Technical Article

How to close the loop on food waste ? Insights into a successful transition towards circular economy

July 22, 2019 by Expert Dr. Bénédicte Deryckere

While half of the world still suffers from hunger and our natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, a shocking 1.3 billion tons of the food produced gets lost or wasted every year; corresponding to 1/3 of the total food production (FAO, 2011).  

The agri-food industry is responsible for almost 25% of greenhouse gas emissions globally (Smith et al., 2014), and along with the severe impact on the Environment, it has also a negative impact on society and human health. Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975 and in 2016, 340 million children and adolescent aged 5-19 were overweight or obese.

“We already grow enough food for 10 billion people”
from the Journal of sustainable agriculture (Holt-Giménez et al., 2012)

The Experts of the Solar Impulse Foundation, in occasion of the 4th Expert Challenge in Munich held in June 2019, discussed how food waste prevention should be a key priority in building a circular economy and a sustainable society.

Among the key aspects to consider for a realistic implementation of circular economy of food, the Experts highlighted the need to interrelate the different stakeholders such as businesses, governments, and cities to work together to put the food system on a more regenerative path.

In particular consumers and food-players should play an active role and interact with producers, for instance rewarding them for adopting beneficial approaches such as organic fertilisers, using crop rotation, and promoting biodiversity. Lastly, ensuring food-local-sourcing could also help in diversifying food supply, thus reducing packaging needs and shorten the supply chain’s impact.

As the Experts highlighted during the roundtable discussion, correctly managing and preventing food waste is of uttermost importance. A need for a better storage and management of food distribution has the potential of significantly reduce food spoilage and re-allocate or sell (discount) soon-to-expire products. Thus, food waste valorisation should focus on using at the highest value the food by-products or surplus food. For instance, inedible by-products can be transformed into a broad array of valuable products - organic fertilisers, biomaterials, medicines, or bioenergy.

While the Experts believed that a shift toward a circular economy is possible, they took a critical stance, and discussed how a simplistic and non-holistic approach to its principles can worsen rather than improve environmental problems in absolute terms. They debated on the importance of avoiding a rebound effect, whereby without displacement of the primary production, recycling help grow the economy instead of reducing environmental impacts.

Experts acknowledged that it will require a more comprehensive transformation of political, economic, and social systems. There will need to be an unprecedented collaboration between all the stakeholders involved (e.g., producers, retailers, waste managers, and consumers) as well as a focus on integrating the changes into deeper and wider strategies (cities and governments) in order to ensure a true economic system change is achieved. 

Thus, the circular economy cannot live up to its promise without a paradigm shift embedded in a vision and narrative of qualitative growth.

A future economic system has to find demonstration projects to the problem of quantitative growth and wasteful consumerism. Solutions in these domains have already been selected to be part of the Solar Impulse Foundation 1000 Solution portfolio, now flagship demonstration projects in cities and around the world will have to be connected, implemented, and scaled up tackle the global food system’s challenges.

The following authors (Advisory Experts at Solar Impulse Foundation) contributed to this article : 

  • Julia Oppermann -  Partner , CC Digital at Roland Berger.
  • Ophelie Gourdou - Senior Consultant in Sustainable packaging, Cairn Consulting.
  • Bituen Hidalgo- Consultant, Hidalgo Consultancy.
  • Sabrina Cipullo - Expert assessment coordinator at Solar Impulse Foundation.


  • Smith, P., et al., Climate change 2014: mitigation of climate change. Contribution of Working Group III to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (2014)
  • Holt-Giménez E, Shattuck A, Altieri M, Herren H, & Gliessman S. (2012). We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People … and Still Can't End Hunger. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture – 36, 595-598.
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