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Circular concepts for tackling industrial food-processing waste

Food waste. A global problem that has several different components: domestic food waste and industrial waste. Industrial waste can be as much as 75% of all food waste in some countries. But what happens to all these wasted resources today?

A staggering one-third of all food that is produced goes to waste, which means we produce around 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste per year. In a world where many do not have enough to eat, we are every day wasting valuable products and resources (up to 50% of total nutrients). With only 25% of the currently wasted food, almost 900 million people could be fed.

Food loss also has a negative impact on the environment. Precious resources such as water and energy are wasted by producing and then disposing of tons of food. We are quite literally dumping our limited resources into landfills.

In industrialized countries, the largest percentage of food waste comes from household consumption (up to 65% of the total amount). However, 30% of food waste is being produced during processing or manufacturing. This data varies from country to country and in some parts of the globe it can reach a distribution where 75% of the waste is from industry.

To give some absolute values, a large industrial bakery in Europe produces up to 150 tons of bread, dough and flour waste per month.  A typical food manufacturer company can easily produce 60000 m3 of wastewater per month.

This needs to change, and the food industry has become aware of this. Food companies are taking steps towards the reduction of food disposal, as a way to mitigate their climate footprint as well as to reduce economic loss.   

Fazer, for example, is aiming to reduce its food waste by 50% in the next 10 years. Nestlé is working on accelerating the process of halving food waste and is even aiming to achieve zero waste for disposal in their sites by 2020. Arla Foods has ambitious goals to halve their food waste, aiming for both improving the efficiency of its operations and for finding new ways to process their raw materials.

Pretty much all big food companies have made the reduction of food waste (such as “zero waste to landfill”) one of their main sustainability goals for the near future.

How are companies reducing food waste?

Of course, one of the best approaches is to prevent or reduce the generation of waste in the first place. Prevention can be achieved by improving the efficiency of the work chain, which means less food is lost during the production process.

Reduction is tackled in several ways. For example, companies are donating excess of food to charity and are leading campaigns to educate people about household food loss. Another option to reduce waste is to send the leftovers of the raw material to animal feed.

Prevention or reduction of food waste is often preferred over recycling or recovery. However, some of these alternatives just tackle the problem partially: sending “waste” for livestock feed, for example, has an indirect impact on the environment by contributing to high CO2 emissions and land use of livestock management.

Furthermore, it does not promote the shift from unsustainable protein sources, being just a partial solution to the problems that society is currently facing.

Prevention is not possible for inedible food waste (usually residues or by-products from food preparation). Therefore,  there is still a big part of food waste that cannot be avoided.

Reusing industrial food waste

To prevent it from ending up in a landfill people are getting creative: production of beer, cement , biogas and ethanol are just some of the examples that excess food can be turned into. These solutions can be summarized under one concept: circular economy. In a circular economy system, waste is eliminated by continuously reusing the resources and creating value out of waste. It is a direct alternative to the classical, linear industry model based on taking resources, developing a product and producing waste. The closed cycle of circular economy avoids consumption of limited resources.

Circular economy is a rising trend in Europe; industries are starting to shift their business models towards circular economy, and the EU is supporting this change by providing funding and introducing policies to push for a zero-waste economy.

Industrial food waste often ends as biogas

Right now, by far the most common way of integrating food waste into a circular economy model is through biogas production. In the Nordic countries, 22% of food waste is destined to biogas vs the 30% that is still incinerated or the 12% destined to composting. During biogas production, microorganisms turn organic waste in an anaerobic digestion process into methane (“bioenergy”) to power cars and heat homes, and biofertilizer to improve soil quality.

Source: EESI

Almost all food companies out there, including Nestlé, Fazer, Estrella, Orkla, Pepsico and Unilever, are directing at least some of their waste to biogas production.

However, as great as biogas production is, there is way more potential in food waste than just creating energy with it. Through new technologies, more ways of recycling food and using resources are opening up. And companies know this:

“We don’t have all the answers yet, but we call on our farmers, and we call on the industry, academic institutions and governments for collaboration and ideas that will support the transition to more sustainable farming and food production”

– Jan Toft Nørgaard, Chairman at Arla Foods.

More valuable use of industrial food waste

Considering the amount of food waste being generated, there is room for more than one solution. And some of these solutions can tackle what’s unachievable for biogas production: preventing the loss of nutrients.

This is where the innovation provided by Mycorena steps in. Fungal fermentation on food industry waste directly turns the nutrients, mostly carbohydrates, into high-value protein. The resulting product, Promyc, is sustainably produced, vegan and nutritious, and contributes to the circular economy by re-using resources and returning nutrients back into the cycle. Promyc Vega is a complete alternative to meat, while Promyc Aqua is made to replace fishmeal in aquaculture feed. Both products are made in a resource-efficient way, carbon-neutral, and environmentally conscious way.

Mycoprotein Fungi-based from Mycorena, Sweden
Promyc Mycorpotein from Mycorena AB

There is enormous potential in circular economy to help solve the environmental issues that the world is facing nowadays. We at Mycorena show how innovation can lead to sustainable solutions. In the years to come, we will surely see more and more companies adopting a circular economy mindset, prioritising zero-waste strategies in their processes and collaborating with others to achieve resource-efficient production.

Author: Leticia Castillón
R&D Intern at Mycorena

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