What could circular economy mean for making food and drink?

04 January 2023

By Cat Hay, Head of Policy, Food and Drink Federation Scotland

My Scottish granny lived through the war, where resources were scarce and re-use, repair and recycling were vital. I remember granny “turning” bed sheets, where she cut out the worn patch and sewing the two “good” sides together in the middle, funnily enough a bed sheet with a seam down the middle never really took off! The bedsheets were used until they were rags which were in turn used as dusters. Shoes were mended and machines were built to last, her generation really understood how a “circular economy” worked.

The circular economy is about sharing resources, reducing what we need, renting rather than buying, re-use, repair and finally recycling. This is extremely important to Scotland’s food and drink producers who are working hard behind the scenes to make food production more sustainable.



The Scottish Government recently consulted on a circular economy roadmap for Scotland which, if done right can make it easier for all of us to get the best value from resources without harming our natural environment.

A business that rents robots and cobots to food manufacturers to increase production at peak times like Christmas would potentially save manufacturers all purchasing equipment that takes up space when not in use. Leading lighting and paying per lux is already a reality for many in the manufacturing industry.

A small manufacturer who uses a system of QR codes and reconditioned smartphones for record keeping has already reduced the physical paper used by over 1,000kg a year.

There are some other really cost-effective opportunities that the food and drink industry could consider to repair machinery. I was chatting to a biscuit manufacturer recently who was using a 3D printer to print new biscuit cutters. And the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland (NMIS) is looking at 3D metal printing – how efficient to be able to print a new cog for a conveyor belt rather than order one with promise of delivery in weeks or even months, not to mention avoiding the cost and environmental impact associated with shipping spare parts in from around the world.

And for the leftovers from food production such as bones, shells or fruit and vegetable peeling, biotech companies can use these in cosmetics, construction, or even clothing – fruit leather shoes anyone?

Chemical recycling offers one potential solution to enable recycling of a much broader range of plastic food packaging such as sandwich wrappers and squeezable pouches, plastics contaminated with food, and plastics films. Chemical recycling will complement our traditional mechanical recycling capability.

We will soon see the launch of Scotland’s deposit return scheme for drinks containers where overnight, all of us will see a monetary value attached to the packaging which will mean we can recycle more and turn bottles back to bottles and cans back to cans.

Now we need Scottish Government policies to unlock these opportunities. We need an effective repair and reprocessing industry in Scotland that will be part of a more circular supply chain and our industry needs a diverse and innovative workforce with the digital, scientific, engineering, and green skills. This will allow Scotland to reduce our material consumption and use our resources better.

Scotland is not going to become a circular economy overnight - it will take decades. To capitalise on these opportunities, the food and drink manufacturing industry and our supply chain needs to collaborate, share ideas with, and learn from other sectors and shape policy with Governments and other policy makers. I would be really interested to hear ideas on where the opportunities lie from others who are seeking to make Scotland’s economy more circular.