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Boosting sustainability with circular economy manufacturing

Article-Boosting sustainability with circular economy manufacturing

To decrease environmental harm and boost food security, food producers are incorporating circular economy principles into their operations. Fi Global Insights travelled to Belgium to meet two of them: a frozen food brand and pork supplier.

The food system is a major contributor to climate change and biodiversity loss, with food production accounting for almost one third (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions and half of the world’s land use. A similar share of emissions is recorded in Europe, European Union (EU) data shows.

Despite being the world’s largest exporter of agri-food products, the EU relies heavily on imports to feed its population. According to findings from a report by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), over one tenth of the calories and a quarter of the proteins consumed in Europe are reliant on imports, further fuelling environmental harm and food insecurity on the continent.

Reshaping Europe’s food system on the basis of circularity principles and regenerative agriculture could significantly reduce the threat of environmental harm and food insecurity in Europe and beyond. Ardo, a multinational frozen food manufacturer, and Duroc d’Olives, an indoor cage-free pig farm, are two European companies incorporating sustainability into their operations for the benefit of the environment.

Converting agri by-products into biogas, fertiliser, and fresh water

Belgian-based frozen whole food producer Ardo has developed a circular economy model that transforms agricultural by-products and wastewater from its own production process into biogas, organic fertiliser, and demineralised water. Through its MIMOSA project, which stands for Minimum Impact and Maximum Output Sustainable Agriculture, the company is aiming to reduce waste, increase energy efficiency, and create a closed-loop system for its products, explained Bernard Haspeslagh, Ardo’s chief operating officer (COO).

Up to 40% of the energy required to fuel the operation of the company’s two Digrom Energy plants is produced from the biomethanisation of fruit and vegetable by-products used in the production plant. This green energy is created by converting the waste products into methane gas, which is then used to generate electricity.

Over 8,000 tonnes of maize, 70,000 tonnes of agricultural waste, and thousands of litres of wastewater are repurposed onsite by Ardo, to produce approximately 24,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year. A wholly plant-based facility, no animal by-products or manure are used at the plant, which is located in rural Belgium, Haspeslagh said.


The power of partnerships in boosting sustainability

The by-products of the biomethanisation process are nutrient-rich and can be used by local farmers as natural fertiliser to aid crop growth. Farmers can also make use of some 150 million litres of clean water produced during the process, which is stored in a purpose-built reservoir and distributed through an irrigation network to local growers.

Ardo also works in partnership with BiogasTec, a specialist in biomethanisation technology, to produce its energy and water outputs and achieve its sustainability goals. The green energy the partnership produces from waste products contribute to reducing Ardo’s carbon footprint and helping to protect the wider environment.

The company’s sustainability journey began with a €3 million investment in a sustainable project over a decade ago. Ardo has set a target for all of its farms to apply regenerative agriculture principles by 2050, Haspeslagh said.

What is the motivation behind the company’s sustainability drive? “We do it by conviction. Let’s not forget that when it comes to climate, we do have a direct impact,” Haspeslagh said.


‘Washing’ away ammonia from pig meat production 

Duroc D’olives, a family farm specialising in pig meat production, is another company implementing sustainability and circular economy principles to reduce its environmental impact and promote a more efficient use of resources.

The Flanders-based farm of just over 40 hectares of arable land is home to 22 groups of 80 sows, grouped in indoor, cageless farrowing pens, making it “semi-organic”, according to its owner Filip Van Laere. The breeding facility operates a circular economy approach in its production of meat, which is sold directly to local stores and butchers, catering to a niche but growing market.

Using an air washer system, Duroc d’Olives has reduced its ammonia emissions from pigs by up to 90% and increased its animal welfare and sustainability ratings. Air containing ammonia is collected from the sow pens and purified via a biological air purification system using microorganisms.

Harmful emissions of nitrogen and ammonia (a compound of nitrogen) resulting from intensive agriculture have become a sensitive topic in Europe in recent years due to their environmental and health consequences. The Netherlands, which has the highest livestock density in Europe, has made reducing agricultural and industrial nitrogen oxide emissions a top priority. Last year, it announced an ambitious and controversial €25-billion plan to reduce livestock that includes an offer to buy out farmers or relocate them.

Ammonia, as well as odour and dust contained in the air, is removed by six washers located throughout the farm. During this washing process, the ammonia in the air is dissolved in water and transforms into ammonium, which is broken down by the organisms into nitrite and then nitrate, in a process called nitrification. This process reduces the amount of ammonia released into the environment, improving air quality, and reducing the impact of pig farming on the surrounding ecosystem.

Ensuring waste is minimised, the farm also recycles its pig waste into fertiliser, which is then used on local crops, creating a closed-loop system. The removal of nitrogen compounds creates a sustainable ecological fertiliser than can replace artificial fertilisers, Van Laere explained.