Food Waste Has Manufacturers Engaging The Circular Economy

upcycling is an example of the circular economyAs manufacturers increasingly look for ways to bring sustainability to their operations, more are turning to concepts of the so-called “circular economy.” They recycle and “upcycle” everything they can, both benefiting the bottom line and helping preserve the planet.

There’s nowhere the circular economy may be hotter than the packaged-food industry, where CPG titans and startups alike, as well as foodservice chains and providers of plastic packaging, are rapidly intensifying their efforts.

The highest-profile aspects of this are the growing clamor against the use of plastic straws, lids, cups and other disposable forms of packaging because of how they contribute to the deluge of plastic waste that is fouling global oceans as well as filling landfills.

Most on point so far: A new TV commercial by SodaStream, the maker of countertop carbonation machines, which mocks Coca-Cola’s classic 1971 commercial, “Hilltop.” The iconic Coke ad, of course, featured hundreds of young people standing on a hilltop in Italy with Cokes in their hands and singing about global harmony. But now SodaStream depicts another diverse group of singers, each with a plastic bottle of water in their hands, singing about saving the world in a new song – while standing on an iceberg-sized heap of discarded plastic bottles.

At the same time, much of activity pointing toward a circular economy is taking place in the food business, where the industry has accepted the notion that about 40 percent of food in the United States ends up being wasted. It’s a figure hatched in 2012 by an NGO, the Environmental Resources Defense Council, based on U.S. government figures, and its very egregiousness has helped engage many companies in efforts to try to reduce it.

“In many ways, food waste is inefficiency masquerading as resources,” says Elizabeth Balkan, food waste director for NRDC. “Pinpointing the problem of food waste highlighted the fact that even sophisticated companies have inefficiencies in their supply chains and opportunities to improve entire operations that not only shrink the amount of food waste being generated but also save businesses money.”

In fact, about two dozen CPG manufacturers and food retailers are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as U.S. Food and Waste 2030 Champions, setting a target to cut food waste in half by 2030. They include major producers Campbell Soup, Conagra, General Mills, Kellogg, PepsiCo and Unilever, and many of the most significant retailers, such as Walmart, Kroger, Wegman’s and Ahold Delhaize USA.

Tyson Foods is one processing pioneer in this regard. It has introduced Yappah, a new brand of “chicken crisps” snacks that are made from upcycled trimmings of chicken breasts, tapioca flour, vegetable purees “rescued” from juicing, and malted barley that is a byproduct of beer brewing. The first product out of the chute for Tyson’s intrapreneurial Innovation Lab, Yappah sprinted from concept to finished product on the shelf in only six months.

“It’s very important because we believe that, hopefully through this launch, we can help create awareness with action to fight food waste,” says Rizal Hamdallah, head of Innovation Lab. “It’s unbelievable to see how many companies talk about it but don’t act on it. What’s important for us as a leader is to show that we can start doing something about it.”

An increasing number of startup manufacturers are using food-waste reduction as a primary platform. Barnanas is one of the most prominent such startups. Co-Founder Caue Suplicy and his partners have built a $15-million-plus startup in just six years, selling banana “bites” in several varieties. Because Barnanas’ ideal raw material was bananas that were a bit ripe, there was a vast supply of the fruit in Central and South America that would be available in the form of waste bananas.

“We’ve upcycled more than 13 million kilos of bananas so far and we’ve barely even scratched the surface of global banana waste,” Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer Nik Ingersoll says. “About 20 percent of all bananas produced go to waste. It’s astronomical how many there are, and we continue to use them every day.”

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