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What is upcycling and how can it stop food waste?

Clim8 Team

19 March 2021 Climate ChangeSustainability

From fashion to food, upcycling is in Vogue this year. No pun intended, here is the article. Everyone wants a slice of the cake. A welcome trend that is helping tackle our inherent waste problem. 

Simply put, upcycling takes what would traditionally be seen as waste and turns it into new products of similar or higher quality. Making better use of the energy expended in sourcing, transporting and processing material, it prevents valuable resources going to landfill.

A term originally coined by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, upcycling also plays a major role in the circular economy transition.

Food waste: today’s problem

Waste is a recent phenomenon. Until the 19th century, people made all they needed at home, squeezing out every last drop of value from each item. Broken ceramics, shells and animal bones were all discarded. 

During Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 – 1901), an enormous societal shift took place. Incomes were on the rise and people subsequently started buying what they previously made at home from stores. Packaged goods became the norm average household waste skyrocketed and the perceived value of each item was lost. 

Only when waste started visibly piling up were people forced to start finding solutions to fix this new systemic issue. Upcycling was born. 

Changing perceptions about food waste

The term ‘waste’ can imply something of little value. Although upcycling in other industries is becoming ‘trendy’, people still perceive food waste as ‘rotten’, ‘useless’ or even ‘inedible’.

Today’s biggest challenge is not figuring out how to upcycle food waste but convincing people that food waste is in fact perfectly fine to consume. Marketing has a major role to play if upcycled goods are to become mainstream. And not just for eco conscious customers.

Messaging, in our view, needs to steer away from waste’s negative connotations. Companies that have latched onto this have changed the narrative, successfully luring customers in with terms such as ‘by-product’ or ‘derivative’.

Killing two birds with one stone

Despite the marketing conundrum, upcycling food waste brings substantial economic benefits. Companies have discovered a win-win opportunity; an additional revenue stream and a means of saving money on waste disposal.

Their creativity, in our view, is inspiring. Here are some imaginative examples:

  • Sensient Technologies use leftover grape skins from the wine industry to make a hotly sought-after purple extract for dyeing.
  • International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) recently safeguarded 400 metric tonnes of surplus spinach from farmers’ bins after their production levels exceeded supermarket demand. IFF subsequently turned the leaves into nutrient-rich powders, adding them to health products such as nutritional beverage powders or snack bars. Originally a pilot program, it generated an additional USD $1.3 million leading to discussions on how the initiative could be permanently rolled out.
  • Symrise uses discarded cranberry by-products that do not meet current food standards in cosmetics.
  • Givaudan converts spent coffee grounds into premium ‘coffee oil’ adding it to premium skincare products.
  • Rubies in the Rubble rescues leftover wonky and slightly bruised fruit and vegetables from local markets and transforms them into condiments. 

We still throw a third of all food produced worldwide every year. We have a long way to go to tackle  this but upcycling is definitely one lever we can and should be pulling to ease the load.

With investing your capital is at risk. This information is for illustration purposes only and does not constitute investment advice.

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