A circular food system is one in which food waste is processed to recover plant nutrients and returned to the soil to enable the production of more food, rather than being diverted to landfill or incineration. The approach may be used to reduce energy and water use in food production and contribute to the system’s sustainability.
Anaerobic digestion and composting are common food waste treatment technologies used to stabilize waste and produce residual materials that can replenish the soil, thus contributing to a circular food system. This approach can only be deemed safe and feasible, however, if food waste is uncontaminated or any contaminants are destroyed during treatment.
This review brings together information on several contaminant classes at different stages of the food supply chain, their possible sources, and their fates during composting and digestion. The main aim is to identify factors that could impede the transition towards a safe, reliable and efficient circular food system. We investigated heavy metals, halogenated organic compounds, foodborne pathogens and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in the food system and their fates during digestion and composting. Production and processing stages were identified as major entry points for these classes of contaminants.
Heavy metals and foodborne pathogens pose less risk in a circular system than halogenated organics or antibiotic resistance. Given the diversity of properties among halogenated organic compounds, there is conflicting evidence about their fate during treatment. There are relatively few studies on ARGs’ fate during treatment, and these have produced variable results, indicating a need for more research to clarify their fate in the final products.
Repeated land application of contaminated food waste residuals can increase the risk of accumulation and jeopardize a circular food system’s safety. Thus, careful management of the system and research into the contaminants’ fate during treatment is needed.
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