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How to convert unavoidable food wastes into bio-based products

Can we convert unavoidable food wastes into bio-based products? This article discusses how companies are doing this.
A hand holding an ice-cream cone
© University of York/BioYorkshire

Most of us instinctively feel that it’s wrong to waste food; and yet: around a third of all food produced is wasted, leading to both financial losses and environmental problems.

Love food, hate waste

Consumer campaigns in the UK such as ‘Love food, Hate Waste’ are encouraging us to become less wasteful in our everyday lives but there will always be some types of waste that are hard to avoid, particularly from farms and food processing factories; think bread crusts, potato peelings or tomato skins.

To address this global waste issue; scientists and innovative businesses are developing new ways to turn these unavoidable food wastes into a wide range of bio-based products, i.e. products that are partly (or fully) made from a renewable plant or waste material.

This will reduce our dependency on petrochemicals, so providing sustainable business income and benefit the environment.

Developing new products for everyday use

Italian company Mogu is one of many businesses attempting to create new products from crop waste.

They have used the latest materials science and design expertise to develop new techniques to grow fungus on wheat straw and other waste materials, binding it together to create a light yet durable material that can be used for making a range of products including insulation, packaging and even fabrics such as leather.

A natural process

These new materials are the result of a natural process: the result is a 100% renewable, recyclable and compostable material that is much healthier for our planet. Even tomato skins (that are discarded when making cans of tomatoes for example) can become the raw materials for new products in the food packaging sector.

They contain a waxy, water-repellent substance called “cutin” that can be used to produce an inner coating for food tins, preventing the metal can from reacting with the food. So, ironically, the skins that protect the fresh tomatoes can also be used to protect the processed ones too!

Waste ice cream

It’s hard to believe, but there is such a thing as waste ice cream! Manufacturers have to wash the processing equipment between batches to avoid mixing the raspberry ripple with the mint choc chip.

The water used to wash out the machines ends up full of sugars and fats. While this currently presents a costly waste to businesses, who have to pay the water companies for flushing this dirty water down the drain, it could become a new source of income.

Increasingly, scientists are using this type of material to feed bugs and fungi that in turn generate useful chemicals. Just in the same way that we have been using yeast to generate bread and beer for centuries, so now we are using this fermentation process to create all kinds of materials.

A circular approach to the future

The ability to make products from unavoidable waste and renewable materials is a rapidly developing area, and we are seeing more of these products in our local shops as well as in well-known supermarket chains.

With the help of the latest scientific and technological developments, high-value chemicals, construction materials, packaging, toys, fabrics and energy can all be made from crop and food processing waste.

In the future, we could see the creation of ‘biorefineries’ (like an oil refinery but using bio-based starting materials) that create a range of products from waste streams before using what remains to generate energy for our homes and schools or to fertilise the soil in which our crops grow.

Waste full-circle

This brings the use of waste full-circle, using leftovers to make new materials – in contrast to our current linear process which generates enormous volumes of waste.

With these types of biorefineries now emerging we can not just avoid waste, but also become more economically effective and help save the planet in the process.

Further reading

From food waste to jet fuel

20 companies making new products from food waste

© University of York/BioYorkshire
This article is from the free online

Bioeconomy: How Renewable Resources Can Help the Future of Our Planet

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