Waste not, want not: The case for a circular transformation of our food systems

10 August 2021

In 2015, United Nations (UN) member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. Six (6) years on, and it appears our challenges are mounting. Climate change, biodiversity collapse, and human health emergencies like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are all interconnected. Perversely, so too are food waste and the deepening global hunger crisis.

There is more than enough food to go around, yet according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), some 811 million people were undernourished in 2020 – over 100 million more than the year before. At the same time, a third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted.

The impacts of food waste are hard to swallow

Aside from being plain wasteful, throwing out food has a range of consequences for people, the planet, and the economy.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that food waste now accounts for as much as 10% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If food waste were a country, its carbon footprint would be the world’s third biggest after the US and China. That’s largely because much of this wasted food is sent to landfill, where it breaks down anaerobically and releases methane, a powerful GHG.

In Australia, food waste accounts for more than 5% of total emissions. According to the 2020 National Waste Report, nearly seven (7) of the 14.3 million tonnes of core organic waste[1] Australia generated in 2018-19 went down this path. As well as creating emissions, landfilling food and other organics takes up dwindling space that the waste management hierarchy instructs should be reserved for genuinely residual materials.

Food waste is not only taking up space in landfills and blowing out our carbon footprint – it’s burning holes in our wallets. Wasted food costs the Australian economy roughly $20 billion every year. A June 2021 study by Fight Food Waste CRC found that Australian households waste an average of $970 per person every year on food that is ultimately thrown out.

From an economic, environmental, sustainability, and ethical perspective, it makes zero sense. Why are we wasting so much food?

Food waste is a systemic issue

Food waste is undeniably a problem. However, just like climate change, inequality and other parallel challenges, food waste is a systemic issue. At the crux of it is the underlying global system of food production, management and consumption that permits – and sometimes even encourages – this waste. And if the impacts of food waste alone are big, then those caused by the food system that underpins it are staggering.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture and forestry activities are responsible for a quarter of human-caused GHG emissions. Deforestation for the establishment of monoculture crops and grazing livestock decimates vital carbon sinks, contributing to global warming. Meanwhile, 70% of water taken from nature goes into food production. At the same time, build up from artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and industrial agricultural processes over decades has stripped soils of nutrients and degraded land. As well as driving climate change, the food system – in its current design – is a major driver of ecological collapse and the unfolding biodiversity crisis.

Our linear food system is rotten. It’s time to throw that in the bin and embrace a new circular design with regenerative principles at the heart.

Re-thinking food ‘waste’

In its 2021 budget, the Australian government committed $67 million to Food Organics and Garden Organics (FOGO), including establishing a Healthy Soils Fund to divert 3.4 million tonnes of organics from landfill. This is a commendable step towards valorising food scraps and other organics. However, on its own it’s a band-aid – not a solution. To be truly transformative, FOGO and other composting schemes must be integrated within an overarching food system focused on designing out avoidable waste in the first place. 

The waste management hierarchy preferences waste avoidance above other pathways for material management and has been widely adopted across Australia’s states and territories, and overseas. However, its recommendations cannot be implemented holistically without a circular approach to food systems design.

As well as having a range of detrimental environmental and other impacts, the prevailing linear design of the food system may foster a throw-away mindset that has us fixated on the end-of-pipe destinations for waste. Changing this mindset is a prerequisite for transforming the system.

As individuals and a society, we must zoom out and look at the bigger picture – the food system – with a critical eye. As evidence and recognition of the damaging impacts of our linear throw-away systems builds, momentum is growing behind the movement for more regenerative design.

Spearheaded by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, big corporate voices around the world – including global asset manager BlackRock, Google, H&M Group and Unilever, to name a few – are joining the call to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. This growing chorus is pushing for a system “based on principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”

Governments and regions are moving too. As part of the European Green Deal, the European Commission launched its Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP) in 2020. The Plan recognises that transitioning Europe to a circular economy will reduce pressure on the environment, create sustainable growth and jobs, and work towards the European Union’s (EU) 2050 net zero target. Following on from the EU CEAP, Finland adopted its own Circular Economy Programme in March 2021. It aims to transition the Finnish economy to one based on circular principles by 2035, alongside its national net zero target.

‘Circular economy’ is also entering the vernacular of Australian governments. On the federal stage, Australia’s National Waste Policy claims to be grounded in circular economy principles. It recognises that the global circular economy shift is underway and mentions the need to transform our food and waste management systems accordingly. Among the states and territories, South Australia’s ambitious 2020-25 Waste Strategy, ‘Supporting the Circular Economy’ provides a benchmark for others.

The momentum for a circular economy transition is there, and the groundwork has been laid. How can we turn this ambition into action, and what will this look like for food systems?

Towards a circular food system: Turning ambition into action

Cities are currently the destination for three (3) quarters of the world’s natural resources and consume around 80% of global energy. These figures will grow further as global populations continue to urbanise. However, it is precisely because cities are such big contributors to our food waste problem that they offer fertile testing ground for the circular economy – and food systems - transformation.

Amsterdam’s Circular Strategy

There are circular pilot schemes underway in some European cities already. In the Netherlands, the Amsterdam Circular Strategy 2020-25 will halve the city’s raw material use by 2030, aiming for a fully circular economy by 2050. To do so, the city is focusing on three (3) value chains: consumer goods, the built environment, and of course, food and organic waste streams.

The latter focuses particularly on shortening supply chains and locally sourcing food. Shorter supply chains limit the processing points at which food could be lost, while reducing emissions from logistics such as refrigerating and/or transporting produce. Sourcing food locally also increases food security, as local food chains are less likely to be affected by external disruptions that might impact global supply chains – the COVID-19 pandemic being one recent example.

Various startups, volunteer-led initiatives and charities are also running programs that redistribute and repurpose unwanted food from supermarkets and restaurants in Amsterdam, complementing the city-led circular food systems push. Krommkommer and VeggiHap create soups and pastas from imperfect produce, while volunteer-run BuurtBuik brings neighbours together to connect and cook for those in need using surplus produce. There are also peer-to-peer food sharing platforms such as OLIO, an app connecting people with their neighbours - designed at fighting waste.

Underpinning food waste avoidance efforts at the household level is the Netherlands’ nationwide United Against Food Waste campaign, which has been raising awareness about the impacts of food waste and educating families on avoiding it since 2018.

Together, these interventions represent a whole of supply chain approach to avoiding and reducing food waste at the city level towards a circular food systems transformation for Amsterdam. In combination, they show the feasibility and benefits of a more sustainable food system in practice, providing blueprints for cities elsewhere.

The Milan Food Policy

In Italy also, a group of cities and regions are working towards more circular food systems, growing out of an all-important primary push for food waste reduction. The City of Milan has introduced a range of initiatives and policy incentives to encourage less wasteful behaviour: businesses donating surplus food receive tax breaks, while campaigns in schools encourage students to reduce food waste and introduce pathways for canteens to donate leftovers to those in need.

Policy frameworks to support this more circular mindset have been introduced as a next step, such as thoughtful FOGO schemes that capture and maximise leftover food for productive reuse in agriculture and energy generation.

The benefits of these actions at the local level have been significant, including improved local soil health, lower GHG emissions, and reduced costs for both municipalities and households. Jobs have also been created to support campaigns and programs, as well as to operate new organic waste processing infrastructure.

To encourage other municipalities to harness urban opportunities for tackling food-related issues and share recommended actions, the city launched the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in 2015. Globally, 211 cities have signed the pact, including Melbourne as a founding signatory, with Sydney signing on more recently in 2021.

Signs of a circular food system in Australia

Slowly but surely, the seeds of a circular food system are beginning to sprout in Australia too.

Love Food, Hate Waste – a highly successful community education program pioneered by UK-based not-for-profit, Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP UK) – has been adopted by New South Wales, the ACT and City of Brisbane.

As well as raising awareness about the scale of the food waste problem, the program encourages households to adopt simple food waste reducing – and ultimately money saving – behaviours. This includes information and ideas for meal planning and smarter food storage, as well as tips on using up commonly wasted foods. Rolling out Love Food, Hate Waste across the country would be one step in the right direction towards tackling the 7.3 million tonnes of food Australians waste every year.

However, transforming the food system warrants action across the entire supply chain, not just at the household level. To this end, Fight Food Waste CRC is working to quantify and track food lost at each stage of production and consumption, which is the first step towards addressing this economy-wide issue.

The work being done in Amsterdam, Milan and a growing number of Australian localities shows the potential benefits of tackling food waste at the city level, but what about globally?

According to UNEP, transforming our food systems could as much as halve the emissions they create. Project Drawdown[2] estimates that transitioning to a food system focused on avoiding waste, protecting ecosystems, and shifting to more regenerative agricultural practices could reduce up to 273 gigatonnes of CO2-e[3] over the next 30 years – all while improving food security and protecting human health.

Overhauling the linear food system is a monumental challenge. But as mounting evidence shows, the benefits to be reaped from doing so at both the local and global level are similarly enormous!

Governments around Australia have had enough food for thought. It’s time we tackle food waste at its systemic root and begin the transition toward a more sustainable, circular food system today.


[1] Core organic waste = food organics, garden organics, timber and biosolids

[2] Project Drawdown is the nonprofit dedicated to helping us reach ‘drawdown’, or the point where GHG emissions peak and begin to decline

[3] tCO2-e = tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent