Food Upcycling’s Untapped Potential

One-third of food produced around the world ends up in garbage cans and landfills. Advocates point to a simple solution: reusing food instead of throwing it away.

Reported Food Food Waste

Every weekend, before massive garbage trucks rumble through U.S. neighborhoods, families clean out their refrigerators. Into the trash bag goes an uneaten casserole, a sliced onion leftover from lunch a few days ago, an opened can of refried beans and a nearly full box of spinach that is starting to spoil. Earlier that week, carrot peels, celery leaves, a half-eaten burrito, and the leafy tops of beets were also tossed out, to eventually find their way into landfills. 

Around one-third of all the food produced around the world is wasted—ending up in garbage cans and landfills, or becoming spoiled sitting on trucks or in warehouses. In the U.S., 30-40 percent of food is left to rot, and animal products represent 27 percent of this waste. Most of the food that gets discarded comes from individual households, with restaurants, grocery stores, and other food services ranked closely behind homes. 

Food waste accounts for eight to 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and squanders over a quarter of the water used in crop production. Food waste also contributes to food insecurity and hunger—resulting in nearly 1,300 calories worth of food being thrown away per person daily in the U.S., where over 10 percent of households cannot get enough to eat on a regular basis. 

An Alternative to Food Waste 

Food upcycling, which finds uses for edible products and ingredients that would otherwise be discarded, seems to have few downsides. It has the potential to create circular economies that add value to waste products, develop new food sources for communities, expand markets for agricultural producers, and minimize a major driver of climate change at multiple levels. But, whether food upcycling can achieve food system reform, rather than simply repurpose products from an already broken food production system, remains an open question. 

Much of what is currently wasted can be used in other ways, and the food upcycling movement seeks to do just that. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of issues surrounding food waste. In a recent survey, nearly half of respondents wanted to reduce household food waste. Start-up companies are capitalizing on this momentum by developing innovative approaches, including repurposing the leftover pulp from cold-pressed juices to create snack foods like chips, making vodka from discarded baked goods, and delivering foods that would otherwise be rejected for cosmetic reasons. 

The Upcycled Food Association (UFA) supports businesses and startups by growing and developing markets that successfully repurpose food waste and positively impact the environment. To that end, UFA recently launched a third-party certification system for verification of upcycled food products and ingredients that consumers can use to make informed choices. They also work with companies like CaPao, which creates plant-based snack foods from the flesh of cacao fruit, normally discarded by the chocolate industry. Turner Wyatt, CEO of the Upcycled Food Association, says tackling food waste is a powerful point of unity among consumers with disparate attitudes toward food, and “one of the most impactful decisions that a person makes in their lives is about their food choices and food consumption.” 

Individual Approaches to Food Upcycling

Isaias Hernandez, environmental educator and creator of QueerBrownVegan, emphasizes individual approaches to food upcycling, many of which have been shared among families and communities for generations. He points out that a lot of the tools and wisdom of upcycling come from BIPOC cultural experiences and traditional uses. Strategies like fermentation, sun baking and drying, liquid dilution, and other methods of preventing food waste have long been used in Indigenous communities. Hernandez points out it is important to acknowledge this cultural expertise within food upcycling and create reservoirs of collaborative knowledge that can be built upon. 

For individuals who want to adopt food upcycling strategies in their daily lives, Hernandez recommends starting by cooking more food at home and designating one or two days per week when all food scraps are repurposed and used in some way. This may mean freezing or preserving leftovers. Unused pieces of vegetables, tops, and peels can be made into vegetable broths, and oats used for making oat milk can be repurposed as cookie ingredients. Adopting these strategies promotes a more mindful relationship with food and helps consumers understand “what it means to be in sustenance with this food, what it means to live in a more ecologically sound environment, where you’re able to use everything within the fruits and vegetables.” 

According to Hernandez, cultivating a thoughtful relationship with food can undermine attitudes of disposability and overconsumption that contribute to food waste.   

Food Justice and Accessibility 

Many of the upcycled products currently being marketed include items like oils and snack foods that tend to be expensive. Sourcing products and materials can be costly, new supply chains must be created for upcycled items, and new technologies may be required to effectively scale production. This adds up to products that may not be readily accessible to consumers with lower incomes, or to people in the communities where the products were sourced. 

Wyatt is confident that as the industry grows, prices will decrease and products will become accessible, but an important question to consider is who will ultimately profit from new markets. Wyatt hopes that food upcycling will lead to a more equitable distribution of profits and benefit communities that have been marginalized in the food system. 

Hernandez cautions that it’s important to examine the ethical aspects of food upcycling, including whether companies are paying fair labor wages and compensating producers, and ensuring that they are not feeding into existing systems of oppression. He says, “If we’re truly trying to upcycle food waste, it should be local for its region. A lot of places don’t always have an excess surplus of certain foods such as fruits and vegetables. In the Global North specifically, there’s a lot of privilege in the sense of the food we eat.” He notes that in addition to accessibility and price, the overall sustainability of a market must be considered. 

Animal Welfare 

Food upcycling is conducive to a plant-based diet but may not be animal-friendly, depending on how it’s practiced. Although there is great potential for alignment with animal welfare values, food upcycling does not directly challenge the abusive structures of animal agriculture—in particular, the intensive confinement and slaughter of billions of animals annually in the U.S. Hernandez acknowledges that the intersection between food upcycling and animals can be tricky, and there is the risk of continued exploitation of animal bodies and labor. 

In the long term, Hernandez says food upcycling strategies must address the links between industrial agriculture and global food supply chains. And he says it’s not about being perfect, but about “how we can build upon ecological systems that are more just for humans and animals.” 

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