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Deep Dive: What a waste!

April 26, 2023

Developments in waste valorization technologies have the potential to converge innovations on zero-waste and protein security to ensure a sustainable protein future. David W. Smith digs up a number of innovators who truly believe there’s brass in muck

The eureka moment for David Whitewood occurred in a field of broccoli where he was discussing the power of AI to solve farmers’ problems. As far as the eye could see, Whitewood, the CEO & Founder of UK agtech startup Upp, was surrounded by discarded broccoli leaves and stems. Around four-fifths of this nutritious plant go to waste.

“It’s the 21st century and the state of the art for broccoli harvesting is a gang of men with sharp knives,” Whitewood says. “I asked the farmer when they would finish harvesting the crop that we were standing in. And he said, ‘They have!’”

At the time, just before Covid-19, sustainability was on Whitewood’s mind. Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls were selling out and oat milk was trendy. “I remembered the old adage, ‘Where there’s muck there’s brass’,” he says. A bit of research revealed the broccoli sidestream contained 30% protein and was packed with vitamins, iron, phosphorous and zinc.

Upp’s ongoing journey from innovative idea to start-up with developed technology and investors is a microcosm of what’s happening in the food waste industry

Whitewood’s ambition was to extract the extra edible part of the plant that was routinely rejected. The unused parts tossed away would be straightforward to extract. The waste broccoli, he figured, could be used to create a dried protein for a range of products, including sports drinks, baked goods and ready meals. There was a catch though: the cost of recovering it from the field made it unviable.

Robo crops

Whitewood wasn’t the first person to think of the idea – others before him had tried and failed to resolve the technical challenges. “My idea was, if we automate harvesting, could we harvest the whole plant? Could we take the high-value heads for market and then upcycle the waste?”

Whitewood worked with the University of Lincoln’s agri-robotics team to develop AI and computer vision to recognize ripe broccoli heads, even when partially occluded with leaves. Robotic solutions were too slow to handle the large bulk of a broccoli crop, which weighs 80 metric tons per hectare, and were far too expensive in any case. Forced to innovate, lead engineer Martin Stace invented an automated system that could selectively harvest at speeds of 3km/h.  

“That’s fast enough to replace seven harvest laborers with sharp knives and it can work at night,” reports Whitehead. “The heads are separated from the rest of the plant and the sidestream is bailed and sent for upcycling. We’re also developing a containerized field factory unit to reduce the crop bulk into fractions for further processing.”

Commercial opportunities in waste

Upcycling waste for proteins is not solely about sustainability. Making more of what we grow makes commercial sense, Whitewood reckons. “Processing the ‘tailings’ of gold mines for precious metals can be lucrative as well as kinder to the environment. Plant-based foods suffer from input costs and the farmer has already paid to grow and harvest the crop. Depending on the cost to recover and process, upcycled ingredients can be very competitive,” he says.

Despite the inspiring example of a food waste company like Upp, it remains challenging for innovative start-ups to commercialize ideas. Todd Blase, Business Development Manager Protein & Dairy at the Swedish company Alfa Laval – which provides technology for upcycling food waste – likens the nascent sector to craft brewing and the cannabidiol (CBD) cottage industry a few years ago. “Every week there were new start-ups wanting to process hemp and recover CBD,” he says. “But most were making small quantities. The hardest thing to achieve was to scale the business up and it’s just as true for food waste start-ups.

The big buyers such as Coca-Cola or Starbucks just won’t be interested if you can’t give them consistent product by the semi-load. They just couldn’t add it to their ingredients.”

Investor interest

Upp is in the enviable position of being a standalone company with £500,000 (US$612,000) pre-seed investment from sustainability investor Elbow Beach Capital, as well as grant funding of around £1 million (US$1.24 million) and further investor interest for a £3 million (US$3.7 million) seed round this year. Whitewood believes investors have good reason to look closely at the food waste sector.

To date, though, venture capitalists have preferred to pump a lot of investment into fermented and cultured proteins, but the timelines to get to market at scale are long and expensive and may not deliver the returns they desire. “Most fermented and cultured protein start-ups simply won’t make it,” Whitewood says. “And I also see large checks being written for alternative proteins from crops such as grass and duckweed. These need to overcome novel food approvals and be integrated into farming production systems. We don’t need novel food approval – after all it’s just broccoli!”

Upp will begin farm testing and producing ingredients on a small scale in September, and Whitewood says three major food brands are working with the company with a view to using the powder as an ingredient. Initially, commercial use is likely to be in Spain and the UK, but he intends to pitch to California’s broccoli growers afterward.

For emerging food waste companies, it’s often a good idea to partner with established companies. Alfa Laval, an industrial giant with subsidiaries in 100 countries, provides technology to help with upcycling to EverGrain, a subsidiary of the US brewer Anheuser-Busch. EverGrain has innovated a process to extract a protein isolate, which it calls EverPro, from spent grain in the beer-brewing process. EverPro has a neutral taste and high nutritional value, making it suitable to add to sports drinks, smoothies, or energy bars.

Brewing beer creates a byproduct called brewer’s spent grain, so AB InBev created EverGrain to unlock every grain of potential in its barley

EverGrain uses Alfa Laval’s separation and fluid handling technology at its facility in St Louis, Missouri, where production began last June. “Brewing material is ideal for upcycling. It’s been created for human consumption so it’s not downgraded material and there’s lots of information available about how to develop it. The other type of brewing for alcohol is ethanol plants and they’re already a big contributor to high-protein animal feed,” Blase says.

Alfa Laval has been involved in food waste research with various partners for years, the main market being pet food. “Some food waste sources are being used as food for black fly larvae, but with increasing sanitary focus on pet food, processes are transcending to human consumption. It’s still an exhaustive and expensive process – it takes years to make sure an ingredient is fit for human consumption.”

Could waste solve global hunger?

Researchers from King’s College London (KCL) recently made the claim that converting food waste into protein using sustainable technologies could wipe out malnutrition worldwide, making the food waste economy worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The research, published in Green Chemistry, said the number of people suffering from malnutrition is set to rise from 841 million to 909 million by 2030, yet 1.3 billion tons of wasted food and 11.1 billion tons of crop residues, such as wheat straw, are produced annually.

“Our research suggests that beyond any individual technology, it’s important to synergistically integrate technologies and optimize the protein recovery from diverse waste streams,” believes Dr Miao Guo, a Lecturer in Engineering and co-author of the study.  

The KCL research found fermentation was one of the most critical technologies for upcycling food waste. Arable farming produces eight billion tons of carbohydrate waste every year, but if it were fermented to make mycoprotein, it would supply the same amount of protein as five billion cows – three times the global population today, the report claimed.

The fermentation process is already used to make the kitchen staple, Quorn, a partner in the research. The authors said by applying mycoprotein technologies to agricultural crop residues alone, 562 megatons of protein could be produced annually. Major barriers to be surmounted, though, include public suspicion of waste-to-protein processes and regulatory divergence from country to country.

Microbial alternative proteins

Fermentation is widely used in the alt-protein sector, but the process is more environmental when raw materials from food waste are used. This is the philosophy driving Swedish start-up Cirkulär. “If we produce raw material with the sole purpose of using it in a fermentation process, we’re losing a lot of potential,” feels Eric Öste, Founder. “Microbial proteins using fermentation should feed off by-products and waste as raw material to be truly sustainable.”

Cirkulär has a commercial contract with a paper mill in Sweden and Öste says the company will commercialize its feed protein production in small volumes this year and scale up in 2024. “We expect to be fully operational in a couple of years, enabling production of a minimum of 15,000-20,000 tons of feed protein a year,” he reports.

Cirkulär is developing a novel protein from byproducts that has the potential to be used as an aquafeed ingredient

Like so many start-ups in the sector, however, Cirkulär needs investors to finance its commercial plant. “We’ve got a lot of expertise and we see surging interest in the valorization of industrial side-streams and the emergence of a ‘waste market’ as a consequence of heightened demand. But the biggest challenge is still getting investors hooked on the idea of larger CapEx investments,” he says. “Another stumbling block – and one that annoys me – is the bureaucracy of large behemoths, leading to slow integration of these technologies.”

‘Wood’ you believe it?

Netherlands-based start-up, NoA Biosciences (the name stands for ‘No Animals’), is taking a similar approach to Cirkulär. NoA is transforming woody biomass into a substrate upon which mycelium and mushrooms are grown using precision solid-state fermentation. It calls the final product a ‘fungal meat’. “It’s a versatile protein food,” says Koen Wentink, CEO. “We’re using the fibrous structure of mushrooms to create a meat-like texture. The mushrooms are grown in a controlled environment and can be shaped and textured to resemble various types of meat and seafood.”

Wentink says there is around 76.9 gigatons of woody debris production a year and sawmills use only 20-30% of the tree for timber. Understandably, forestry companies are keen to find new applications for their waste.

Similar to Cirkulär, NoA Biosciences is an early-stage company in search of investment. “Being a start-up and having no established operations yet has made things difficult, especially as we’re selling a new product,” Wentink explains. “Potential customers need to try samples but it’s hard to produce them without facilities. Getting initial funding has been tough but by not giving up and pursuing our goals we’re ready for the next step.”

The company’s plan to scale up gradually is also similar to Cirkulär’s strategy. It will first standardize the process on a small scale and develop recipes and applications. After initial feedback, it hopes to invest in a pilot at a commercial scale, then start distributing to food operators in Europe and the USA. The final step will be global deployment in major metropolitan areas. “We have a lot of good will,” Wentink continues. “Chefs are developing recipes with us and numerous restaurants are eager to try out our products on their menus. Farmers are very interested in working with us to achieve a larger-scale regional production model.”

Meanwhile, French-US company Arbiom has developed a technology and microbiology process to produce single-cell proteins. Arbiom uses a proprietary microorganism that can feed on a variety of sources. “Depending on availability and the market, we can use various agricultural by-products from beet or wheat harvesting,” explains Marc Chevrel, CEO. “By doing so, we maximize the value of those by-products, producing a nutritional ingredient for animals or humans.”

Arbiom’s initial focus was on animal nutrition and its ingredient has been widely tested among the pet, aqua and swine industries. But Chevrel highlights its nutritional value, palatability, digestibility and probiotic qualities. Arbiom is now exploring its food-tech potential with companies producing meat and dairy analogs, and in sports nutrition.  

There is an increasing need for new sources of high-quality, sustainable proteins. SylPro, an innovative single-cell protein, is an efficient nutritional alternative for feed applications.

Something fantastic from plastic

A more radical idea is being trialed at Michigan Tech University, where researchers hope to convert plastic waste into food proteins. The researchers insist it is feasible and not damaging to health. “Plastics are derived from petroleum originally, so our idea was to harness bacteria to eat the plastics to produce biomass containing protein, so it could then be used as a source of food,” explains Ting Lu, co-lead and a Professor of Bioengineering at Illinois University.

The Michigan Tech team was awarded US$7.2 million last year for a four-year project to turn plastic into protein powder and lubricants, the money coming from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“What we’re trying to do is to take plastic or mixed waste from military operations and make it into something useful for the army,” Lu says. The end goal is to create a system for soldiers to throw plastic waste into a container, which will be broken down by heat and chemicals in a processing reactor and fed into a vat where oil-eating bacteria chew on it. The cells will then be dried into a powder.

The project, Lu adds, simultaneously tackles two of humanity’s biggest environmental challenges. The problem of food scarcity is getting worse, he says, because of population growth, global warming and land reduction. Meanwhile, up to 2019, the world had produced 9.5 billion tons of plastic and is manufacturing a further 380 million tons a year. The UN says less than 10% of plastic in circulation ends up being recycled and 79% accumulates in landfills and other natural environments with adverse effects on wildlife and human health. “If successful, our technology could benefit everyone on the planet – especially those facing food shortages, malnutrition or threatened by plastic pollution,” Lu insists.

In phases, the research will first show proof of concept by creating 2.5g of protein powder from plastic waste. Second, the team will recover 100g of powder from culture medium. Finally, they will make a ‘black box’ that can function as a field operational unit and purify entire kilograms of protein powder. Many of the components of the system will be 3D printed and the designs will be open source.

Projects such as this reveal the amount of new ideas being generated in the food waste sector. The innovations are coming thick and fast from start-ups, academia, and even government organizations. Demand for sustainable natural ingredients has even led giant food manufacturers such as Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Kraft Heinz to explore components from food waste.

Despite outlining the difficulties faced by small startups, Alfa Laval’s Todd Blase believes the sector will go from strength to strength. “The food waste industry is here to stay and the focus is the right one,” he maintains. “It’s good there are some very large companies participating and in a lot of cases they’re acquiring a development company and supporting them as they can see it as a way of gaining market share. One of the keys to the success for the sector will be marketing to the younger generations. Once they’re able to afford the higher prices – which I think will be there for some time – will they be willing to spend the extra money for a more sustainable solution? I think the answer may well be ‘yes’.”

This article is republished from the April/May 2023 edition of Protein Production Technology International, the world's leading resource for the commercialization of alternative proteins at scale. To subscribe to receive future editions free of charge, please click here

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