8 minutes

Our linear development model requires more resources than the earth can provide. The Earth Overshoot Day, the day on which the world’s population exhausts its ecological budget, is anticipated every year (WWF, 2016).

The limits of linear consumption

In order to satisfy the needs and lifestyles of the world’s population, we are placing too much pressure on the natural ecosystems, they don’t have time to regenerate the resources we need. This model of uncontrolled exploitation of resources has not only eroded the natural stocks of raw materials, but is also irreversibly changing the natural equilibria.

The most striking example is right in front of us – the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, methane gas), which have been stored underground for millions of years, has altered the global carbon cycle, increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with catastrophic consequences which are called “Climate crisis”.

The graph extracted from the Circular Gap Report  (Circle Economy, 2018), does not leave room for any interpretations: in the last century we have tripled the consumption of resources, and this trend is continuously increasing, with a forecast of 170-184 Gigatonnes of extracted resources by 2050.

Raw material extraction from 1900 to 2015 and forecasts trend until 2050 (Circle Economy, 2018).

What should we do to reverse this trend?

We must aim for a circular model to create a regenerative system in which the goods we produce remain in the economic cycle for as long as possible without losing their value. The circular economy aims to eliminate the concept of waste – products are designed for a cycle of deconstruction and disassembly at the end of life. In this perspective, even the concept of recycling becomes obsolete and it should only be adopted when materials definitively lose their functionalities.
Applying these principles in the real value chains allows to minimise material, energy and labour inputs, reducing the dependence of our economy on raw materials and non-renewable sources.

How does it work the circular economy?  

Two definitions are essential to describe the Circular Economy framework:

  • Biological material cycle: represented in green cycles on the left side of the diagram – are those materials that can safely re-enter into natural world, once they have passed through one or more use cycles, where they will biodegrade over time, returning the embedded nutrients to the environment.
  • Technical material cycle: represented in blue on the right hand side – cannot re-enter into natural world. These materials, such as metals, plastics, and synthetic chemicals, must continuously cycle through the system so that their value can be captured and recaptured. These two cycles must never overlap. In order to avoid contamination and pollution it is necessary that technical materials do not enter into biosphere and to ensure the renewability of biological nutrients we must be able to separate them from the technical materials and return them to the biological cycle. The butterfly diagram proposed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, attempts to describe these concepts proposing how an ideal circular economic system should work.

The opportunity for the agri-food sector

The agri-food sector more than any other shows the impacts and contradictions of the linear model, with tremendous pressure on the mechanisms that regulate the health of natural and social systems.
Food production, from agriculture to industry, is responsible for crossing four of the nine planetary boundaries – climate change, biodiversity loss, land use change and alteration of the nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient cycle – thresholds beyond which global balances are irreversibly compromised (Gerten, 2020).

Is it possible to transform the system and produce enough food for everyone without destroyin g the natural capital?

It is essential to rethink the entire production system, from the farming to the processing industry, from the way we everyday shop to our diet. We have a powerful and efficient ally to develop a Circular agri-food system – all we need is to analyze and try to emulate the nature. Indeed, in the natural systems, waste always becomes a source of energy and matter for another organism (Pauli, 2020). As a matter of fact “biomimicry” can help us to transform the problem of agri-food residues into an opportunity to develop new sources of bio-materials with many and different applications, originated by efficient and sustainable processes.

Moreover, we need new approaches – interconnected supply chains and industrial symbiosis are able to extract the maximum value from resources at every stage of the supply chain. The by-products and waste from one industrial process become raw materials for another, avoiding the extraction of raw materials and all the embedded impacts. The residual organic matter must be transformed into soil conditioner and organic fertiliser in order to nourish the soil, closing the loop and keeping natural ecosystems healthy.

Extraction of biomaterials from agri-waste and potential applications. Source: https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/26/2/515

Systemic thinking is also crucial, we need to look at the supply chain as a set of relationships, interactions and interdependencies to redesign material and resource flows in order to eliminate those “system errors” we call waste, a concept that does not exist in nature.

We identify some key points that must be taken into account to develop new Circular Economy strategies in the agri-food sector, considering the whole supply chain:

Regenerative agriculture techniques work with nature, as opposed to intensive agriculture which seeks to dominate it, through the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and heavy soil handling. In order to achieve high yields in the short term, an intensive agriculture can contribute to deplete the soil by reducing its fertility in the long term. On the other hand, regenerative agriculture, through different techniques (agro-forestry, cover crops, permaculture, biodynamics) is able of  nourishing the organic and microbiological part of the soil, ensuring over time a soil rich in humus, fundamental for the growth of healthy and resistant plants.

Consumers’ choices to source fruit and vegetables from local producers, where available, will be crucial. But the biggest challenge is played out in cities: urban farming systems such as vertical farming and hydroponics, or new farming activities in peri-urban spaces can reconnect food production with cities, shortening supply chains and drastically reducing the environmental impacts associated with them.

There are many initiatives and innovations that can reduce waste along the supply chain; innovative solutions that increase the food products shelf life, smart industrial processes, optimisation of distribution systems, mobile apps for unsold food recovery, restaurants that offer zero-waste menus using all parts of the food and, finally, a change in consumers’ mentality.

New technologies and the integration of existing solutions can provide enormous opportunities to improve the strategies for the valorisation of agri-food waste. For example, the extraction of bio-polymers that can replace synthetic materials can contribute to make our economy independent of fossil sources. These bio-molecules, extracted from food waste, do not compete with food security because there is no need to allocate land for their cultivation as is the case with bio-fuels.

Some examples – the extraction of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants, from olive oil waste for the pharmaceutical industry; the use of mushrooms to produce bio-plastics from leftover starch in restaurants; bio-fabrics created from orange pulp; natural dyes from tomato skins; high quality cellulose from wheat bran and lentil waste are just a few examples of the enormous potential of these technologies. A specific article on waste valorisation techniques will be published to provide a state-of-the-art of these new technologies.

The bio-materials, due to their organic origin, can return to the soil by using micro-organisms, such as bacteria and micro-algae. Controlling microbiological process, we are able to break these molecules down and convert them into simpler organic substances that can become available again for plant absorption.

By combining our experience in the responsible management of agro-forestry supply chains and the enhancement of the ecosystem services offered by natural areas, we want to contribute to triggering these new circular processes.

Through our innovative approach, which has always been our hallmark, we are focusing on the technological transfer of innovative solutions for the agri-waste exploitation, connecting the research with the agro-industrial actors willing to take part in the circular revolution.