There is a great potential in valorization of food processing residues (FPR) for developing new circular economy-based business models, which may have positive impacts on economic, environmental, and social sustainability. The best existing practices for this were collected by LAB University of Applied Sciences as part of the Waste4Soil project funded by Horizon Europe. Moreover, criteria for assessing good practices and the associated key economic, environmental, and social factors were defined. The results were presented in the form of a poster at the ISPIM Innovation Conference in Tallinn on 9.-12.6.2024.

Author: Mari Eronen

Audience is listening to speakers on stage.

Picture 1. Paavo Ritala hosted the session where best conference papers were awarded. (Image: Mari Eronen)

Defining good practices for valorization

One of the key actions in solving the sustainability challenges related to the current food systems is increasing the share of recycled fertilizing products. A solution for closing the loops can be found very close by, as the side streams generated in the food industry can be valorized e.g., as soil improvers. These residue and waste streams often have high concentrations of important nutrients, e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus, and carbon (O’Connor et al. 2021). They are generated in large quantities and may be classified as waste, which causes companies considerable costs to get rid of. In addition, valuable nutrients are often wasted.

The Waste4Soil project (LAB UAS 2024) aims at developing sustainable and circular business models for the valorization of FPRs and turning those into soil improvers. In the initial phase of the project, the related existing good practices were surveyed by gathering information, e.g. from the results of previous projects. There are existing tools for evaluating the maturity of technical solutions, such as technology readiness level (TRL) and business readiness level (BRL), but there was no ready set of criteria for a broader review. By following the principles of the circular economy, financial benefits can be achieved, but the environmental effects can even be negative – or the other way around (Allwood 2014). Moreover, the circular economy concept does not always consider social sustainability (Geissdoerfer et al. 2017). A more holistic approach is required to avoid possible trade-offs.

In this case, we addressed that an acknowledged good practice should be economically viable, environmentally sustainable, socially acceptable, follow the principles of the circular economy and be applicable to a wide range of operating environments. Table 1 presents the defined criteria and indicators for all these aspects.

Evaluation criteriaIndicators
Economic viabilityThere is market demand for the new products, and operation is profitable in a long term, The practice is cost-efficient, out-competing alternatives based on non-renewable resources, Products are affordable to a large scope of end-users, also for small-scale farmers, The value chain the fertilizing product/residue processing technology is integrated in is well established, When applicable, TRL level is at least 4 and BRL level is at least 2.
Ecologic sustainability (1)The practice improves resource efficiency of the production/operation, e.g., for energy and water consumption, Carbon footprint of the production/operation is reduced, Emissions to soil, water, and air are reduced, The logistics are optimized and need for transport is minimized.
Social acceptability (1)The practice aims at creating new jobs, The rights of employees and workers in value chain are respected, Local resources are used thus increasing self-sufficiency and improving food security, Farmers and cooperatives understand how the fertilizers are produced, and that they are efficient and safe to use, Knowledge and collaboration are increased by strong networks, which help to avoid dominant positions of few actors.
Circular economy principles (2)Products and materials are circulated at their highest value, Waste and pollution are eliminated, The practice aims at regenerating nature, The practice aims for a closed-loop system, where materials are not discarded, and reusing, repairing, and remaking is preferred rather than recycling.
TransferabilityThe practice is successful in variable operational environments, The practice is in compliance with obligations, certifications, and standards of the addressed market.

Table 1. The criteria for selecting the best practices for transforming food processing residues into soil improvers. ((1) United Nations 2024; (2) Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2024)

Many good practices identified

The identified good practices that meet the defined criteria include technologies related to nutrient recovery and fertilizer production, such as anaerobic digestion and pyrolysis, but also more novel technologies. Solutions for logistics optimization and smart waste management were identified as well. In addition, applications, platforms, and networks play a key role in connecting stakeholders, promoting collaboration, and enhancing knowledge sharing.

Networks have also great impact on enabling industrial symbioses. One great example of a circular economy solution is the waste management system in Jelsovce Distillery in Slovakia. The by-products from the distillery are efficiently utilized by different industries, enabling nearly zero-waste production. The environmental impact is notable, as typically 90% of the raw materials would end up as waste. (Interreg Europe 2019) Several good practices can be found from Finland. E.g., Hartwall (2024) brewery is producing biogas from its by-product, mash, forming a closed-loop system where the digestate is used as fertilizer by local farmers who are producing barley for the factory.

Companies are interested in finding solutions

Presenting the poster in the ISPIM conference was good opportunity to have discussion and insights about our results that will guide the on-going research work. The preliminary expectation was that the subject of interest could be the possibilities to apply the defined criteria also in other sectors. However, a group of food industry (e.g., brewery and bakery) representatives who were interested in the identified good practices gathered at the round table to discuss.

There is definitely an interest in finding out the valorization possibilities for residues. However, money is often the deciding factor here. Although it is quite common for companies to have sustainability strategy where environmental aspects are well addressed, there are still challenges in implementing actions on a practical level. The financial point of view is decisive, so the question is, how to create value for the by-products or waste? The fact that it is possible to process residue materials for e.g., fertilizer use does not necessarily make it profitable from an economic perspective or environmentally sustainable. A case specific assessment is usually needed.

People are looking at the poster.

Picture 2. Valorization possibilities for residues raised discussion. (Image: Mari Eronen)

Transition towards circular economy and sustainable business models requires considering many aspects. The premise is developing feasible technologies, and products that respond to market demand and are affordable to end-users. Legislation has a crucial role in assuring product safety which is especially important in the food industry. On the other hand, unclear and complicated regulations can be a major barrier for achieving the systemic change. Furthermore, the use of recycled fertilizers can be associated with prejudices, especially if they are produced from industrial side or waste streams. Sharing information for all the stakeholders about the examples of implemented good practices and success stories is a good starting point.

References

Allwood, J. M. 2014. Chapter 30 – Squaring the Circular Economy:  The Role of Recycling within a Hierarchy of Material Management Strategies. In Worrell, E. & Reuter, M. Handbook of Recycling. State-of-the-art for Practitioners, Analysts, and Scientists. 445-477. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-396459-5.00030-1

LAB UAS. 2024. Waste4Soil – Improving food systems sustainability and soil health with food processing residues. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at https://lab.fi/en/project/waste4soil-improving-food-systems-sustainability-and-soil-health-food-processing-residues

Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2023. What is circular economy? Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at:  https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview

Geissdoerfer, M., Savaget, P., Bocken, N.M.P., Hultink, E.J. 2017. The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm? Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol. 143, 757-768. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048

Hartwall. 2024. By-products of Hartwall’s beverage production are put into good use. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at https://export.hartwall.fi/inspiration/drink-and-food/2019/by-products-of-hartwalls-beverage-production-are-put-into-good-use/

Interreg Europe. 2019. Waste management system in Jelšovce Distillery. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at  https://www.interregeurope.eu/good-practices/waste-management-system-in-jelsovce-distillery

O’Connor, J., Hoang, S.A., Bradney, L., Dutta, S., Xiong, X., Tsang, D.C.W., Ramadass, K., Vinu, A., Kirkham, M.B., Bolan, N.S. 2021. A review on the valorisation of food waste as a nutrient source and soil amendment. Environmental Pollution. Vol. 272, 115985. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.115985

United Nations. 2023. Sustainable Development Goals. Cited 14 Jun 2024. Available at https://sdgs.un.org/goals

Author

Mari Eronen is working as a specialist in Waste4Soil – Improving food systems sustainability and soil health with food processing residues project, and as a junior researcher in LAB University of Applied Sciences.

Illustration: ISPIM Innovation Conference 2024 was arranged in Kultuurikatel, Tallinn. (Image: Mari Eronen)

Published 24.6.2024

Reference to this article

Eronen, M. 2024. Sustainable business models for valorizing food processing residues. LAB Pro. Cited and the date of citation. Available at https://www.labopen.fi/lab-pro/sustainable-business-models-for-valorizing-food-processing-residues/