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Developing more closed-loop or circular systems

Katie Powell and Fiona Jarvis from environmental consultancy and Bristol Going for Gold partner Resource Futures consider the benefits of closed-loop systems. These are essentially systems that help the city conserve resources and money designing out unnecessary pollution and waste and treating anything that remains as a resource, not waste.

This is part of a series of blog posts looking at how we can emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with a more resilient food system, each blog introduced by Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator, Joy Carey.

Joy Carey, Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator and Consultant in Sustainable Food Systems Planning:

Closed loop or circular systems are a critical component in developing food system resilience. The circularity principle occurs in nature, and is visible all around us – the carbon cycle being one example that many of us will have learned about at school. When it comes to the food system, we need to find ways to reduce and ultimately design out overall food waste throughout the food chain, both within the city and across the surrounding regions and in that process optimise the recycling of nutrients, water and energy for food production. So how might this be achieved? This blog from Resource Futures explains the principle in more detail and provides some practical examples of how this is already happening. A second and really important question is – how can this approach become part of a Bristol Green Economy recovery; and how might such approaches benefit the city over the next decade?

Katie Powell and Fiona Jarvis, consultants at Resource Futures:

Source: FinalStraw

Globally, linear food systems have been encouraged by the success of industrial food and farming, in producing more and cheaper food. However, the true cost of this food is much higher; contributing to climate change and the destruction of biodiversity and natural systems. In contrast, developing closed-loop or circular food systems is a core principle on which Bristol’s resilient food system is being built. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular system operates on three key principles:

  • Designing out waste and pollution
  • Keeping materials and products in use at their highest value as long as possible
  • Regenerating natural systems.

Why is it important?

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly shaken food supply chains around the globe. Major disruptions to our food systems have exposed the vulnerability of our existing approach. As caterers, restaurants and hotels closed, a lack of agility within the system meant farmers and producers supplying these sectors were unable to shift sales elsewhere, leading to financial losses and increased food waste. This occurred at the same time as panic buying emptied supermarket shelves and lines outside food banks lengthened. By transitioning towards more controlled circular systems, and locally where appropriate, we have the opportunity to shorten supply chains and increase resilience to such shocks.

With this increased resilience comes environmental benefits too. Years of repetitive, industrial food production has seen the destruction of wild habitats, the loss of billions of tons of topsoil, and the choking of waterways; all of which steadily contribute to biodiversity loss. In contrast, regenerative, circular systems present more ecologically sound and sustainable methods of food production; prioritising soil health, protecting ecosystem services, and building an agricultural system where biodiversity can thrive.

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

What could a circular food system look like for Bristol?

With 80% of food expected to be consumed by cities by 2050, Bristol and other urban communities are ideally placed to drive the transition towards a circular economy for food. While every approach will be unique, Bristol will be looking to others for continued inspiration, to help fully envision what a circular food system could look like, and what the city can achieve.

In Finland, restaurant Nolla has embraced zero waste in all aspects of their design and operation. Food is procured from local producers, ensuring their menus are seasonal and no single-use packaging is required. Food waste is composted on site and returned to the farms of their local suppliers. Even the interiors and tableware are made from reused or recycled materials. Silo is the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant with numerous inspirational approaches to using waste as a resource. In Bristol we have The Vegetable Diva who source produce from their ‘No Dig Diva fields’ in North Somerset, enabling them to reduce food miles, cook seasonally and remove single-use packaging.

The Vegetable Diva’s ‘No Dig Diva fields’

In Chicago, pioneering project The Plant has successfully built a collaborative community of food manufacturers and retailers. This established network of over 20 food businesses, including a bakery, a cheese distributor, a coffee roaster, and a brewery, sees waste from one business become a valuable resource for another. Not only does this lessen the environmental impact of production, but it also helps small businesses to competitively compete with larger ones. Evidence of similar working in Bristol is already starting to emerge; the Real Wrap Company has partnered with Toast Ale to brew beer from the loaf ends which cannot be used for sandwiches. More partnerships like this will ensure Bristol keeps resources in use at their highest value for as long as possible.

By looking at our food systems from a wider perspective, there are vast opportunities at public level to encourage circular thinking. Food for schools, hospitals, care homes and prisons could be procured through alternative supply chains. Such an approach is already being trialled in Milan, where nineteen new supply chains have been created with local agricultural enterprises, in order to fulfil the city’s school meal requirement. In addition, the project has contributed to awareness campaigning throughout the city, highlighting the value of producing food locally. Bristol is home to fresh-range, who provide food at fair prices with shorter supply chains and less plastic packaging, and Bristol City Council’s procurement policy also enables local producers to tender for council contracts. Bristol is already involved in a national government pilot to shorten food supply chains for public sector procurement and allow regional suppliers access to the market. We must work hard to embed this way of working into our business-as-usual processes, sharing the valuable learnings from the journey along the way.

How do we get there?

Cities may be best placed to initiate changes in food systems, however the successful transition to a circular food economy will depend on a number of conditions. Two key factors will be:

  • Partnership building: There are endless synergies to be explored and nurtured within cities. We must be prepared to build new relationships based on cooperation rather than competition, to encourage a thriving circular food system. Making this shift will ensure learnings can be captured and shared, and that opportunities to scale up are identified and acted upon.
  • Harnessing data and technology: This must be used to complement our behaviour change efforts, joining the dots to support a more interconnected vision. We must avoid working in silos, and instead pull information sources together to address problems and design out waste along the supply chain. By harnessing our digital capabilities, we can transform how we identify, measure, track and value resources and services. 

Bristol is well known, both for its vibrant food scene and its reputation as a hub for environmentalism and sustainability in the UK. The city has developed a strong foundation with which to build on, with many inspiring circular food systems already present in the area. To ensure a green recovery, we need to support these foundations, raise our ambitions and continue to look for opportunities to build back better as we emerge from the pandemic; this must include a circular economy for food.

Arran potatoes at Windmill Hill City Farm

Bristol’s bid to become a Gold Sustainable Food City was launched in 2019, uniting individuals, organisations and policymakers behind a shared ambition to create measurable and sustainable change to the city’s food system. We must continue to support the innovative, local and regenerative food producers already in the area, and encourage more. We must continue to support our eateries that have achieved Bristol Eating Better Awards, which ensures that healthy and sustainable food is available throughout the city. And we must continue to think circular, to ensure a resilient, just and healthy food system becomes the norm for Bristol and beyond.

To achieve this, we must improve interconnectivity within our food community and give every person in Bristol the inspiration and knowledge needed to be part of a food system that is good for both people and planet.

Read the first blog in this series about a post COVID-19 sustainable food future: Bristol Going for Gold Coordinator Joy Carey proposes five core principles on which to start building a better and more resilient food system.

The second blog post in the series is by Sara Venn of Incredible Edible Bristol and is about how the city can keep the momentum going to upscale and increase urban food production.

The third blog in the series is by Jo Ingleby, Director of The Children’s Kitchen. Jo’s blog considers the importance of being able to cook a meal from scratch with simple, fresh, affordable ingredients. The significance of this essential skill has been highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis, as dealing with shortages of certain ingredients is – of course – far less stressful when we know how to easily adapt meals.