How circular design can help end food waste


Food waste

On Food Waste Action Week, Sarah Benton, Senior Writer at The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explores the Big Food Redesign Challenge and explains how circular design can transform the battle against food waste.

Count to 10. In that time, 10 truckloads of food have been wasted globally. And that dirty, smelly procession of trucks continues every second of every day.

The costs to nature and society are huge. This wasteful global food system of ours is the biggest driver of biodiversity loss and is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions. We also waste almost one-third of the food we produce, while 10% of the planet’s population goes hungry.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The food industry can use circular design to create products that help nature thrive and address the interconnected challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution and waste.

The food industry can use circular design to create products that help nature thrive, Benton writes.

Circular design for food revolves around regenerative production and three key ingredient sourcing strategies – lower impact, diverse and upcycled – as well as a circular approach to packaging. In essence, it’s about moving from viewing ingredients and their impacts in isolation to understanding and considering the wider ecosystems they belong to.

Collaboration between farmers, buyers, brands and retailers will be key to unlocking the full potential of circular design and realising a circular economy for food.

This is why, together with the Sustainable Food Trust, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has launched its Big Food Redesign Challenge to bring a circular economy to the food industry. It aims to inspire the food industry to design products that regenerate nature.

Now, out of more than 400 applications from all over the world – from start-ups to household names – over 160 food and drink products have been granted access to the production phase of the Challenge. These products range from cookies made from cacti to crisps made from rejected, wonky potatoes.

Looking at waste specifically, London-based nibs etc. is branching out from its by-product-based granola and has entered multiple products into the Challenge. Through developing a network of suppliers and collaborators, nibs etc is turning one person’s waste into another’s raw ingredients.

A case in point is its Upcycled Fava Hull Tortilla Crackers. They will be made from upcycled fava bean hulls and regeneratively-grown root vegetable offcuts, both sourced from British suppliers.

Collaboration between farmers, buyers, brands and retailers will be key to unlocking the full potential of circular design.

Another of its great examples is Upcycled 1-for-1 Gluten Free All Purpose Flour. It will be made from upcycled ingredients from regeneratively grown sources including oat pulp, okara and brewer’s spent grains – once again sourced from British suppliers.

Both of these products can reduce costs to nature and the businesses involved, while also putting lost nutrients back into our food supply chains and diets.

Silo is a “restaurant without a bin”. Based in Hackney, East London, it’s the world’s first zero-waste restaurant and its approved entry is Spent Grain Miso. Making things from scratch and using up otherwise wasted elements of fruit, vegetables and animals is nothing new for Silo.

It has its own flour mill; it churns its own butter; rolls its own oats and respectfully “maximises the entire potential of animals and vegetables”.

To produce its Spent Grain Miso Silo will work with a variety of breweries in the local area to put their spent grains to good use and it will source regeneratively-grown organic soybeans from France – shipped by sail cargo. Its broader aim is to demonstrate that there is a consumer-ready market for this kind of approach.

Food waste
The food industry must move from being part of the problem, Benton believes.

Big-brand names are also expressing their commitment to circular design. Multinational brewing company Heineken’s entry will be – unsurprisingly – beer. It builds on Heineken’s strategic investment in Toast Brewing, which focuses on research and development as part of Heineken’s net zero strategy and its ambition to maximise circularity for all products.

The entry will combine Toast’s model of using surplus bakery bread and Heineken’s projects on low-carbon and regeneratively sourced barley to create a beer brewed with circularity in mind. As Heineken is such a well-known brand, this product could help expand the idea of a circular economy to a broader audience.

The next step will see successful teams pitch their products to leading retailers, such as Waitrose, to bring their products to market. We hope that by the end of this year, we will have uncovered successful pathways for businesses to embrace and scale circular food design. 

The food industry must move from being part of the problem – by contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss – to being part of the solution by actively regenerating nature. To that end, for us, as shoppers and consumers, there must be no “bad” choices. We want to access food products that we know have been designed to help nature thrive.

If you work in or with the food industry and are excited to sow these seeds of change, please get in touch at We’re particularly interested in hearing from retailers keen to stock the successful products, joining us in creating a food system that works for, rather than against, nature. 

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