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Future concept sustainability: An interview with Marc Buckley

30 Aug 2020

Society is focusing more and more on sustainability, not least due to the debate on global warming, natural catastrophes and "Fridays for Future". The development is also long since present in the food industry. The focus is often on the aspects meat consumption and packing, however the topic is much more multifaceted.

In the course of the coming months we will be engaging in an exchange with experts on the Anuga blog in order to draw a comprehensive picture of the current situation. The global food reformist, Marc Buckley, a speaker at the iFood Conference of Anuga 19 is getting the ball rolling.

Marc Buckley comes from six generations of Germany’s largest organic farmers and four generations of European Hydroponic Agronomists and gained knowledge about the food and agricultural sector at an early age. During his studies, he devoted himself to different areas of specialization such as Global Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Business Administration, Computer Science, Law, Economics, and Agronomy. Today, he uses his knowledge as global food reformist to advise companies in order to reform the agriculture, food and beverage industry with impactful projects. He is also member of the Expert Network for the World Economic Forum for Innovation, Climate Change, Agriculture, Food and Beverages and was chosen as an advocate for the SDG's by the UN. He was also one of the first climate activists, who was trained by Al Gore.

The significance of sustainability in the food and beverage sector

Marc Buckley describes himself as an "advocate of the goals of sustainable development", a globally recognised agenda, which comprises of 17 sustainability-oriented points in total. Studies and scientific research in recent years have shown that agriculture as well as food and beverages contribute towards the strong negative impact on the environment. Buckley intends to change this - using positive energy. This is by no means a question of a "dystopian affair", but rather more the unprecedented possibility of "globally reforming the food systems" and as such successfully overcoming one of the largest challenges worldwide. The problem is at the same time also the solution. The key to the matter lies in changing the "way we produce food". The unnecessary wastage of food or causing emissions to an above average extent should be counteracted in a targeted manner.

Ecological sustainability through zero waste?

Zero Waste Store

The zero waste movement is lobbying for a future without waste. This is much more than just a trend of the hour: Precycling as the successor to recycling and upcycling is driving a long-term sustainable turnaround in the economic markets. With regards to finite resources and the limited capacities of the earth, it is oriented on approaches like cradle-to-cradle or a circular economy and strives to encourage sustainable consumption.

The fundamental idea: Instead of placing one's bets on recycling and reusage, no waste should be produced from the onset. The complete avoidance of waste has an impact on the energy industry, on all links of the value chain and ultimately on the trade.

For example, so-called bulk shops - where products without packing are offered and which are self-filled into supplied or own receptacles in a completely plastic-free process - are attracting huge attention in the USA. Corresponding shops also exist in Europe, like the pioneer that originates from London "Unpackaged", which has meanwhile also been copied in Germany, Austria or Italy.

Advantages of zero waste

Marc Buckley rates zero waste as being a "wonderful movement for limiting the individual ecological footprint." However not only every individual should contribute towards solving this problem, the economy can also take advantage of this innovative approach. The production process should, according to Buckley, be entirely redesigned from the "producer through to the consumer".

According to the expert, companies could in this way increase among other things their efficiency, viability and sustainability. He claims that it is a significant opportunity to operate a recycling economy and in turn create new jobs while at the same time reducing the production costs. It offers regional or small producers the chance to deliver "fresh and local goods without additional overhead costs for packing and single-use labelling."

Buckley above all appeals to the "agricultural, fish and seafood, food and beverage industry", because in their current form these present a "burden for the natural resources as well as for the health and well-being of all people.

Sustainable management through circular economy

Buckley recommends the circular economy, cradle to cradle principles with a solid CleanTech infrastructure to successfully counteract the current developments: The circular economy model has been gaining ground in politics, industry and society over the last years. Behind this idea is a change away from the linear model of “take-make-dispose“ to a system of closed loops powered by renewable energy. Important Elements of the circular economy model are: Keep resources in use for as long as possible, minimize disposed residual waste, extract the maximum value from products and recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of service life. The main aim is to keep products, equipment and infrastructure in use for longer, thus improving the productivity of these resources. Buckley calls this a symbiotic earth. The cradle-to-cradle model developed by the US Americans, Michael Braungart and William McDonough, proposes establishing a biological circulation system that leaves no waste - on the contrary to the conventional cradle-to-cradle principle, where after use packing and the likes ultimately end up in the garbage.

Cradle-to-cradle on the other hand describes a cycle way of thinking, which focuses on resource-saving reusage. The aspects eco-friendly production and the usage of renewable energy are also addressed in the scope of the principle. It is important that a closed-loop system is implemented: All organic components of the respective product are composted and fed back into the natural cycle. Consumer goods are to be produced as far as possible so that they can be easily recycled. If all companies would take back their products, valuable raw materials could be reused. Conceivable implementation options include for instance deposit systems or the leasing and hiring of the products.

The cradle-to-cradle principle can be implemented in all stages of the production process - from the product design, to the product manufacturing and usage through to the return. Waste can be avoided through a perfect, closed-loop system. Buckley prefers the circular system principle as a more global concept that does not refer to any certifications. The bar needs to be set higher than any certifications today provide.

Sustainability in the plastic era

Different plastic bottles laying on a beach

Plastic food packing endangers the biodiversity. Worldwide approx. one million beverages are sold in plastic bottles every minute. Especially critical: Depending on the type of plastic, it can take several hundred years until it decomposes into microplastics.

There are currently 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world oceans and this figure increases every year. The pile of waste that covers the surface of the sea is a serious threat to marine life. The surface of the largest heap of waste, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is located in front of the coast in California, is approximately four and half times bigger than Germany.

Buckley warns that currently "forty percent of all food produced is wasted or thrown away" before being consumed even. He takes a particularly critical view of the waste disposal in landfills. The waste "finds its way back to us in the form of methane, which captures 84 times the heat compared to carbon dioxide." Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in a short-term scale because it has much higher heat trapping ability. Methane on a weight basis has 80 times the global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide. Meaning that it is not just forty percent waste but also an exponential multiplier of greenhouse gas emissions. Disposal in water or burning waste doesn't solve the problem either.

So, according to Buckley, reducing the amount of waste is not the most effective solution. The only way to solve the problem is thus the complete elimination of waste. Stop now and change course: This is how the sustainability specialists sees the future of the food and beverage industry.

One doesn't see the consequences of what happens today until in around ten years' time. Hence, in order to bring about a long-term change towards greater sustainability pioneering future concepts such as circular economy should be implemented. In addition to a resource-efficient recycling economy Buckley also sees great potential in the use of hydroponics, cellular agriculture or also the so-called CIP procedure, the local cleaning of processing plants.

He is thus clearly in favour of "every reusable solution", where the manufacturer provides "incentives for the return and reusage and which involve the return of packing so that it can be refilled." A global deposit and return policy could prove to be an effective tool here.

Sustainable alternatives: Stainless steel, glass, bamboo & co.

Woman holding a bag full of glass

The host of eco-friendly alternatives ranges from stainless steel to glass, platinum silicone and natural fibre cloth through to bamboo, ceramic, earthenware and stone paper. Buckley concedes that these don't "reach the level of plastic" in terms of functionality and in spite of their longer durability nevertheless still require energy for their "production and transport". For it to be worthwhile implementing them as replacements, a consistent reusage has to take place. This is the only way to secure the optimum usage for both the producers and consumers.

A further solution for Buckley lies in the production. The glass-making industry has to keep its furnaces "burning round the clock, 365 days a year", which is contrary to sustainable production methods. Companies such as O-I Glass are pioneers in this field. The company implements renewable energy thanks to the development of progressive methods so that the entire process is a circular closed-loop system.

Buckley's overall conclusion: It is decisive "how we produce from the farm through to the table," in order to do justice to the current environmental and economic challenges.

That's plenty of input to think about, discuss and implement. Sustainable concepts for food and beverage were already a focus of the iFood Conference at Anuga in 2019. Sustainability will also be one of the central themes in 2021, the world's leading trade fair for the food & beverage world will provide new, relevant and further impulses on the topic.