The Race to Upcycle

How a competition on Global Recycling Day brings attention to interoperability in smart packaging and the adoption of digital product information for basic life necessities

Alessia Falsarone

Global Recycling Day is just around the corner. The annual event taking place mid-March is sponsored by the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), an organization based in Brussels that has been championing the development of sustainable and inclusive recycling solutions since 1948. With over 800 member companies and 68 countries standing by its mission, it has become the forum for the global recycling community to convene, build technical knowledge, and advance industry practices.

Through the #RecyclingHeroes competition, this year’s event is looking to amplify the role of those individuals, businesses, municipalities, and smaller communities that have continued to recycle actively during a difficult time of human and economic turmoil. Attention will be given to rewarding creativity in upcycling waste solutions.  

Alessia Falsarone

Quite an interesting call to action

It is widely held that recycling is linked to climate change as it reduces the need for raw materials and waste in landfills. Yet, when it comes to upcycling processes – reusing discarded materials to create a higher value or higher quality product than its original – the attention usually shifts to public policy and the availability of funding for social innovation.

Policy makers have started to consider upcycling waste solutions when creating new legislation although there are no clear frameworks to help ramp up adoption. In reality, the slow start may be due to the fact that upcycling initiatives have proved to generate quite significant financial gains in the private sector, with innovations ranging from food to textile and, the beauty industry sprouting across all corners of the world.

The use of high technology on smart supply chains or smart packaging, like radiofrequency identification (RFID), QR Codes and barcodes, or digital printing and other ways to track and trace products, is also important to help manufacturing companies, consumers, and government authorities to keep waste under control.

Let’s take the food industry as an example

Recent estimates from consultancy EOS Intelligence, point to a valuation for the upcycled food sector in excess of US$ 53 billion in 2022 and close to US$ 83 billion by 2032. No surprise if we consider the supply side of things, as nearly a third of the food produced globally each year is either lost or wasted – enough to feed half of the world population according to the UN Statistics Office. Remember also that food waste disposed into landfills emits methane, which is 8 times more harmful than CO2.

Companies are starting to launch brand new business units which focus entirely on food waste upcycling in partnership with research institutions. Innovation-oriented ecosystems such as Singapore’s have seen an uptick in this type of ventures through the stewardship of the Singapore Economic Development Board. The US-Irish fresh produce operator Dole, for example, has recently launched a specialty ingredients business in the country.

This business utilizes food waste in the production of specialty ingredients, including enzymes, seed oils, and fruit extracts. Beverage processing is another area that has seen increased appetite for upcycling as not-so-appealing looking fruits or vegetables can be used to produce flavored water. The financial and environmental value of upcycling are quite sizeable.

What is stopping upcycling to go mainstream?

On one end, innovations seem to stay small in scale as the supply of upcycled materials needs to be logistically available near the point of processing to ensure the necessary freshness and hygiene control is preserved.

Secondly, consumer acceptance for by-products of food scraps has been lukewarm. The fact that upcycled products have historically sold at higher price points than traditional offerings does not help build a favorable case either.

For upcycling to be successful, there needs to be a transparency ecosystem where partners gain access to food by-products, work with government entities to gain technical knowledge, and build incentives for consumers towards upcycled products. With the introduction of smart packaging related regulations and the Digital Product Passport (DPP) revolution in the EU, the extension to basic necessity items such as food and pharmaceutical items may propel the practice of upcycling forward at a faster pace.

Nevertheless, to become functional, the interoperability of smart packaging systems and digitization of product characteristics need to be accompanied by import/export policies that contribute to the adoption of a range of sensor technologies able to translate traditional freshness and temperature indicators into easily accessible information related to human health and environmental safety of key ingredients – whether from virgin materials or upcycled content.

Ideally for consumers themselves to be able to access product level data through verifiable QR Codes. With investors raising the bar on private and public companies on disclosure of adverse impacts of products on the natural ecosystem and human health, a track record of successful consumer education is likely to play a more meaningful role in access to funding for new ventures that employ the principles of the Circular Economy.

If you have developed upcycling practices that leverage intelligent packaging or employ sensor technologies that could be adapted to other countries and could make a difference during times of economic uncertainty, I encourage you to consider participating in the #RecyclingHeroes campaign and join the competition by the Global Recycling Foundation.

For more information, click here.

Alessia Falsarone, Adjunct Faculty, Circular Economy and Sustainable Business Management at The University of Chicago