Designing the Right Policies for Better Food, Less Waste
A Conversation with Luisa Santiago, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a leading advocate for the circular economy, which uses a regenerative approach to minimize waste and make the most of scarce resources. As Brazil Lead for the Foundation, Luisa Santiago has led sustainability projects around the world. She offers her thoughts on how the right policies can improve people’s lives.
Hear more from Santiago at the Bloomberg Sustainable Business Summit on April 25 in São Paulo, where C-suite executives, influential investors, and innovative thought leaders will gather to discuss key issues and offer insight on sustainable business and finance.
What incentives or education factors are available to move consumers toward renewable materials in everything from grocery bags to product packaging?
In recent years, we have seen growing public interest in the topic of plastic packaging and pollution. Still, it is hard to make better choices as an individual when today’s “take-make-waste” economy delivers our food, medication, and other products wrapped in single-use plastics or plastics that cannot be or are not recycled, reused, or safely composted.
Achieving this will require a systemic shift through both innovation and collaborative action across governments, businesses, innovators, scientists, and society at large.
Over the past four years, our New Plastics Economy initiative has brought together organizations from across the plastics value chain to work toward a circular economy in which plastics never become waste and their use is decoupled from the consumption of finite resources.
The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, launched last October in collaboration with UN Environment, sets ambitious targets for eliminating plastic waste and pollution at the source and has been signed by over 350 organizations, including leading governments and companies representing 20 percent of all plastic packaging produced globally. Signatories will work toward eliminating plastics we don’t need, and innovate so all other plastics stay in the economy and out of the environment. We are calling for more to follow their lead.
What are the most cost-effective factors that can help restructure urban food distribution systems to reduce waste and make fresher food readily available to consumers?
Our recently launched Cities and Circular Economy for Food report points out a $2.7 trillion opportunity for creating circular food systems in and around cities. This vision translates into three clear goals that cities around the world can work toward: source food regeneratively and locally where appropriate; make the most of food, and; design and market healthier food products.
Sourcing food locally and from regenerative farming practices offers an opportunity to shorten distribution circuits and reduce packaging needs, while encouraging farming methods that provide higher long-term yields and healthier food for citizens. Cities could also unlock a $700 billion economic opportunity by making the most of food and its by-products — for example, preventing food waste through redistribution of surplus food and the use of ‘ugly fruit’ as input to other food products.
Equally, food by-products in organic waste can be captured by effective collection systems to create high-value products ranging from organic fertilizers to high-quality textiles. Design and marketing capabilities also have an important role to play. Food brands, chefs, and retailers can, for example, design food products that are pure and safe to use in new cycles, create new products and recipes using their own food by-products, and offer discounts on soon-to-expire foods.
There are several steps urban food system players can take toward creating a circular economy for food and coordinated action around these three ambitions that could generate significant business opportunities and positive impact for citizens, as well as benefits for the economy, the environment, and human health.
What are the most promising areas of technology that could be significant in helping an individual country or locality move toward a circular economy model?
Technological innovation has an important role to play in bringing the circular economy vision to life in different localities, and its applications offer endless possibilities. Blockchain technology, for instance, can provide greater traceability in supply chains, helping reduce waste and ensuring safe material flows; intelligent and connected assets can power sharing platforms and enable predictive maintenance, allowing products to stay in use longer; and digital material banks and 3D printing of spare parts can facilitate repair and reuse.
Artificial intelligence is another area that shows great promise. Its learning capabilities can accelerate material selection and other design processes for creating circular products and can be a valuable decision-making tool for operating circular business models. Some of its applications can also help prevent waste across various industries, like using visual recognition to sort post-use materials for remanufacturing or to determine when a fruit is ready for picking.