Today, I continue my review of some of the most talked about trends for 2020 and the decade ahead, making my predictions for which ones we’ll still be talking about in 2021. Last week, I looked at plant-based foods and diets and CBD. This week, I look at upcycling.
Will the Best Ideas Get Scrapped?
Consumer interest in sustainability? Check. Consumer concern about food waste? Check. Consumer interest in purchasing upcycled products? Check. But are consumers ready for the food equivalent of Rothy's shoes? Don’t check that box just yet.
Whether they’re creating shoes from plastic bottles (i.e., Rothys), tote bags from airline seats, wallets from bicycle tubes or toothbrushes from yogurt cups, companies in every field from fashion to housewares to beauty are looking at ways to take the everyday items we waste and turning them into new products. And mainstream companies are taking notice.
One category where upcycling is on the rise is food. Given the amount of food wasted in the U.S. alone – according to ReFed, 52 million tons of food are sent to landfills annually and another 10 million tons are discarded or left unharvested on farms – upcycling seems like one solution to a very big problem in the U.S. and around the globe. ReFed projects that “value-added processing” (its version of upcycling) could recover the equivalent of 171,000 meals. When it comes to food, however, upcycling is tricky. Foods, first and foremost, need to be palatable and many byproducts of food production just aren’t that tasty. The products also need to be cost-effective and recovering, reusing and marketing discarded foods can be expensive. And, while some companies claim the upcycled ingredients have enhanced nutritional value, it’s hard to say which nutrients have been retained during the manufacturing process and which have been enhanced.
To date, companies have found the most success by turning “ugly” produce into great-tasting beverages and snacks. The Guardian estimates that almost half of the produce grown in the United States is wasted simply because it doesn’t meet our standards of beauty. While mainstream retailers and direct-to-consumer start-ups have tried to get us to see less than beautiful fruits and vegetables in a new light, it seems that most of us are still searching for the perfect pear. That’s where companies like WTRMLNWTR, the company that seemingly hates vowels but loves blemished melons, and Barnana, which makes snacks out of bananas that have been rejected for export because of bruising, have stepped in. A number of other companies are turning spurned produce into soups, sauces and jams. There has been some backlash against this type of upcycling but, for now, it seems to be the most direct route into the category.
Others are creating new ingredients out what’s left from the processing of other foods and beverages. The strategy here is more focused on a B2B approach, as exemplified by companies like Renewal Mill, which turns the leftover pulp from soymilk production into flour, and Planetarians, which is selling the sunflower protein left by sunflower oil production as a pea and soy protein alternative. Even Regrained, which uses the grains remaining from beer brewing to make bars and snack puffs, is lookimg to sell its product as a wholesale ingredient.
It should be noted that the major food companies have essentially been upcycling for years. For example, General Mills, reported that it recycled 79 percent of the solid waste from global food production and 11 percent was processed for energy recovery. One specific action from ConAgra Foods was to create blended pudding flavors so it no longer wastes product while flushing the manufacturing line from one flavor to another. It also donates the mixed-flavor pudding. Here again, companies need to be cautious about turning production waste into consumer products. Tyson Foods had created Yappah, chicken crisps made from chicken breast trim, vegetable puree, juice pulp and Molson Coors spent grain, but its website now says, “We’re sorry, but Yappah Chicken Crisps are no longer available. The team decided that the product did not offer the viability that would enable continued investment. Thank you for your interest. Have a nice day!” While it’s difficult to know exactly what “no longer viable” means, the team behind Yappah probably wasn’t having such a nice day when it posted that notice.
My prediction: There may be nice days ahead for some in the upcycling world but consumer demand is still an unknown. There’s no question that upcycling is one of several much-needed solutions to the food waste problem and companies are making great strides toward finding new uses for our overabundance of leftovers. What may be more of a challenge, however, is getting consumers to get excited about upcycled foods. If you think about the eyerolls aimed your way when announcing leftovers for dinner, you’ll understand the hesitancy. Whether they’re creating B2B or B2C products, companies will need to evaluate whether or not upcycling is a strong consumer message or just another method to making their products.
Next week, we’ll ask, “Should I get excited about date-ing?” If you want to get a sneak peek or talk about how these trends may impact your business, contact me at Ilene.firstname.lastname@example.org