Circular Economy: the future of the seafood industry

Noray, the sustainable shrimp. Photo: Noray.
Noray, the sustainable shrimp. Photo: Noray.

Closely related to sustainability, the circular economy seeks to keep the value of products, materials, and resources such as water and energy, within the economic circle for as long as possible, while minimizing waste generation. In a very short definition, we can say that the circular economy is an economic model that seeks to stimulate growth and employment without compromising the environment. Seen in this light, we could be talking about the seafood industry, right? 

The truth is that in the fishing and aquaculture sector, where sustainability is an essential value, it is increasingly common to find companies where the "circular economy" concept is part of their philosophy and is either already being applied effectively or is among the commitments for the near future. The ultimate goal? To achieve zero waste or, at least, to close the life cycle of products with minimum waste.

Take-Make-Dispose vs. Reduce-Reuse-Recycle

If until now we moved into a linear economy described as "take-make-dispose", the circular economy could be defined as "reduce-reuse-recycle", a model based on waste management through the so-called 3Rs.

Comparing linear and circular economy showing product life cycle.

However, if we delve deeper into the concept of circular economy and broaden the vision, these 3Rs can be many more. Reduce, reuse and recycle, of course, but also rethink, redesign, remanufacture, redistribute, repair, and recover energy, for example. To implement a circular economy model in a company, resource management is fundamental, but not the only thing. Designing the production model to reduce the use of finite natural resources is equally important, as is the use of energy.

As we said at the beginning, this concept of circularity is closely linked to that of sustainability, understood in its broadest sense. We talk about the environment and conservation; we talk about waste management; but we also talk about social and economic sustainability, about jobs that are not lost along the way because resources have been exhausted and new ones that are created to reuse, recycle, repair or remanufacture. Paula Esteban García, Head of the Quality and Sustainability Department at Noray, explains: "The circular economy is a viable tool that can be applied by generating new jobs, developing new innovative technologies that support the care of biodiversity and natural habitats, and is economically adaptable to available resources".

The 3Rs industry plus one more: Responsibility

When talking about the aquaculture & seafood industry in particular, the principles of the circular economy are already a reality in many companies.  Take the example of FiiZK. The Norwegian company has a clear "reduce-reuse-recycle" philosophy that they apply responsibly. "As a company, our ethos is to endeavor to be as sustainable as possible and producing such large tonnages of polymer textile products, we know have a large responsibility! The biggest challenge we have seen in recent years is the accumulation of large quantities of material, and the wear and tear of equipment, that can pollute our coast", says Petter Haug Jenssen, Project Manager at FiiZK. A policy of responsibility that involves not only them but also their suppliers and customers. "We have set requirements for suppliers and material use, as well as own production, to ensure that materials included in our 'circle' are both of high quality and can have an extended lifespan through material recycling or reuse. The goal is that as much of the product as possible can be reused. In this way, the customer can benefit from value in the form of reducing their carbon footprint, as well as receiving value in NOK for returned material", he tells WeAreAquaculture.

Tarp production at FiiZK. Photo: FiiZK.

This is done through FiiZK 360 (F360), a recycling system for some of its products that initially had a fairly short shelf life and that, in addition to establishing requirements for its suppliers and customers, also establishes them for its own sales model. "Suppliers must certify the content of materials and textiles we buy", explains Petter Haug Jenssen, "customers must be willing to handle and send the equipment back after finishing use at sea", he continues. In addition, the company ensures that the transports of the different materials are those with the highest degree of recycling and minimum CO2 emissions, and includes a promise to the customer that they do not export non-recyclable waste out of the country to be a problem for others. "With F360 you have a complete payback system for products with potential value, which hasn't really been done in this industry before".

Feed to keep feeding the world

Every day we read news about record salmon production figures, managers saying they have never seen anything like it, or survey results indicating that consumers are betting on aquaculture to increase sustainable seafood production. We all agree that aquaculture is the most efficient healthy protein generator to provide for the growing population. However, as Jorge Díaz Salinas, Global Sustainability Manager at Skretting, explains, this brings with it some challenges to be faced. "Aquaculture is expected to grow 32% by 2030, which means that we will need an additional 40 million tonnes of feed ingredients compared to what we use today. This increased demand is already stretching our limits and therefore we need to find ways to grow and to develop within planetary boundaries". And this is where the circular economy comes into play, using the by-products and waste generated by supply chains in the production of food for human consumption. "We believe that the use of current ingredients and the development of new ones will be critical to substantiate the growth of our industry in the future", he says.

Jorge Díaz Salinas, Global Sustainability Manager at Skretting. Photo: Skretting.

Skretting's Sustainability Roadmap 2025 defines Climate & Circularity as one of the three pillars (along with Health & Welfare and Good Citizenship) on which they will focus their efforts. And how will they do it? Jorge Díaz Salinas explains to WeAreAquaculture their circular economy model in terms of ingredients. "By-products from fish processing account for 35% of the marine ingredients that we use in our feed. We also use important amounts of by-products from the slaughter of terrestrial animals destined for human consumption that can be turned into raw materials with high nutritional values for fish feed", he says. And continues, "novel ingredients like insect and bacterial meals offer further potential in the utilization of waste streams as inputs".

Waste that becomes new raw materials

The same philosophy of reusing by-products from aquaculture and processing, as well as wastewater and fish sludge to convert them into raw materials for industry is part of Viking Aqua's project. "We consider all by-products and waste as unutilized resources", Maren Ødegaard Tangen, Sustainability Manager at Viking Aqua, tells WeAreAquaculture. And continues, "at our future RAS marine facility, we will design and build a system that allows for capturing and utilising the fish sludge from the production". The company is building what they call on their website "the world's most sustainable circular-production salmon farm" in Skipavika, on the west coast of Norway.

Back view of the future marine RAS facility of Viking Aqua in Skipavika. Photo: Viking Aqua.

"Aquaculture is dependent on natural resources, and it is vital to keep these resources in circulation to move from a linear to a circular fish farming practice", she says. "The industry is already exploring new ways of utilizing fish sludge and other waste streams from production to generate energy and produce fertilizer, and Viking Aqua's intention is to take part in this development in the years to come". In fact, to further explore these circular production possibilities, the company is currently applying for funding for an R&D project called INNOAQUA. Part of this project involves combining microalgae and Atlantic salmon production at RAS. "We strongly believe that R&D is essential to making salmon farming more circular and therefore R&D is one of our five strategic pillars", sums up Maren Ødegaard Tangen.

Betting all in the circular economy

Recycling the tarpaulins of the cages, reusing by-products from processing fish, reducing water consumption with RAS systems in land-based production, or going further and betting everything on a production model based on the circular economy, as Viking Aquay intends to do and Noray has already done. After years of R&D, the indoor aquaculture company focused on shrimp farming based in Valladolid, central Spain, has achieved the system efficiency they expected. Their integrated circular model includes both the primary production and packaging phases, implementing continuous improvements related to eco-design and the incorporation of recycled materials, and reducing the amount of plastic required.

"We focus on minimizing water consumption per kg of shrimp produced through a farming system based on water reconditioning at each stage of cultivation", Paula Esteban García tells WeAareAquaculture. And the Head of the Quality and Sustainability Department at Noray, continues: "This development has been the most difficult challenge since there is no reference in the sector and the quality of the final product cannot be negatively affected given the gastronomic value of our shrimp. What is finally achieved is to standardize the factors that affect the healthiness of each culture through the exhaustive control of water quality on a daily basis".

One of Noray's sustainable shrimps, produced under circular economy criteria. Photo: Noray.

Nevertheless, as we say, Noray's circular production model goes further and aims directly at zero waste. "We currently revalue the waste generated in each crop so that it goes from being a solid waste to a useful product for agriculture", says Paula. "The other waste we generate, the shells, is in the research phase in collaboration with the University of Valladolid to obtain a high-value product for the pharmaceutical industry". And so, by collaborating with the university in the province where their facilities are located, they close the circle of their sustainable commitment, which includes backing local suppliers and the promotion of rural development in the area where their "shrimps of the future" are raised.

The Head of the Quality and Sustainability Department at Noray told us at the beginning of this article that the circular economy is a viable tool in this industry. However, to promote it, and do it not only in Europe or America but also in less developed areas such as Africa or parts of Asia, investments, innovation, planning, and supportive policies are needed. Not only is the future of the seafood industry at stake, but also the future of the planet.

* Cover photo courtesy of Noray.

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