Story adapted from Food Shapers, a collection of books produced by The Future Food Institute that follow the journey of 20 food researchers on the 2018 Food Innovation Global Mission.
Food systems are complex due to a dense network of relationships between humans and nature: they cover the entire globe connecting local agricultural contexts and the biggest cities in the world, and they involve the entire global population, from farmers to consumers.
The present food system is unable to provide sufficient healthy and sustainable food for the global population. According to The Global FootPrint Network, current human consumption exceeds the Earth’s biocapacity (our ability to regenerate the resources that the global population requires each year) by 1.7 planets and food demand takes up 26% of the global ecological footprint.
And while our food demand continues to increase, an estimated one-third of global food production currently goes to waste, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
This waste occurs throughout different phases of the supply chain, from farmer to consumer, and are influenced by two main factors: process inefficiency (e.g., spent grain discarded in the brewing process), and quality and aesthetic product standards (e.g., only specific potato sizes can be used to make french fries, while the rest are discarded).
One way companies and startups are beginning to tackle waste management is through the innovative concept of upcycling — creating new value by remaking wasted food into new products, starting with acquisition (collecting materials after consumer use to establish pathways to material recycling), reprocessing (upcycling material to create new value-added products), and remarketing (identifying markets to sell the upcycled product).
As part of the Food Innovation Global Mission 2018, our research team and authors of Food Shapers: Scalable Sustainability and Circular Systems identified “reducing food waste” as one of four critical patterns of sustainable food systems, and went in search of the most innovative and impactful upcycling projects in the 12 main food hubs — from The Netherlands to New York to Hong Kong — we visited around the world.
Through interviewing and interacting with more than 200 “food shapers,” we learned how many of these innovators are rethinking value creation by aligning incentives and revenue mechanisms to leverage sustainable solutions. And while traditional circular business models and strategies have tended to focus on the physical aspects of a product (e.g., disassembly, material selection), these companies are adopting a regenerative approach to resource management that also views humans as vital resources in the food system. These case studies taught us that by involving the human element in a circular framework, we can influence perceptions of waste and behavior change to enhance value in our communities.
Here are just some of the inspiring food heroes and new companies that are inspiring us with their unique approaches to upcycling:
De Verspillingsfabriek (The Netherlands)
“Why is a product only worthy if it’s perfect? Doesn’t a vibrant product or a dynamic service have much more value?” says Bob Hutten, General Manager of De Verspillingsfabriek. Hutten first started the food waste factory in 2016 as a collaborative think tank for tackling food waste. Today, De Verspillingsfabriek takes rescued food from big companies from the agro-food sector and optimizes their waste by reprocessing it into delicious stocks, soups, and sauces, adding new value to the market. These upcycled new food products are repackaged with recipes and remarked under fun branding called Barstensvol, meaning “packed with” in Dutch. With the help of their many partners, the food waste factory continues to facilitate projects that close food waste loops. The company Milgro, for example, supplies weighing stations for measurements and data analysis to gain insights on process and capacity. Students at Wageningen University, a knowledge partner, have developed a platform for collaborating on new solutions for preventing waste.
De Verspillingsfabriek serves as an encouraging example of a company that not only upcycles undervalued flows of food waste but undervalued information and human resources as well. In addition to “no wasted food,” De Verspillingsfabriek also stands for “no wasted talent” and “no wasted location” by employing people with disabilities, creating equal opportunity workspaces to prevent a waste of human resource and talent. Moreover, the waste factory is located in the THREE-SIXTY building, an innovation center for the circular economy. The building was abandoned for ten years before Hutten revitalized it to design a space for entrepreneurs and startups to develop innovative concepts in the field of food waste and social innovation.
Instock (The Netherlands)
Instock started as a pop-up in 2014 after the four founders, who were all working at the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, formed a team to fight food waste. They started collecting and turning unsold fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, and fish from more than 80 Albert Heijn supermarkets and delivering it to a food rescue center where unsold products (mostly veggies and fruit) are sorted based on quality and then listed on their online store for partner restaurants. InStock has helped innovate manufactured products made from food waste, such as their beer products Pieper Bier made from surplus potatoes, and Bammetjes Bier made from old bread, as well as granola made from spent grain.
Instock now runs three successful restaurant locations in Amsterdam, The Hague, and Utrech, as well as a food rescue distribution center and online platform. The cash flow is invested in rescue center workers who sort food and transport food waste. Instock restaurants use their unsold produce to create gourmet dishes using creative culinary techniques. Their chefs create “harvest of the day” tasting menus with the repurposed ingredients using techniques such as fermentation and dehydration to enhance flavors and increase shelf life. It’s a niche market, but by expanding into food distribution and retail, they are also entering homes and have also published the cookbook “Instock Cooking,” which illustrates how to utilize all parts of the food to prevent waste.
Dyelicious (Hong Kong)
One day, while eating curry and spilling some of it on his clothes, Eric Cheung had an epiphany — he realized that he could create value from food waste by converting it into colors and dyes in the fashion industry. “My dream is to go out of business because there is no more food waste,” says Eric Cheung, founder of Dyelicious in Hong Kong, which wastes 3,600 tonnes of food every day, according to the Hong Kong Environment Bureau.
But he soon realized one challenge, he says. Many consumers find food waste, especially from animal feed and fertilizers, unappealing. To attract consumers and involve them in the fight to reduce food waste, Cheung has designed luxury products with the support of popular brands who want to cultivate a more ecological footprint. Dyelicious has since sourced waste from partnering companies in Hong Kong, including Zara, Adidas, Towngas, Starbucks, Calbee, and Hitachio Nest Beer.
For these companies, selling upcycled products portray an image of social responsibility. With the help of the governmental organization Vegetable Marketing Organization (VMO) and other partners, Dyelicious combines stories with food design as a marketing strategy that has powerful impacts. Between 2016 and 2017, Dyelicious has successfully upcycled 500-600 tons of waste. Dyelicious has also partnered with schools to replace their chemical paints with safer, edible products that have no added metallic substances, as well as host workshops for families and kids at retail stores in Hong Kong’s historic PMQ.
E-farm (Hong Kong)
KM Chan uses the black soldier fly to solve food waste problems. A former banker, Chan became increasingly interested in the future of protein. He witnessed the problem of food waste in Hong Kong and decided to combine these issues and form new sustainable solution in the agri-food sector.
E-farm raises public awareness of environmental protection through educational workshops, talks, and eco-tours. The farm also conducts research on sustainable agriculture and shares their findings with the public to promote community gardening and strengthen the bonds between organic farmers.
Chan’s 1,000 square-foot facility is located in the middle of E-farm, a 50,000 square foot farm located inside the Pat Sin Leng Country Park and surrounded by a branch of the Tan Shan River. Chan’s team collects food waste from local primary schools and coffee companies each day. About 100 kgs of food are wasted daily from local primary schools. Sorting food waste is the main challenge as food is mixed with plastics and other non-biodegradable materials. Educating students about the sorting and composting process is one of the first steps to creating a sustainable composting model. The food waste is delivered to a shared space on the farm to be pulped and composted. Larvae of the black soldier fly, which consumes the compost, is then harvested and fed to fish. Lab samples have been tested for further research if this method is safe for human consumption.
Rise Products (New York)
Rise Products is a startup based out of New York that converts spent grain from breweries into an upcycled flour. Spent grain is a byproduct of brewing that is rich in dietary fiber and protein.
Around 42 million tonnes of spent grain is wasted, globally. Rise aims at creating these new upcycled products for bakers, chefs, and food manufacturers. Their patented technology will allow them to expand from just brewing waste to grape pomace, coffee grinds, Okara0 soy milk by-product, and fruit pulp and rind.
Rise uses Uber to pick up waste from its facility in Queens. The brewers directly transfer the food waste from the boilers to food grade containers. Once at the processing facility, the grain is pressed to remove moisture and dry it out and decreases particle size to create the flour. Rise sells its products to industries and food manufacturers that use this upcycled flour for creating new products. They market the product as “Super Flour,” which has 12 times the fiber, two times the protein and one-third the carbs compared to all-purpose flour. Rise also sells a barley flour made from the spent grain of IPA or pilsner, as well as a “dark edition” barley flour made from the spent grain of stout or porter. They have also recently introduced a new brownie mix into retail.
Having had the opportunity to explore and be motivated by all these practices around the world, we can spotlight several elements supporting our food system in a positive transition. Impact can be created with three different approaches: standalone intervention, bringing a new product or service to market; system innovation, creating or altering existing systems to bring about change; and cultural transformation, transforming the attitudes and behaviors of a community. Furthermore, the needed expertise involves spans across individuals, organizations with interdisciplinary teams and cross-collaborations across the supply chain. Collaboration and interdisciplinary seem to be the key elements which are constantly needed to create and accelerate a change. Finally, as previously mentioned, the keystone for a successful initiative seems to be the ability to align incentives and revenue mechanisms, making sustainable models not only economically viable, but appealing for businesses.