or oceans. Driven by recognition of increasing resource scarcity, decreasing landfill space, and rising pollution, municipal recycling programs have been rolled out to transform many types of food packaging back into usable materials. But is this enough?

Today, systems thinkers are applying a circular approach to packaging, performing lifecycle assessments to select the right packaging for the right application, and weighing the benefits of extended shelf life and consequent food waste reduction against the potential impacts of additional packaging. Others are striving to move away from plastics, pursuing plant-based alternatives to facilitate composting. Another emerging trend is a shift back to reusable packaging once common in the beverage sector.
Tamar Makov
Center for Industrial Ecology
Yale University

The number one challenge facing the circular economy of food is that we can’t even define it; we don’t know what it is, and the definition will be different for almost everybody.

The big advantage of the circular economy is that it encourages people who haven’t been thinking about these things to get started. It’s catchy, but we don’t necessarily need a circular economy; fundamentally what we need is a sustainable food system. If we can achieve a sustainable food system with low waste at every point in the chain and producing the most nutritious foods with the lowest environmental impact, the system doesn’t actually need to be circular."

A circular economy is about closing material and energy loops. It’s the idea that we can reuse things, from the whole product to component materi- als by basically breaking apart the nonlinear system of consumption and production. We can extract raw materials through processing, manufacturing, distribution, and the use phase—where consumers have a product service in hand and use it. Then we have the end of life, which could be disposal or reuse, maybe recycling."

You can also think about a circular economy on a more macro level. When you talk about the entire supply chain, you close the loop. For example, the byproduct of a manufacturing process can become the input for a different manufacturing process. For example, you can use food waste as the input to generate electricity, or to produce compost or to make clothing fibers. Here, the food waste becomes the input to a new process. You’re basically closing loops at a smaller scale. You can do it on the macro scale or you can do it on the micro scale; both would apply."