Earth First

Recycling Food Waste: 6 Unusual Food Waste Inventions

Food waste can contain valuable products. Across the globe, innovative scientists and designers are coming up with imaginative and unusual ways to reuse wasted food.

1. Organic preservatives and packaging

The FAO has found that 14% of food waste occurs between the harvest and sale.1 Plastic packaging can extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables – shrink-wrapped apples last at least two weeks longer - but adds to plastic pollution worldwide.2 

US company Apeel Sciences extracts fats from the peels, seeds, and pulps of fruits and vegetables to create a protective spray. It is based on the waxy substance known as cutin, found naturally in fruit and vegetable skin, which helps to trap moisture. 

Apeel says their spray can preserve foods up to 60% longer. It is odourless, tasteless, colourless, organic, and effective on over 24 different fruits and vegetables. It will be trialled in the US and UK from 2019.3 

Bioplastic Food Wraps

There may also be a new bioplastic for food wrapping soon, made from fish skin waste. A UK designer has combined materials from fish scales, algae, and crustacean shells into a bioplastic called MarinaTex. MarinaTex is fully compostable in a few weeks, unlike traditional bioplastics. It’s estimated that 1,400 MarinaTex plastic bags could be made from the waste skin of one Atlantic cod.4 

2. Sugar substitutes 

Xylitol is a sugar-free sweetener first produced in Finland in the 1950s. It has the same sweetness as table sugar and 40% fewer calories. It is found naturally in some fruits, and humans even produce it during digestion. Traditionally, it was extracted from birch wood.  

Now, a group of Mexican entrepreneurs have devised a way to ferment corn waste – all the parts of the plant we don’t want to eat - into xylitol, using yeast. They hope their company, Xilinat, can challenge the global sugar industry.5  

3. 3D printed ‘upcycled’ food 

Bread is the most wasted food in the Netherlands. Dutch company Upprinting Food makes unwanted bread and ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables into puree, which is 3D printed and then baked or dried into artistic snacks.6  Spanish company Natural Machines’ Foodini can 3D print fish scraps into a gourmet seafood dish, among other things!

Printed portions 

Since 2014, the US Army has researched 3D printing for producing precise military rations. Researchers believe 3D printing could reduce food waste as well as tailor meals for specific environments.7 

Spanish start-up Novameat also thinks that food printing could help reduce the amount of shop food which is needlessly wasted. Novameat prints meat alternatives using vegetable proteins and can print a 100g steak in around 30 minutes by combining lipids, minerals and vitamins to mimic the nutrition and texture of animal meat.8   

4. Artificial body tissues 

Collagen is highly useful for building ‘scaffolds’ in tissue engineering. Currently, it is extracted from slaughter by-products. Yet cow or pig collagen is often unsuitable due to religious reasons or even concerns surrounding potential disease transmission.

Now, Indian researchers have reported a new process to extract collagen from fish skin waste - commonly discarded in coastal regions – to be printed into scaffolds.9 

5. Leather alternatives 

Cellulose is a tough, structural material in plants that can be made into textiles. Several leather alternatives are now using cellulose from recycled food waste.  

Extracted cellulose fibres can be felted and combined with materials to make a resilient material. Examples include Frumat, made from apple cellulose blended with polyurethane, and Pinatex, made from bioplastic based on corn waste and cellulose from pineapple leaves – about 16 pineapples per square metre.10,11  

Some are even now capitalizing on cellulose-producing bacteria. One designer has created coconut leather by mixing bacteria with water from brown coconuts, which is usually discarded. The bacteria feed on the water and produce a cellulose gel – also eaten as a dessert in India – which is refined and combined with other natural materials to make a workable ‘leather’.12   

6. Woven fabrics 

Recycled food waste can also produce woven fabric. Orange Fiber creates vegan silk using cellulose from citrus fruit peel waste.  

Have you ever noticed the solid white lumps in sour milk? These are casein proteins, which clump together when bacteria convert sugars in milk into acid. German company QMilk creates fibres for textiles and paper by extracting casein proteins from waste milk.

QMilk CEO, Anke Domaske, first developed the process for her stepfather, who was suffering from leukaemia and needed chemically untreated clothing. She updated a process originally developed in the 1930s to produce an entirely organic polymer - extract the casein, dry it to powder, make it into a ‘dough’, and spin it into fine fibres. Domaske has declared that a dress can be made from almost six litres of sour milk.14 QMilk fibres are also being used to produce luxury toilet paper, which is available in Italy.15 

Food can be part of a circular economy which reuses and recycles old products into new designs. So perhaps thinking of unwanted food as waste is part of the problem. It’s not waste - it’s an opportunity!

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