How systems mapping, leftovers and the circular economy can change the way we think about convenience and the ready meal industry

It’s 70 years since TV dinners first hit the shelves — marking a love affair between consumers and convenience that has dominated the food industry ever since.

The global convenience food industry is expected to be worth around $146 billion a year by 2023 and that market is expected to keep growing, so it’s no surprise to see disrupters emerging to get a slice of the action. Blue Apron will deliver recipe-specific fresh ingredients to your door, OLIO can connect you with neighbours and local shops to share surplus food, and Winnow will turn your bin into a smart meter that measures food waste.

While each of these ideas embrace elements of the circular economy, it could be said that there has yet to be a fully circular economy reboot of the ready meal industry.

When Rob Thompson turned his focus to designing a circular economy disruption to the ready meal market, for new design challenge the Circular Design Case, he looked at every area of the system; from the use of plastic packaging, to the journeys made by delivery drivers, and how to eliminate food waste; without sacrificing the convenience that so many consumers demand.

The Circular Design Case was a challenge run by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and global design company IDEO and based on the Circular Design Guide. It invited people to develop circular economy approaches that design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems.

Rather than designing prototypes, participants focussed on systems mapping, allowing them to explore the issues surrounding that product and its associated flows. Using those maps, they identified key areas for circular economy interventions.

Rob, who was named the overall winner and awarded £1,000, started with the question: “How might we provide time and budget constrained consumers with the convenience of ready meals, without relying on single-use plastic packaging?”

He then used his experience as a trained engineer with a background in production processes development to come up with circular economy solutions.

“I spoke to someone who worked with PET plastics and then I started looking into its applications, which led me to look at its use in food production and packaging,” said Rob, who is now a full time MBA student specialising in design, innovation and entrepreneurship.

From that start point, he mapped the systems currently surrounding convenience meal production and distribution, and set out the benefits of single-use plastics for consumers and producers. They included the relative cheapness and ease of production, as well as protection for products against moisture, air and sunlight, leading to longer shelf lives for food.

But mounting evidence shows those benefits are outweighed by problems of waste and resource use. Around half of all plastic packaging items are still too small, complex or too costly to recycle and go on to be landfilled, burned or find their way into the environment with devastating consequences. The key to designing a circular economy solution was finding ways to replicate the perceived benefits, while keeping plastic in use or ensuring it’s completely recycled or safely biodegraded.

A key element to Rob’s plan was tapping into the thriving home cooking trend. He outlined a system in which domestic cooks could be incentivised to produce extra portions of their meals, to be sold on as part of a redesigned ready meal market. Users would sign up to a subscription service and have meals delivered to them in reusable containers. With food being made on demand and delivered regularly enough, the need for long product shelf lives would be reduced.

It’s a similar approach to that used by Project DASH, a collaboration between meal delivery service DoorDash and the hunger relief organisation Feeding America, linking restaurants that have surplus food to homeless shelters. Restaurants can take a photo of unwanted food, and the platform finds a nearby food bank, shelter, or other nonprofit that needs it. DoorDash’s software then identifies the most efficient way to deliver it.

In Rob’s model however, restaurants could be replaced by home cooks, who are financially incentivised to satisfy the commercial demand for convenience food. Those home producers would work with local suppliers to provide the ingredients, while the need for single-use plastics could be eliminated through the ability to deliver the food in reusable packaging.

By mapping the system first, Rob was able to identify key areas where changes could have the most impact. That process was at the heart of the Circular Design Case and circular design in general, according to Chris Grantham at IDEO, which helped run the challenge and co-authored the the Circular Design Guide, with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

“We are really excited to get people thinking from a systems perspective. I think that once people start to get into it, by starting to map out all the different parts of system and different relationships, it’s really inspiring for them to see that they can start to rethink pretty much the whole system.

Once people start looking for connections, the circular mindset takes hold and they start to see all the connections in the system,” he said.

Regardless of the potential economic benefits and environmental advantages, any circular economy alternative must ultimately still be attractive to consumers, who have come to expect convenience and affordability, according to Chris.

“Circular ideas have to provide better experiences. If not, we’re all doomed,” he said.

Businesses must also be persuaded of the value in making the shift to circular approaches too.

“I think it is really important to establish the value of using circular design and applying circular economy approaches which can drive competitiveness and creativity.

“At IDEO we’re helping businesses capture that value, by recovering the value of their investment in materials and bringing users into loops with brands, which has huge commercial value.

“There are transitions that businesses are on already, because of technology and I think the circular economy can be a great exemplar of that kind of transition businesses need to make. From being very optimised in terms of linear efficiency to being more adaptive. From being siloed to collaborative. From profit to profit and purpose.”

Explore the Circular Design Guide for yourself at https://www.circulardesignguide.com/

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Ross Findon

Ross Findon

Digital content producer for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Reporting from the frontline of the circular economy. Find me at @rossfindon.

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