Taru Lehtokunnas’s doctoral dissertation uses the sociological perspective to examine how the circular economy transition of the food system is enacted in everyday practices. Circular economy refers to an economic system that aims to be more sustainable than the current linear economic model. The main goal of circular economy is to reduce or even eliminate waste altogether. This is achieved, among other things, by keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible rather than constantly making new products from non-renewable raw materials. In the context of the food system, the circular economy transition means, above all, reducing food waste and utilising biowaste more efficiently.
Research on the circular economy has largely focused on the processes of production and industry, the political implementations of the circular economy, and the formulation of various circular economy business models.
“However, recent social scientific research has highlighted the need to more profoundly explore issues such as what the circular economy transition means from the societal perspective and how the transition affects the everyday practices of ordinary people in different sectors of society,” Lehtokunnas says.
The dissertation research was conducted using participant observation methods. The ethnographic data was gathered at supermarkets, households, and two biogas plants in from 2018 to 2021.
Circular economy implemented in several ways in everyday practices
The study found that actors in the food system enact the circular economy in different ways depending on their situation. The ways of handling food waste and relating to it also vary from situation to situation. Although all the actors studied consider reducing food waste to be important, the production of food waste is still, to some extent, a normalised part of everyday practices. The reasons for this vary. In households, for example, other everyday goals are sometimes prioritised over waste reduction. For supermarkets, food waste is a necessary evil, and the occasional controlled production of food waste is accepted as part of efficient business operations. From the perspective of biogas plants, food that has ended up as waste turns from a problem into a resource, but at the same time, the distribution of fertilisers and biogas produced in the biogas process sometimes presents challenges. Therefore, these products may occasionally become a problematic excess from the perspective of biogas plants.
The study shows that, contrary to the most optimistic circular economy goals – which aim to eliminate waste entirely – food waste and its production and utilisation are never fully controllable. Therefore, at times, the everyday practices that aim to enact the circular economy inevitably run into various obstacles.
“To better understand circular economy as a social transition – in which we are all taking part in our daily lives and to which different actors attach different goals – it is important to know how it is enacted in everyday practices. It is also important to increase awareness on the potential difficulties these practices involve. This is essential for assessing the potential of circular economy in the context of the sustainability transition,” Lehtokunnas says.
Taru Lehtokunnas is from Lapua and currently lives in Tampere. She works as a grant researcher at Tampere University.
Public defence on Friday 22 September
The doctoral dissertation of M.Soc.Sci. Taru Lehtokunnas in the field of sociology titled Enacting a Circular Economy: A multi-sited ethnography on food waste practices in Finnish supermarkets, households and biogas plants will be publicly examined at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Tampere University at 12.00 on Friday 22 September 2023 on the city centre campus, Linna building, auditorium K103 (Kalevantie 5, Tampere). The Opponent is Professor Tora Holmberg, Uppsala University while Professor Olli Pyyhtinen from the Faculty of Social Sciences will act as the Custos.
Photograph: Jarkko Viikki