10 Ways to Repurpose Food and Its By-Products

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With so much discussion about the enormous problem of food waste circulating around food and environmental circles over the past few years, it may be encouraging to know that people have been working to find clever and industrious ways to put our food and food by-products to good use. Here are ten new and old ways that the food we eat, and the items that are usually discarded in the process of making food, can be used to create sustainable products (and jobs!) while reducing our food system's impact on the environment.

1. Baked Goods

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A team of researchers, led by Carol Lin of the City University of Hong Kong, have invented a procedure that converts stale baked goods from Starbucks into a key ingredient used in many consumer goods. It's a discovery that has the potential to generate a lot of money and process many tons of wasted food that would otherwise end up in a landfill. The process works like this: Stale baked goods are mixed with fungi, which generate enzymes that break down the carbohydrates in the food into simple sugars. These sugars are then placed into fermentation tanks where bacteria convert them into to succinic acid - a colorless, crystalline compound used in lacquers, dyes and perfumes and as an ingredient in many consumer products, such as packaging and medicines - which might otherwise be produced with fossil fuels.

2. Coffee Grounds and Coffee Cherry Pulp

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It's not just the baked goods at coffee shops that are being given a new life. Coffee grounds and pulp from the fruit of the coffee plant (aka the coffee cherry) are also being rescued by creative entrepreneurs and turned into all kinds of useful products, including:

BioFuel:  Bio-bean, a London-based technology company, has developed an industrial technique to process wasted coffee grounds into biofuel for vehicles, logs for chimneys and biomass pellets that can heat homes, along with biochemicals. The company aims to process over 30,000 tons of coffee grounds a year, which would make a significant dent in the 500,000 tons of spent coffee grounds produced by the London coffee industry annually.

Compost:  Many gardeners, including yours truly, use their leftover coffee grounds directly in their garden or compost piles. The grounds are a source of organic material and nitrogen and are great for improving the quality of your garden soil. They can also be used to keep snails, slugs and cats out of your garden without the use of toxic chemicals.

Flour: Coffee cherry pulp is a by-product of coffee production that is typically discarded. A company called CF Global Holdings has recently developed a process to dry and mill the coffee cherry pulp into what it has branded as "Coffee Flour," a baking ingredient that can be used in place of regular flour in many recipes like brownies, cookies or any other baked good your heart desires. According to the company, by creating a process to upcycle a previously wasted material like coffee cherry pulp into a new valuable resource, coffee flour is helping to create an additional and sustainable source of revenue for small-scale coffee farmers worldwide.

3. Whey

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You may remember from your days singing nursery rhymes that whey is a by-product of making milk into both yogurt and cheese. Being hailed as an untapped goldmine, both the acidic whey developed from yogurt and the sweet whey developed from the hard cheese-making process are being used to generate additional profits for dairy companies. According to the US Department of Agriculture and market research data, around 771,000 metric tons of Greek yogurt was produced in the US in 2015. As the demand for Greek yogurt has skyrocketed, so has the amount of acidic whey that manufacturers need to dispose of every day. But acidic whey can't just be poured down the drain because its nutrient content would create algal blooms and deplete oxygen levels in connected waterways. To deal with the issue, many companies have paid farmers to spread the waste on land as fertilizer or feed it to livestock. It's now also commonly sold to health food companies to develop it into the protein powder used in sports drinks, nutrition bars and other foods. And in New Zealand, whey is processed to produce ethanol, which is used in pharmaceuticals, perfumes and inks as well as in beverages.

4. Animal Organs 

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Animal organs, known collectively as offal (even though they are delicious), which have been eaten as delicacies by many cultures around the world since the beginning of time, have also been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. Until as late as the 1980s, animal-derived insulin was the only treatment for insulin-dependent diabetes. The life-saving medication was made from the pancreatic glands of cows and pigs. These days, however, the use of animal insulin has largely been replaced by human insulin and human analogue insulin, but animal insulin is still available by prescription. Animal organs are still commonly used in other drugs though, including Heparin, an anticoagulant made from cow lungs and pig intestines, and lanolin, made from sheep oil glands, which is used in some eye medications, skin ointments, many cosmetics and as a raw ingredient for making vitamin D3.

5. Cacao Beans 

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"Cacao" refers to the rawest forms chocolate can take, like the cacao tree or the cacao bean. Chocolate is made from ripe cacao pods which are cracked open, dried, roasted and then have their beans removed from their external shell to reveal the cacao nib. These nibs are ground up in a process that leaves a paste called cocoa liquor, which is then pressed to separate it into cocoa powder and cocoa butter, the raw ingredients for chocolate. Today, the shells of the cacao bean, which are often discarded as a by-product of making chocolate, are being turned into cocoa shell mulch. This mulch offers the same benefits as bark mulch, but with the added bonus of smelling delicious.

6. Coconut Husks

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Coconuts may be one of the most useful things on the planet. Approximately 50 billion coconuts fall from trees annually worldwide. The husk and shell, which are by-products of the coconut oil and coconut water industries, are typically discarded or burned. But these leftover husks and shells are an incredible resource that can be made into many products, including (but certainly not limited to): fiber to make material for cars and homes, furniture, rope, face masks, water filters and uncomfortable lingerie. Researchers estimate that replacing synthetic polyester fibers with coconut husk fibers, known as coir, could reduce petroleum consumption by 2 to 4 million barrels and carbon dioxide emissions by 450,000 tons annually. And it's not just people that find them useful. Even octopuses have found a way to repurpose coconut husks by turning them into protective armor and mobile homes.

7. Animal Bones 

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My entire life, I've thought that bone china, the expensive tableware often only seen at fancy restaurants and maybe your grandmother's house, derived its name from the fact that the china is "bone thin," so to speak. Not the case. In reality, bone china gets its name from the fact that it is actuallymade of animal bones. The first development of what would become known as bone china was made in 1748 by Thomas Frye at his Bow porcelain factory near Bow in East London. Frye's factory was located very close to the cattle markets and slaughterhouses of Essex, which provided him with abundant access to animal bones. Frye used up to 45 percent bone ash in his formulation to create what he called "fine porcelain." In fact, until the late 20th century, bone china was almost exclusively made in the UK. It's still considered the strongest of the porcelain ceramics and can be made very thin.

But fancy cups and plates aren't the only things made with animal bones. Bone meal from animals is also used in toothpaste to provide extra grit for polishing your teeth and to provide calcium. Keratin, made from hooves, hair, feathers and horns is also used in many hair and nail care products. Bones are also burned to produce activated charcoal for water filters and to filter and bleach cane sugar.

8. Lard 

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Animal bones weren't the only thing being collected and recycled around slaughterhouses a couple hundred years ago by enterprising men from the UK and the US. In the 1800s, Cincinnati was home to dozens of meatpacking plants, which created an abundant supply of excess fat and lard from both cattle and pigs. Fat and lard just happen to be the key ingredients that two immigrants, William Procter and James Gamble, needed to make their Procter & Gambles' soap and candles.

For its first 60 years, most of the company's income came from candles made from highly rendered Cincinnati lard. But when candles were replaced with gas and then electricity, Procter and Gamble shifted their business model and started mixing the meatpacker's lard with lye and perfume to produce Ivory Soap. However, Procter and Gamble weren't the only entrepreneurs that saw potential in the by-products of the meatpacking industry. By the middle of the 19th century, dozens of candle manufacturers, soap makers, tanneries and glue factories were thriving in Cincinnati and cities like it. Today, lard is still commonly used in beauty products under the names tallow, tallow fatty alcohol and stearic acid and can be found in everything from lipstick to shaving cream.

9. Distiller's Grains

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Spent grain is a by-product of alcohol production. Brewer's spent grain (also called brewer's grain or draff) usually refers to barley produced as a by-product of brewing beer and whiskey and consists of the residue that remains in the mash-kettle after mashing and lautering. Distiller's spent grains are usually corn, rice or other grains leftover from making hard alcohol. As the name suggests, the traditional sources for these grains were from brewers, but more recently, ethanol biofuel plants are a growing source. As these spent grains contain high levels of protein, fiber and carbs, they are usually sold as fodder for livestock (especially pigs and ruminants) as a nutrition supplement for cows and calves. Spent grains can be used as fertilizer, as whole grains in bread, as an ideal medium for growing mushrooms and in the production of red bricks.

10. Brewer's Yeast

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Love it or hate it (I happen to love it, with lots of butter on toast or crackers) Marmite, the healthy British condiment still popular today throughout the Commonwealth, is traditionally made from the leftover yeast from the beer brewing process. The product that was to become Marmite was invented in the late 19th century when German scientist Justus von Liebig discovered that brewer's yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. In 1902 the Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in England, with the leftover yeast supplied by Bass Brewery.  

This post was originally published in October 2017.