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The Circular Economy Takes on Food Waste: Examples of how companies are tackling food waste

The human desire for more, richer and bigger is what has led to the creation of so much we see around us, the good and even the not so good. It is only befitting that this desire now leads us to find solutions for some of the ‘not so good,’ in that sense, innovation is the only possible response to the sustainability crisis that engulfs us. This time, the challenge also has a built-in rule, to do more with less and in the least harmful ways, which is the basic premise of circularity in systems.

There isn’t perhaps a more pronounced expression of the more, richer and bigger aspects of our wants than in food. We are producing more, and consequently polluting, eating and wasting more, agriculture along with cattle farming is the biggest contributor to greenhouse emission. We are also consuming ‘richer’ food in the form of more animal protein and fats and despite it, our appetite, still unsatiated, continues to grow bigger! By 2050, we will need 69% more calories than we did in 2006 to feed a population of 9.8 billion people [1]. While eating more nutritious food is desirable, the wastefulness in the process is entirely unnecessary and hence must be designed out using the core principles of the circular economy - maximising value of each resource and supporting regenerative processes.

By 2050, we will need 69% more calories than we did in 2006 to feed a population of 9.8 billion people. At the same time we lose USD 750 billion in food waste every year

While sustainable practices such as veganism and plant-based foods consumption are also on the rise [2], we still lose USD 750 billion in food waste every year. It is good to eat plant-based largely because the resources that go into producing a calorie of animal food is much greater. However, the utilisation of each bit of what is grown, no matter how much or how little resource it took to grow, is still relevant. In the absence of such an attempt, eating more plant-based alone will only add another category to an already unsustainable industry and will contribute to linear consumption. Awake to the issue facing us, many organisations, including start-ups, are working to create systems for better consumption of food and to upcycle discarded food. Here is a look at some initiatives that are promoting circularity in the food system by addressing different aspects of maximising utilisation of food in every form and preventing wastage.

The Values Around Waste

Food wastage has a strong moral undercurrent, given that it represents the inequitable distribution of resources in its most glaring form, however, to not waste is not charity but an economic responsibility and should be treated as such. India loses about INR 92,000 crore each year to food wastage, therefore, there is a tremendous commercial value to preventing such waste. Most of our waste occurs in the supply and distribution stages, which is attributed mostly to the lack of proper storage infrastructure. While there are multiple estimates available, it is clear that only about 4%-7% of produce in India goes through cold storages. This makes the sale and consumption window rather short.

There are two stages to this, the first is extending the shelf life of fresh produce through cold storage and the next, ensuring that produce that has reached store shelves is consumed in full. I will not be addressing the former as it is critical, hard infrastructure that public institutions are better suited to provide. However, there is significant scope for creative problem solving by entrepreneurs in the latter part, as is evidenced by multiple start-ups working in the field.

A case study shows that about 7.5 tonnes of fresh fruits and vegetables are wasted from Safal stores, a popular chain in Delhi. This is an anecdotal example to hint at the extent of the problem. Needless to add, most of this food is consumable, why then is it thrown? Reasons that seems most probable is the lack of proper assessment of produce, dynamic pricing and inventory management and importantly, organised efforts at scale to ensure that at least the food is consumed rather than end up in bins. Assessment of produce to ensure that consumable food isn’t wasted can be complex. Our perception of what we can eat is coloured most strongly by appearance or by manufacturing details that often do not reveal much about the suitability for the consumption of products. However, customers are hardly willing to buy imperfect looking food or packaged goods that are nearing their expiry date, unless they find a bargain. This results in a lot more being thrown away than needs to be. To address this, AgShift has created a technology named Hydra that can assess the nutritional state of fresh produce, its accuracy, of course, can hardly be compared to manual checks. Broad-based adoption of such innovation can prevent a lot of food from being thrown away and in fact, can pave the way for dynamic pricing making them a lucrative option for buyers who may be able to consume or process the produce soon. In fact, in Azadpur Mandi, one of the largest wholesale fruits and vegetables markets, it is common to get a bargain on over-ripe, bruised products. However, such practices still need to become more mainstream and applicable to all kinds of transactions.

There is enough evidence to show that there are takers for such products, dynamic pricing through an AI-based solution called Wasteless has been effective in many countries in Europe and also in the US in ensuring the sale of packaged products that are approaching their expiry on store shelves. Wasteless analyses the state of the product and accordingly varies the price of the same. Such analyses, most importantly, inspire buyer confidence, allowing them to buy the food. This kind of arrangement ensures that everyone wins, buyers get a discount, businesses avoid losses and importantly we save perfectly consumable food. A solution that goes a step further is Too Good to Go, it is an online platform that connects consumers to discounted products that are reaching the end of shelf life from grocery stores as well as restaurants nearby. India already has a large app-based grocery and food market in major cities [3]. In fact, Zomato, one of India’s unicorn startups’ is also in the food delivery business, so if companies here decide to adapt existing platforms to include such discounted products they will already have a huge consumer base to tap into.

Further, given the stark inequality in nutrition, where 1 in nearly every 6th person is deprived of adequate food, we need to accept the possibility of utilising rather than throwing, even if there isn't an apparent monetary gain. Robinhood Army, an initiative that operates as a voluntary network in multiple cities in India and a few other countries, picks up cooked leftover food from restaurants and catering institutions and even grains, can perhaps be worthwhile models to be explored. A predictable, broad-based system that can allow for efficient collection and redistribution is key and besides, recognising that food is a tangible resource and preventing its waste, an economic activity. In this regard, an approach could be to allow companies to claim the cost of the food loss prevented and the logistical cost of the redistribution should be allowed to be claimed as a Corporate Social Responsibility spending.

While businesses in the food industry lose a lot of money due to waste, food is often looked at as a ‘raw material’ that has insignificant value in the absence of the processing. Further, any food waste prevention effort, be it in terms of changing production, inventory management or staff sensitisation is seen as an additional cost with no return. However, a study on the Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste at Restaurants found that in 114 restaurants across 12 countries, that after 3 years of the initial investment in the waste prevention efforts, businesses recouped USD 7 for every USD 1 spent. The report also found that the first step to saving food was measuring the loss, as of now Indian businesses, even companies with several franchised kitchens and production set-ups across the country don't invest in accurately quantifying food loss. In this regard, adopting simple and elegant tools such as Winnow will help restaurants. Winnow is a software linked to a weighing scale, every time while disposing of waste, one can pick the item being thrown away and based on the weight, Winnow calculates the amount lost. It is time that at least restaurant chains and franchises adopt such technology in India, paving the way for more local innovation and adoption of such systems as a norm.

Upcycle before Recycle

Food is perishable and in fact should remain so, if the price is introducing chemicals or layers of plastic packaging instead. Thankfully, combining traditional knowledge and modern processes, it is possible to create value out of food that would go to waste otherwise. Multiple concept restaurants like Duna’s Kitchen in San Fransico try to live this ethos by creating dishes out of produce that is rejected by other restaurants, like the edible stems of vegetables. Regrained, a start-up in the United States creates snacks and nutrition bars out of the discarded grain from brewing beer. The grain is upcycled through patented processes and the introduction of fortifying ingredients that raise the amount of protein in the flour to that of more expensive ingredients like almond flour. Similarly, Coffee Cherry Co creates coffee flour from the discarded parts of the berry that is left after coffee production. This powder is then used as a flour substitute in several nutrition bars and baked goods.

Creating value from such by-products can unlock value for farmers and many agricultural intermediaries, it creates a new source of income from the same crop. The stubble burning in Haryana and Punjab that creates the infamous winter smog in Northern India and prominently, Delhi, is but a result of the inability to utilise an agricultural by-product, paddy straw and stubble in this case. There is a growing body of research and evidence on the different ways in which it can be utilised, ranging from use as biofuel for electricity generation in suitable power plants to their use as the base for growing a variety of mushrooms. As a biofuel, paddy straw has nearly 99% efficiency and its heat calorific value is comparable to that of coal (coal ~ 4200 kcal/kg vs paddy straw ~ 3590 kcal/kg). In fact, the use of agricultural waste has already been successful in another Indian state, Karnataka where a 10 MW plant provides electricity to a village with locally sourced agro-waste 4]. Paddy straw can also be used to create more food, it is estimated that a kilogramme of it can support the growth of up to 600 grammes of the Volvariella Volvacea [5]. This kind of nutritious return on something considered useless can go a long way in promoting the much-needed farm income increase in India, while also saving valuable resources.

While on the face of it these solutions are cheap, good for the farm, the farmer and the environment - their adoption remains low. The key remains that there is a severe lack of access - be it to know-how or to capital at the most crucial level - the farmer. Borrowing from the findings of economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in Poor Economics, for an individual farmer to be able to make the most of an opportunity such as utilising farm waste, whatever minimal additional resources (even a USD 1-2) may be required comes in the form of cutting back on essentials. Even if the farmer does manage to save that meagre sum, the lack of precise know-how and awareness of the benefit of adopting a new strategy makes an accurate cost-benefit analysis impossible, deterring the adoption of new methods. Therefore, institutional support, be it through corporates or public organisations, is a must. During the green revolution in India, concerted policy efforts ensured that farmers adopted chemical inputs, high yield varieties etc, those efforts did ensure that in a decade we became self-sufficient. Now we are not only food-surplus but overly dependent on those very chemical inputs. Similar dedication to introducing circularity is a must to meet the needs of the current crisis, therefore, policies and public spending to mandate training and capital support to farmers for adoption of these practices are needed. Such a policy shift will also encourage more businesses to innovate and create valuable products and services that maximise the value of farm produce.

More with Less - What Circularity in Food can do for India?

These initiatives that do so much with food that was meant to be discarded, more than anything else, inspire immense hope. However, to see the impact that is not only desired but also needed consorted action is a must. Words like ‘investment’ and ‘value’ may not be efficiently reduced to a monetary sum in every instance at this time, however, for sustainable innovation to become a reality, businesses must get comfortable with the qualitative nature of certain outcomes and better still, start to ascribe a tangible value to them. The homeless beggar, when consistently supported by efforts like the Robin Hood army to meet their nutritional requirements, has the chance to achieve their full potential as an economic actor and can contribute in many ways. This is a rather positive and tangible outcome but hardly seen as such at the moment.

For greater adoption, policy changes must shape business practices too. Policy mandating accounting of food waste at every stage by corporations involved in the supply chain will perhaps be the first step in initiating a behavioural change. Additionally, incentivising food donation, dynamic pricing and upcycling through tax benefits to businesses as well as recognising these efforts as a part of corporate social responsibility, could be desirable initial steps.

About the Author

Adrija Das (LinkedIn) is a public policy enthusiast and an entrepreneur with an interest in sustainable consumption and production. She co-founded Sensefull India and is also a former LAMP fellow. She also leads the Circular Food vertical for the Circular Collective.




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