The future of the food upcycling market

From turning it into car parts to using it in 3D printers, there’s no shortage of ideas for how to clean up leftovers.

29 January 2020
food wastetechnology
image credit: Getty Images/VadimZakirov

In 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that one third of the world’s food produced globally – roughly 1.3bn tonnes – is lost or goes to waste, either during production or due to decisions made by retailers, foodservice providers and consumers. This distressing statistic continues on into 2020, but momentum is building among businesses to create new product streams and reduce the amount of food and food byproducts that are going to waste

For some, this is as straightforward as composting on an industrial scale like Atlas Organics, or harnessing the released biogases from compost as with Home Biogas. 

There’s also been a marked uptick in ‘ugly food’ reclamation. Companies like Full Harvest connect farmers with customers who don’t mind lumpy produce that doesn’t fit into the grocery store aesthetic. Hungry Harvest receives rejected fruits and vegetables from grocery stores and resells them at a cheaper price. 

However, there is more waste from the food industry to be saved from its landfill demise. Byproducts are produced along many more points in the food supply chain, and using these to create products of higher quality and value has big potential for both small-time innovators and large businesses. 

Useless things pay off 

A study from Future Market Insights, published in May 2019 using data by Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data, found that food waste is a booming business, worth $46.7bn (around £36.63bn) in 2019 and has an expected compound annual growth rate of 5% for the next 10 years. 

"Food waste costs us billions of dollars each year and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, yet it represents an untapped resource," says Danielle Joseph, executive director at Closed Loop Partners. Her investment firm is focused on supporting companies that create sustainable consumer goods, advanced recycling technologies and the development of the circular economy. 

image credit: Natural Machines

One of their many investments is Natural Machines, a start-up that manufactures 3D food printing machine Foodini. This hi-tech gadget not only creates beautiful shapes and helps chefs with consistency on the plate, but also hopes to reduce food waste, inspiring chefs to create something new (and more visually appealing) from scraps typically thrown away. 

“It’s all about food presentation,” says Lynette Kucsma, co-founder and CMO of Natural Machines. “Chefs are always looking for new and better ways of doing things. We allow for food presentation that they couldn’t do by hand, which saves time and runs more efficiently.”  

Recently, they’ve worked with Bocuse D’Or winner Viktor Örn Andrésson, using fish trimmings to create an elaborate dish, as well as other chefs who repurpose potato peels to create delicate garnishes. 

Getting a buzz out of coffee chaff 

Coffee waste is another major target for the food upcycling market. In December 2019, Ford Motor Company announced it would partner with McDonald’s to use millions of pounds of coffee chaff – the dried skin of the bean that naturally comes off during the roasting process – to create vehicle parts such as headlamp housing.

“By heating the chaff to high temperatures under low oxygen, mixing it with plastic and other additives, and turning it into pellets, the material can be formed into various shapes,” the company noted in its recent press release. According to Ford, the resulting components will be about 20% lighter and require up to 25% less energy during the moulding process. 

UK-based Bio-Bean re-utilizes the coffee grounds leftover after making a cup of coffee. According to them, more than 500,000 tonnes of spent coffee grounds are produced in the UK each year. Bio-bean turns spent coffee grounds into solid, super-efficient biomass fuel and have recently launched their first commercial product: Coffee Logs, which they sell for £8.99 for 16 online. 

Eyes are also turning to the poultry industry, where more than 3.1m tonnes of feather waste is produced a year in Europe alone. Aeropowder is working to re-purpose the feathers not used for down to create thermal insulation. Last year, they launched their first consumer product, Pluumo, which insulates just as effectively as polystyrene, but is both recyclable and biodegradable. While their insulation still costs 10-20% more than conventional thermal packaging, they are hoping to become more competitive once business picks up. 

However, not all ideas work, even if there’s a lot of power backing the innovation. In May 2018, Tyson Innovation Lab (a team within Tyson Foods, Inc. tasked with bringing new consumer products to market), launched Yappah, a brand of bite-sized protein crisps sourced from leftover chicken breast trim, vegetable puree, juice pulp and Molson Coors spent grain. By October 2019, they discontinued the line, due to (as a message on their now-defunct website says) the product not offering “the viability that would enable continued investment.” 

Future of innovation 

With more and more consumers making the environment and lowering food waste a priority in their purchasing decisions, the future for upcycled products looks bright. 

"We're pleased to see an increasing number of innovative companies committed to tackling the issue across the entire value chain,” says Danielle Joseph of Closed Loop Partners. “From material science alternatives to plastic packaging, to better inventory management solutions upstream, to modular anaerobic digesters or local composting solutions further downstream, it will require a holistic approach to solve such a critical global waste issue and build a more circular system for food." 

Lynette Kucsma of Natural Machines is also optimistic for the future of reducing food waste, but cautions that movement will continue to evolve step by step. 

“It’s not going to take one single major turning point, like we’re going to wake up tomorrow and waste is suddenly going to be eliminated. But I think more and more people are appreciating the fact that they can lower food waste, and it is a time when consumers and professionals are becoming much more aware,” she says. 

“It’s exciting to see that there’s so many things happening. There’s no overnight success. But as [upcycling] becomes easier, people will naturally start to catch on.”

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