Upcycled Food: An Innovative Way to Combat Food Waste
In elementary school, the first environmental lesson you probably learned revolved around the importance of “the three R´s:” reduce, reuse, and recycle. Given the fact that U.S. children make up only 3.7 percent of children on the planet but have 47 percent of all toys and children’s books, the lesson of “reducing” the amount of stuff we purchase and own is probably pretty relevant to most young people in the United States and other “developed” countries. However, given the fact that the average U.S. household today contains over 300,000 items, our penchant for “reducing” our consumer habits hasn’t exactly been successful.
Rather, focusing on using reusable items has also become a central point of the environmental identity that many people embrace. Reusable straws and shopping bags, to name just a few examples, or increasingly popular with people who want to reduce their environmental footprint. Even some companies are embracing the challenge to reduce single-use, disposable packaging by embracing reusable, sustainable packaging alternatives.
When the items we accumulate and use eventually do wear out and are no longer useful, recycling those items is seen as the most responsible course of action. Unfortunately, many of the consumer items we use today, especially those made from cheap plastics, are essentially “un-recyclable” due to the current economic condition of the recycling market and the fact that China (where most of our plastic recyclables used) has slashed their plastic imports by 99 percent in recent years.
The “three R´s” certainly play an essential role in helping us to assess the environmental impact of our consumer habits and to find practical ways to limit the waste that we create. However, the sheer amount of “stuff” that we have manufactured, produced, and consumed over the past decades of unprecedented economic growth is going to eventually break down. What we do with those “junk” items will largely determine our collective waste footprint. Furthermore, there are hundreds of by-products from our manufacturing and production processes that are usually wasted, thus contributing to the overall footprint of the end product that is eventually sold and used.
Upcycling is a relatively new term that offers an innovative way to deal with waste items that are difficult to either avoid (through the “R” of reducing) or recycle. Upcycling also encourages a deeper commitment from both consumers and businesses to find ways to re-use the “hidden” waste that often accompanies manufacturing processes for consumer items.
In this short article, we will offer an overview of upcycling, and specifically look at how upcycling can revolutionize one of the most ubiquitous, damaging, and overlooked waste streams affecting our society: food waste. We then turn our attention to how certain organizations and food brands are using upcycling to address the problem of food waste and create more sustainable ways to eat.
What is Upcycling, and How Does it Relate to Food?
When most of us hear the term “upcycling”, we probably think about some delightful craft opportunity we may have found on the internet to do with our children, wherein common, everyday trash items are “upcycled” and given new use. The millions of things you can do with a cardboard toilet paper tube come to mind, for example. Or perhaps we may enjoy the challenge of finding useful applications and functions for certain trash items that don’t fit into the recycling bin. Turning old tires into outdoor flower pots, repurposing a broken down refrigerator into a bookshelf you place in your home office, or donating your old mattress to your favorite pet so that she has a newfound luxury in the dog house are just a few of the practical ways to upcycle items that are usually thrown away.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American person will produce about 5.91 pounds of trash per day. Of that amount, about one and a half pounds will be recycled, while the remaining 4.5 pounds will end up in the landfill or incinerator. Large, bulky waste items can be particularly difficult to either recycle or reuse, and despite increasingly strict laws and ordinances regarding proper disposal of these items, many of these bulky waste items eventually end up in the dump. Upcycling offers a practical, DIY alternative for people to avoid these waste streams.
However, the idea and philosophy behind upcycling goes much further than cute craft ideas and inventive ways of keeping your old appliances around the home.
As a definition, upcycling refers to the practice of reusing discarded objects or materials in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. Discarded materials can refer to both consumer items that have served their useful life and are no longer repairable (which occurs on a much shorter timescale today due to planned obsolescence), and byproducts of manufacturing processes that are forms of derivative waste.
Upcycling on a commercial scale is also possible for businesses in different industries. For example, in the clothing or fashion industry, Elvis and Kresse, a luxury accessory brand, started in 2005 as a way to save London’s decommissioned fire hoses that were going to landfills. Today, Elvis & Kresse’s highly skilled craftspeople make beautifully designed bags and homeware from 15 different reclaimed materials, including parachute silk, used coffee sacks, auction banners, and shoe boxes.
Similarly, the Scottish startup company Kenoteq produces a brick made from 90 percent of construction waste in the construction industry. The end product is a basic building material that generates only 1/10 of the emissions compared to the production of traditional bricks.
Given the sheer amount of waste that we produce, the opportunities for commercial-scale upcycling seem to be endless. However, when it comes to the food industry, reusing discarded leftovers and food waste to create a product of higher quality or value than the original might seem like an impossible (and undesirable) task. Though you could make the point that composting food waste to create mulch and organic fertilizer is a perfect example of upcycling, creating other valuable consumer and/or food products from food waste is generally not considered feasible.
A Few Surprising Statistics on Food Waste
Before we turn our attention to the different examples of “food upcycling” that are inspiring new and creative ways of how to deal with our food waste, it is important to take a quick look at the massive amount of food waste that we produce yearly and its environmental impact.
When we think about reducing global climate change, we probably think about the mass deployment of electric vehicles or gigantic solar farms producing the energy we need. However, according to Project Drawdown, which is perhaps the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming, there are other solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that are often overlooked by the general population.
Project Drawdown offers a detailed analysis of the top 100 solutions to combat climate change. Many of these solutions are related to implementing massive renewable energy projects or fundamentally changing the way we do agriculture. Other solutions are explicitly applicable to individuals and businesses. According to the Project, the third most effective solution to climate change is “reducing food waste.” The study finds that reducing food waste from the farm field to the dinner table could lead to an impressive 70.53 Gigatons (GT) of reduced CO2 emissions across the globe.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 20 percent of what goes into municipal landfills is food. Not only do those leftovers take up significant space in landfills, but they also lead to an enormous amount of methane gas escaping into the atmosphere as it decomposes. Methane gas is about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and the vast majority of it comes from organic waste decomposing at landfill sites.
These statistics don’t even consider the streams of food waste that come from food manufacturing facilities, restaurants, and other commercial sources of food waste. Thus, finding ways to reduce our food waste is not only a way to limit the stress on our already overburdened landfill system but can also play a major role in reducing methane emissions. As we´ll see below, upcycling food waste items can also give companies sustainable raw materials for manufacturing and producing high-value items.
What is Upcycled Food?
According to the Upcycled Food Association, “upcycled foods are made from ingredients that would otherwise have ended up in a food waste destination. According to the Food Loss and Waste Protocol, the food waste destinations are when food ends up in places like incinerators, as animal feed, in landfills, or anaerobic digestors.” The Association, which began about three years ago (showing that the idea of upcycling food waste into new consumer products is a relatively new approach), believes it is possible to make high-quality products out of surplus food. Upcycling food products is not only an innovative approach to food waste, but it is also a consumer product-based solution, making it highly scalable and economically sustainable.
One team of experts states that “upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”
Furthermore, upcycled food items can drastically reduce the economic cost of food waste. It is estimated that around the world, over 1 trillion dollars per year is lost on food that is wasted or otherwise squandered. Upcycled food items can re-capture that economic value and use the resource of food waste to contribute to a sustainable and resilient food system.
In recent years, some innovative companies have begun to use different sources of food waste to create products for use in different industries. For example, the Chip[s] Board ® Company is developing a strategy to use commercial waste streams of potato skins to create a durable and sustainable alternative to medium-density fiberboard. Instead of cutting down virgin forests to plant fast-growing monoculture stands of timber to have a steady source of wood pulp for the construction and lumber industries, the company has found that potato waste can be transformed into a recycled, useful, durable, and beautiful product that mimics composite wood products such as medium density fiberboard.
Though inspiring and a unique use for food waste, upcycled food, by definition, must be for human consumption. The Upcycled Food Association states unequivocally that “upcycled food is all about elevating food to its highest and best use. Upcycled foods are for human consumption, but upcycled ingredients could also be included in animal feed, pet food, cosmetics, and more.”
Another benefit that could come with the widespread adoption of upcycling food for human consumption is reducing the “agricultural frontier.” About 28 percent of agricultural land is used to grow food that is never eaten. Upcycled food products will rely on an auditable supply chain that can verifiably ensure that food waste is being reduced by utilizing all the nutrients grown on farms. This not only helps farmers get more value out of their land, but it could also help humanity feed our growing population without increasing deforestation or putting extra pressure on the environment.
A Few Practical Examples
By now, you´re probably convinced that upcycling food waste into food products could be a pretty good idea. But who is actually doing it? When you look at your home compost bin, you might wonder what healthy, safe, and edible food products might come from that assortment of used coffee grounds, banana peels, and leftovers that no one wanted to eat. Most food brands that are producing upcycled foods tend to search for raw materials that come from commercial food waste streams. Here are a few inspiring examples:
- Regrained: This company was started by a group of home beer brewers who wanted to find a use for the leftover spent grain from their brewing process. After years of experimentation, the founders discovered that the flavorful and fragrant grain left over after each beer brewing was not “spent” but was full of concentrated fiber, protein, and other nutrients. The end product is the ReGrained SuperGrain+® made into nutritious flour and subsequently made into baking mixes, pasta, and puffs.
- Planetarians: This company claims to reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million tons annually by making plant protein sustainably and more affordable than animal protein. The company upcycles the dry, woody remains that accumulate during the oil extraction from sunflower seeds and turns those remains into healthy chips.
- FoPo Food Powder: This company, still in the Kickstarter stage, aims to do something with the absurd amount of expiring fruits and vegetables thrown away by supermarket chains worldwide. The idea is to take those “close to spoiling” fruits and vegetables and turns them into fruit powders that can be stored, sold, and eaten later.
- The Ugly Company: Similarly, this upcycled food company takes slightly blemished fruits and turns them into dried and diced fruit packets. Supermarkets have incredibly strict rules regarding the cosmetic qualities that fruits must maintain. This is partly why the UN estimates that nearly half of the fruits and vegetables produced worldwide are wasted yearly. According to the company´s website, “We throw away more peaches in California than the state of Georgia produces annually. This food is perfectly healthy to eat, but it looks a little quirky! Some call it ugly, but we call it a beautiful opportunity.”
- Repurposed pod: This small-scale food company works with cacao farmers in Ecuador and makes delicious cacao juice (yes, such a thing exists) from the juice left in the chocolate-making process.
- Sweet Benin: In the same vein, the company Sweet Benin manufactures cashew apple juice out of leftover cashew apples. Most people don’t know that the cashew nut grows on the end of a delicious tropical fruit (the cashew apple) that, while enjoyed locally in producing countries, is often squandered when the cashew nut is produced on a commercial scale.
- Aqua Botanical: Believe it or not, even water can be upcycled to reduce the enormous energy expenditures that come with “harvesting” and transporting water. Aqua Botanical is one company that uses the water that is wasted during juice making on an industrial scale. The company takes that water, purifies it, adds minerals, and markets it as plant-based water.
Keto/Paleo Certified Upcycled Food Brands
In the Keto, Paleo, and Grain-free health food community, some brands are leading the way in incorporating upcycled food materials. SunOpta Inc. is a leading healthy food and beverage company focused on making plant-based foods and beverages and fruit-based foods and beverages. The company is one of the largest producers of plant-based oat milk and other plant-based milks for some of the largest brands and retailers in the industry.
Recently, the company began extracting and selling its OatGold™ powder ingredient. OatGold™ is a versatile, smooth oat protein produced in powder form made from byproducts of the company´s broader manufacturing process. According to the company´s website, “OatGold is neutral in taste, ready-to-eat, vegan, Non-GMO Project Verified, kosher certified, and certified gluten-free. It is also allergen-friendly and does not contain any of the U.S. major food allergens.”
As an upcycled product that is high in protein and fiber, it could be used for a wide variety of potential product applications, including:
- Savory Snacks
- Baked Goods
- Sweet Treats
- Spreads & Dips
- Extruded Products
Recent research confirms that consumers are increasing their demands for ethical and sustainable supply chains connected to the goods and services they purchase. One recent survey of 27,000 worldwide respondents found that 88 percent of global consumers claimed that they prioritized buying from companies and brands that have transparent, ethical sourcing strategies in place.
For health food brands, finding ways to incorporate upcycled food items into your manufacturing practices can help small farmers improve income from their land, reduce food waste and its subsequent methane emissions, and lessen the environmental impact of increasing demand for further agricultural production. These issues are becoming increasingly important to consumers and might help your company create a branding differentiation strategy that appeals to this growing consumer base.