Circular economy and food waste strategies

Waste not, want not – how to fill gaps in global resources

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Circular economy and food waste strategies
Weighing up the value of used packaging at a Unilever Foundation waste bank in Indonesia

What a circular economy looks like, how it relates to local revolving of resources and what that means in terms of the international flow of resources, was discussed in January at a high-level Westminster London forum between industry, national and regional agencies for waste management and service suppliers. Debate over how ambitions for zero waste fit into the picture, and a rallying call to find ways to get more value from products and materials in circulation, was all the more timely in light of the newly arrived European Commission Circular Economy package and the COP 21 Paris Climate Conference just ended. Packaging South Asia’s European correspondent Joanne Hunter reports.

Unilever’s global packaging sustainability director Louis Lindenberg has made circular economy approaches intrinsic to his waste strategy, to speed the giant corporation’s progress towards goals drawn up in 2010. He took the opportunity to briefly talk about industry’s position on the Indian Government’s proposed ban on all multi-layer flexible packaging materials, which could result in the potential for unintended undesirable consequences. It would take “far more resources to produce different packaging which can provide the same protection for the products contained within and take them through the value chain without having any quality issues,” he said

A drive forward to zero waste started off with post-industrial waste, and Lindenberg said, “As of the end of last year, none of our 240 factories around the world produce any waste that goes to landfill; everything is reprocessed in some way.” He looks after everything associated with post-consumer waste, important to tackle for three reasons – people, planet and policy making.

“Firstly, a growing population; more disposable income, that means a lot more consumption, you’re going to be needing materials coming from somewhere; there’s going to be a cost and there’s going to be competition for those materials.

“The second one is around the whole environmental aspect of pollution. We are seeing now with ocean plastics the latest prediction last year is if it goes at the rate that it’s going at this point in time, by 2025, ten years from now, we’re going to be looking at one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish, which is crazy. So a lot needs to be done in that area.

“Third is legislation – there’s positive enabling legislation, and there’s restrictive legislation. In India,  a draft of new plastic waste management rules was circulated last year for public comments. The draft rules provide for stopping the use of multi-layer packaging materials within three years. Some might say that’s really positive, because there’s nowhere for those materials to go and they are ending up in the streets, on open land and in rivers. While the industry supports the government’s objective of improving the waste management system, and are working closely with them to find solutions which give thrust to plastic waste minimization, it ought to be mentioned that the unintended consequences are that substitutes will then require far more resources to provide the same protection for the products contained within; and to take them through the value chain without having any quality issues.
“In 2010 we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, with its ambition to decouple our growth from our environmental footprint, while increasing our positive social impact. Part of that is the goal to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products as we grow our business.” A review of Lindenberg’s waste strategy in 2013 concluded that reducing the amount of resources it utilizes, and increasing recycling and recovery rates, were insufficient to achieve its goals. “We added ‘re-think’ to our strategy, which introduced the concept of circular economy thinking. We joined up with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as the first fast moving consumer goods company to be a global partner with them, and we started working through the principles of circular design. We have started to explore the notion of moving from product design, (product and pack), to systemic design where we think about the whole value chain; where our materials are coming from; how they’re getting put together; what’s added into them, and then where they go to afterwards, and how they could be reused.

“The big problem that we found is that there’s no fast moving consumable goods dummies guide for a circular economy. So we’ve now started to explore various new ways of thinking about design, and are developing design principles, that work with packaging which goes through homes at a rapid rate. We’ve started by developing some pilot projects, a few have already kicked off, and these are effectively to start testing our principles and to start thinking about how we can really design completely differently to enable our materials to go through systems more effectively.

“We’re not always going to have very simple, single-layer types of materials which are easy to recycle, and therefore we are also thinking about technology development to enable complex materials to be reprocessed. We are working with value chain suppliers, with universities, with small startups, and we’ve been investigating a lot of different technologies to help process those materials. We are therefore looking at design from both angles, to enable circular models to evolve.”

Four thrusts, as he calls them, are driving the programme forward. “The first one is around designing for a circular economy. We have developed internal design for recyclability guidelines, and have started training up our 700-odd engineers around the world. We’ve also developed design tools where we can compare our current pack on the marketplace with new proposals.

“The second is around game changing technology. We have a team of people that work on new material technologies outside of the traditional project timelines. We have this in place as we recognize that when you really want to make a radical change, you have to have a team that works on a 5, 7, 10-year programme; works with universities and with scientists and innovators developing technologies that help us to reduce.”

Unilever developed, for example, aero-technology with Alpla & MuCell, which puts bubbles into plastic blown bottles to reduce the amount of material required, another example is the compressed aerosol technology which resulted in a large reduction of materials, storage and distribution. “There are more of these kinds of technologies coming to market, which deliver the same functionality for the consumer, but require less materials,” he said. Thirdly, in developing and emerging countries Unilever is lobbying with governments for progressive change while working on infrastructure development, collection schemes and sorting, and also new technologies to enable progressive change in waste management. At the same time, work is going on globally in recycling and recovery supported by environmental companies and through cooperatives set up for the purpose, for example in Brazil. He cited the Unilever Foundation waste bank scheme in Indonesia as a specific example.

Lindenberg contends that Unilever’s marketing strength and ability to speak to consumers is helping to stream waste material into the proper channels and in effect feeding local circular economies and addressing the waste issue.

Infinity Foods has switched to a SuperEco oxy-degradable laminate film by National Flexible for packaging natural products

Push and pull forces for change
WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) is a publicly funded UK agency and nationally leading the campaign to reduce waste in packaging and other consumables. Chief executive officer Liz Goodwin stressed the need to make the business case for change and for effective voluntary industry approaches, with legislation ‘to sweep up the laggards.’

For circular economies to become the norm, she said, “We need to reinvent how we design products and sell products and use products, we need to rethink how we consume them and redefine what’s possible through reuse and through recycling, and the European Commission’s Circular Economy Package should certainly play an important part in helping to do this.” The climate change talks in Paris in January focussed on the COP21 Agreement and its impact on limiting the rise in global temperature, and the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, to which WRAP contributed, has highlighted that cutting food waste and adopting healthy sustainable diets will play their part, she said.

“Global food waste accounts for 8% of global emissions. Reducing the huge amount of food that we throw away and improving how we treat food waste and agricultural residues could have a significant impact on tackling climate change. What we eat could have a big impact too. Rebalancing our diets, eating more pulses and micro proteins, could reduce pressure on land and aquatic environments, to help to feed a growing population and lower emissions.” Further, she commended the Commission’s action to put resource efficiency – reparability, durability and recyclability – into the Eco-Design Directive which is already applied to packaging products.
Benefits of a circular economy can provide businesses with “viable routes to secure a prosperous future,” she said. WRAP estimates 40,000 jobs could be created for Londoners from a circular economy by 2030, rising nationwide to 200,000 jobs and up to 3 million jobs across Europe.

Goodwin warned against procrastination. “Globally we still waste a third of all food, so we can’t afford to lose ground in the fight to reduce food waste. In the absence of legislation I would urge the Commission to look more closely at voluntary agreements as a means of reducing food waste, because just as voluntary agreements such as the Courtauld Commitment have played a role in helping to reduce food waste in the UK, so I believe they can do in the EU.”

Industry action on waste
Beyond the scope of that Westminster forum is the UK’s growing litter problem, arguably added to by an escalating use of non-recyclable flexible packaging. In the absence of a blanket ban like the one proposed in India – what can be done?

A film engineered to just disappear has come along as a potential fix for these two environmental headaches. Hailed a ‘first’ for the industry, UK company National Flexible has used proprietary SuperEco technology to develop an oxy-degradable laminate film which after disposal breaks down into water, carbon dioxide (CO2) and organic biomass. The idea of contributing to a healthier planet gave the natural foods company Infinity Foods good cause to switch to the film in a special blend that gives packs a sturdy sealing layer to support nuts, beans, lentils, dried fruit and rice. Packaging converting can continue as normal because SuperEco products behave like standard film on the machine says National Flexible.

For one European producer of convenience salads supplying well-known retailers, waste avoidance begins at the start of the pipeline. Swiss-based Eisberg Group is employing quality management and meticulous monitoring to ensure products are as fresh as possible when they reach consumers. The German CSB web-based system is used to check the quality and quantity of what’s growing in the fields, assess raw materials on their arrival at the factory and help determine any changes en route from the field, caused by transport conditions for example. For products approved for further processing it creates a pallet label with relevant details and assigns a lot number. Salads then are cut, inspected for contaminant objects, washed, dried and packed in seamlessly traceable batches.

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