The term ‘circular economy’ is mentioned quite often but it’s not always clear what it means. In this blog post we’ll try and make some clarity, looking at some basic circular economy practices that hospitality businesses can apply, and also at a few advanced ones.
Circular economy is a series of principles and practices that aim to solve the most pressing environmental issues of our time by changing the way we make and use products.
For the most part, our production system is linear: we extract resources from the planet, we use them to make the products we need, we use those products until they stop working or until they don’t have enough value, and finally we throw them away. The problem with this approach is that it takes away many more resources than it gives back. That in turn is causing biodiversity loss, increasing waste and pollution, and accelerating climate change. Although recycling has become a common practice, it is now clear that it won’t be able to single-handedly reverse this trend.
The idea of circular economy is to replace that straight line with a loop, with products designed to be used for longer, and then recirculated and repurposed. This framework is based on three principles:
- Eliminate waste and pollution
- Regenerate nature
- Circulate products and materials
Let’s look at how each one can be applied in a commercial kitchen.
Eliminate waste and pollution
Rather than recycling waste or finding ways to dispose of it safely, the main goal of circular economy is to eliminate it in the first place. For a foodservice business, that means first of all to minimise food waste with a few simple but effective practices.
Reduce overproduction. Quite often, commercial kitchens – such as hotels and contract caterers – are not really aware of how much food they’re wasting due to overproduction, because they don’t have an effective way to measure it. One option is to measure waste manually, but it can be challenging to do it consistently and make sense of data. A better solution is to use a food waste management system like Winnow to automate most of the process and get the insights you need to make adjustments.
Find alternatives to the trash bin. If you get to the end of the day with surplus food that you won’t be able to sell tomorrow, there are two valid alternatives to throwing it away. One is to sell it at a discounted price through an app like Too Good To Go. If your local regulations allow it, another valid option is to donate it to a food bank near you.
Don’t throw away food scraps. Discarding parts of fruits and vegetables during the mise en place is considered physiological in most commercial kitchens. But that’s food too and should not be wasted. A skilled and creative chef will know how to include leaves, stems, rinds, and peels into the menu and salvage them from the bin.
Minimising food waste will also help eliminate pollution. However, commercial kitchens can reduce their footprint even more by working as much as possible with local suppliers.
The second principle of circular economy makes explicit reference to the use of regenerative practices in agriculture, which aim to improve soil health and reduce the use of synthetic fertilisers.
Although the main actors in this case are farmers, foodservice businesses can still contribute. Two zero-waste restaurants, Nolla in Helsinki and Silo in London, are excellent examples of how this can be done. Both only work with seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers who use regenerative practices. Their in-house composter transforms all excess food into fertilizer which is given to suppliers to close the loop. Silo goes even further by producing as much food as possible in-house. For example, they mill their own flour to make bread and churn their own butter.
Circulate products and materials
Foodservice businesses don’t just use food, though. They also need plates, textiles, food containers, pieces of furniture and equipment. Any commercial kitchen that wants to become zero-waste will have to try and close the loop with those materials too.
The theory of circular economy Identifies two different routes for the circulation of products and materials: one for the biodegradable and one for the non-biodegradable ones. In both cases, the main goal is to design them so that they can be used multiple times, choosing upcycling before recycling whenever possible. (Food is a notable exception in the biodegradable category, in that it’s the only material that is single-use by nature.)
For example, Nolla’s tablecloths and towels were sourced from hotels and hospitals. Silo’s plates were obtained from plastic bags, tables from reconstituted food packaging, lightshades from mycelium, and crockery from crushed wine bottles.
Managing kitchen equipment correctly is also quite important. Once a piece of equipment is no longer needed or it’s broken, sending it to a landfill should never be the first option. You can either sell it to a company specialised in refurbishment or ask the manufacturer if they will take it back for spare parts.
Circular economy is more than a series of well-meaning sustainable practices. Rather, it's a new way of designing products and materials with the goal of eliminating waste and regenerating nature.
Food is a quite peculiar product. While it’s resource-intensive and biodegradable, it cannot be reused like a cotton rag. Transforming food leftovers into compost is the best way to deal with food waste, but having no leftovers in the first place is even better.
Commercial kitchens have an important role to play in the circular economy by reducing food waste as much as possible. In this blog post we outlined three lines of attack:
- Make the most of ingredients by using parts of fruits and vegetables that normally get discarded.
- Use technology to keep track of what food is wasted and why.
- When food surplus happens, find alternative ways to distribute it. The compost bin should always be the last resort.