Digital Circular Food Economy Prototype

A Model for a Circular Food Economy

Taking a ‘systems approach’, this multi-disciplinary project addresses complex problems by ‘joining the dots’ to create a model for a local, circular food economy. Localised food systems contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and can also embed benefits such as organic recycling, community food security, skills development and environmental education.

A circular economy is a waste reduction and value-capture system. It departs from a traditional linear economy where materials are ‘made-used-disposed’ to a circular system where the output of one activity becomes the input of another. This approach optimises resource use and diverts ‘waste’ from landfill and in doing so, attaches a value to resources previously discarded, such as food. By collecting food waste for composting, local soils can be improved, and nutritious food can be grown locally and exchanged informally or via micro-enterprises.

A ‘digital overlay’ using an Internet of Things approach can also be applied to monitor greenhouse gas emissions such as methane, track compost caddies and attribute rewards or incentives for participation – such as a collecting and contributing kitchen scraps.

Figure 1: A drawing of the digital food economy prototype developed by the research team in collaboration with the Yarrabilba community.

Developing Circular Alternatives: A Socio-Technical Experiment

Drawing upon ‘social technical transition’ theories, the project team sought to create a space for alternative food systems to demonstrate possibilities around designing food waste out of the system, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems and in doing so, building community and addressing nutritional needs.

The site for this collaboration is Yarrabilba, a master planned community developed by Lendlease. It is situated in the Logan area of South East Queensland and is home to around 10,000 people, with a projected population of 45,000 people by 2042. The challenge brought to QUT by Lendlease was to engage with the community to develop an urban agriculture program that would both build community and provide fresh, local food. As an ex-pine forest, Yarrabilba had poor soils and with a growing population – opportunities to think differently about organic waste.

Yarrabilba State Secondary College was the key site for the experiment, which included design elements and inputs from the staff and students.

Students learning about compostable items

Student design of their composting program

Key Project Outputs

  • A fully integrated composting scheme with self-watering grow beds for food production
  • Development of methane sensors made from e-waste, matching circular economy principles
  • An App for user groups that:
    • Provides information about composting
    • Displays data from methane sensors
    • Uses a bar code/scanning system to track compost caddies piggybacking on school library system (oliver)
    • Allocates points/rewards or incentives for participation
  • Source code made available free in the public domain

Social and Ecological Impacts

This project aligns with a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG):

  • SDG2 Zero Hunger – by addressing food security and promoting improved nutrition through growing and eating fresh, local food- and equipping local communities with the skills grow food locally
  • SDG11 Sustainable Cities and Communities – by providing approaches to integrate sustainable urban agriculture into the built environment. This project is based on the core principles of community engagement
  • SDG12 Responsible Production and Consumption – by linking production and consumption through a circular economy methodology, recycling materials such as food waste and developing an Internet of Things to monitor methane emissions using e-waste.
  • SD13 Climate Action – by raising awareness of the impact of food on the climate, creating educational resources to measure and monitor methane emissions.

Watch this space…

In coming months, the project team will release a ‘how to’ guide on building a circular food economy. Materials will include the learnings from the current project re design, community engagement, software development (free source code) and videos/plans to build sensors from e-waste. This information will be useful for communities, schools, residential care/ retirement living and for local governments. For further information, please contact QUT project leader Associate Professor Carol Richards

From left to right Dr Rudi Messner, Postdoctoral Fellow (Management); Dr Sam Smith (Software Developer), A/Prof Carol Richards (Project Leader, Sociologist), Ms Grace O’Connor (PhD student), Mrs Karen Greaves (Lendlease, Sustainability Manager), Dr Elaine Mitchell (Environmental Science), Dr Alan Woodley (Data Analytics). Other Team members: Dr Hope Johnson (Law and Regulation), Ms Natalia Adan (Research Assistant)

The research team would like to thank the staff and students at Yarrabilba State Secondary College, Substation 33, the Mini Farm Project for their ongoing involvement in developing and testing this prototype. The project was funded by Lendlease, the Food Agility CRC and QUT.



Other Partners


Food Agility CRC