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Circular food supply chains – are they possible?

Tuesday, November 30, 2021 - 15:20

There is no doubt that society needs to become more sustainable, and that many different pieces are needed to complete the jigsaw puzzle that makes up the global sustainability goals. Our food consumption and the logistics associated with this represent an important piece of this puzzle. During Transporteffektivitetsdagen (which translates as "Transport Efficiency Day", or TREFF for short) the audience gained insights into how circular food supply chains can work – and how they can attract new partnerships, flows and dialogue.

Vegetables in crate

The term "circular economy" is growing in popularity, but what it contains and how it can be applied within different sectors is not entirely clear. According to Arni Halldorsson, Professor in Supply Chain Management at Chalmers University of Technology, circularity can be a way of analysing what sustainability is. In the context of food, for example, it is no longer just about how logistics should become sustainable, but about how the food and the packaging can become more sustainable.

In regard to the sustainability of different products, the length of a product’s lifespan is often key: how long can they sit before they have to be scrapped or turned into something else, like biogas? Arni Halldorsson explains:

"The waste hierarchy shows that we need to use the products we have for as long as possible. The problem with food is that it quickly drops down the hierarchy, because it goes bad. Applying more circularity to food means, among other things, trying to slow down this descent."

Specifically, this may be a matter of adapting the amount of products available in-store to the lifespan of the products so that products that only last for a short time spend less time on the shelves, or of redistributing food that hasn't been eaten, thus increasing access to the food we have rather than allowing food waste to proliferate. We will return to this later on.

Kristina Liljestrand at Gordon Delivery broadens this view and highlights the difference between sustainable and circular logistics, an important aspect of food and food waste:

"One very simple difference is the emphasis: sustainable logistics aim to make transport as efficient as possible while minimising the environmental impact, but do not focus on the products that are transported. On the other hand, that is an important aspect of circular logistics." She also mentions the difference between efficient packaging and packaging that can be re-used multiple times.

"The most important thing is that we need to find new solutions for things like food at risk of being thrown away. One potential improvement is for actors within logistics to start working more with small-scale local producers. Another is to look at how we can take care of, and transport, waste flows from production and processing."

Shops and food waste

Charlotta Szczepanowski works as head of sustainability for Coop Sweden and they have gathered important data to understand what is required in order to reduce food waste. She points out that 75 per cent of the 97 kilograms of food that is thrownaway for each person per year is thrown away at home. Coop's goal is to reduce in-store waste to less than one per cent of turnover in 2025, while also helping customers to reduce their own food waste. Among other things, they are working on systems that automatically suggest orders to the stores, based on forecasts and reports from the stores, in order to put the right amount of food on the shelves. In Stockholm, they also donate incorrectly ordered food and food that is about to be re-delivered to the social enterprise Matmissionen

In addition to these and other centralised initiatives, individual stores can also adjust orders and introduce initiatives to improve sustainability. One store that has made real progress on this is  Stora Coop Visby. Some of the changes they have made include selling fruit and vegetables that are bad at a discount to students, introducing a system that keeps an eye on when delicatessen food is nearing expiration and selling it at a similarly discounted rate, only buying locally produced meat and vegetables, and getting help to inspire customers to economize with their food and learn to use leftovers and food that is about to expire. Anything that eventually goes bad in-store is turned into compost. 

Many of these initiatives are highly appreciated by both producers and customers. As a result of his perseverance in this area, store manager Markus Wahlgren has discussed some of the store's choices with critical customers, most of whom start to appreciate the changes quite fast. Markus feels that stores must dare to take a stand when it comes to sustainability-related choices in order to help both the climate and customers move forward.

"You have to dare to stand out and do what feels right," says Markus Wahlgren, who used the White Guide Green as a handbook in their pursuit of becoming more sustainable and emphasises how customers and their contacts have gradually become more enthusiastic, suggesting their own sustainable solutions.

New logistics chains

Several actors have already started some good initiatives to find new logistics chains in order to  handle products that normally would have been turned into biogas, animal feed or simply thrown out.

One excellent example is the Vinnova-financed RESVINN project, which is developing redistribution systems for surplus food in Sweden – from stores and wholesalers to restaurants and schools. This project looks at the climate impact of different means of transport, the negative environmental impact of food waste, and the positive difference made by salvaging waste. The environmental gains are clear and those involved have discovered how to create entirely new value chains.

One company actively working to salvage food that is at risk of never reaching restaurants or consumers is Nordish Market, a digital restaurant that delivers food by bicycle and electric vehicles. Their co-founder, Philip Axelsson, is certain of that it is not just producers and logistics companies that can make the food industry more sustainable.

"We need to get consumers to understand what sustainable food is. It may mean buying food that was grown locally, not being able to buy everything all the time and reducing waste. And in our part of the chain, the expiration dates for potential food waste are very short – the food needs to be used and processed as quickly as possible."

For Nordish Market, their circular thinking has meant working closely with farmers, wholesalers and food stores. Before they start their rounds of food deliveries to customers, they check with their contacts what  has  become surplus, been damaged or what is about to go bad in stores and at wholesalers. During their rounds, they then "harvest" food that is at risk of being thrown away. And via local farmers, they can access batches that are about to be turned into animal feed or biogas. In both cases, they get a better purchasing price, while the other party is paid more than they would have been in the other scenarios.

In this way they have created new delivery chains and increased circularity.

Another example is the way organisations such as GLC have created a similar solution via ReSvinn to enable leftover food to reach restaurants and schools, as GLC's Luigi Johannesson outlined during TREFF. Initiatives such as these create new and different delivery chains.

Local, personal and digital

Many components need to be developed in order to get the circular food chains rolling. Digital solutions are required in order to keep an eye on food flows and new value chains need to be identified and built. Technical development will get us a good part of the way, but one thing that several of  the panellists returned to during TREFF was personal conversations:

"An important step is to understand the importance of human interactions – with a farmer, a representative at a food store or a wholesaler," says Philip Axelsson. "This allows us to create trust, which  enables a quick cooperation. We need to rely on one another. And in the future, as we scale this up, we need to work on technical solutions but also remember the importance of human connections."

The logistics sector is becoming increasingly sustainable, and with circular flows on the rise, the climate impact of the food sector can be reduced even faster. There are big changes on the way.

"We grew up in a system in which we loved stability and things flowed in one direction," says Arni Halldorsson in conclusion. "We are starting to break with this logic."


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