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Waste not, want not: how Europe can both save food by-products and boost the circular economy

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By Tamara Fernández Arévalo, Miguel Asín

· 5 min read

There is great potential value in Europe’s agri-food by-products. Using technology and algorithms to match demand and supply can help boost Europe's circular economy, but legislative limitations and obstacles hinder them from reaching their full value. 

Whether at our kitchens or at a food processing plant, we tend to call what is not immediately used as ‘organic waste.’ But Europe’s agri-food industry does not generate ‘organic waste’ as we know it; instead, its by-products hold great value. Despite their potential, these by-products are traditionally used as animal feed, in bio-energy production, incinerated or placed in landfills, causing economic, social, and environmental problems. 

But research shows that by-products could provide valuable bio-components and nutrients with economic value for different industries, while significantly reducing their environmental impact. 

For example, grape pomace is one by-product of Europe’s wine industry. Through aerobic fermentation, its juices can be converted into erythritol, a low-calorie sweetener. The market size of erythritol reached $380.96 million in 2021, and it is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 32.94 % until 2030.

We have spent over three years examining how biorefineries can best convert these by-products into higher-value materials (valorisation). From this, we can obtain many high-value products, from biodegradable films and bioplastics to antioxidants, biofuels and a possible palm oil alternative. This strategic approach both addresses the environmental concerns of waste disposal and meet the growing demand for sustainable and circular economies. 

Barriers to growth

The obvious strategy to valorise the agri-food by-products and obtain value-added compounds is to maximise the conversion and extraction processes. But is it the best valuation option in all cases? Considering only technical criteria, the answer would be yes. But what is the point of obtaining valuable products if the cost of their production and logistics exceeds their market value? Under this holistic perspective, the problem becomes complex and it is necessary to use tools that allow all variables to be analysed as a whole. 

Alongside technological innovation, the industry also needs tools to help manage information, adroitly analyse solutions, and make decisions. For example, our project’s decision-support system tool considers technical, economic, environmental and social aspects to make the best valorisation option in each specific case, helping in decision-making with multiple factors. 

But there are still key barriers and limitations that make valorisation difficult today. For example, as the European Union continues to focus on developing the circular economy, researchers need solid, unified terms and descriptions of by-products in the agri-food sector (e.g., their characterisation, production, and destination). Currently, every research project has to start nearly from scratch, and when asking companies for data, they are often unwilling to share their information. This data could be developed and maintained by the European Commission and would be extremely useful for researchers. 

Another issue is the lack of harmonised regulations and standards for the quality and safety of plant extracts and their derived products. European legislation on novel foods, food additives, food supplements and health claims are complex and differ between member states. This can create confusion and uncertainty for producers and consumers. There is also a need for more scientific evidence and validation of the efficacy and toxicity of plant extracts and their bioactive compounds. 

Another barrier is the high cost and technical complexity of implementing these innovative processes for the industry. The equipment, maintenance and operation costs can be especially prohibitive for small and medium-sized enterprises, which make up a large part of the agri-food sector in the EU.  

Finally, public perception plays a crucial role in shaping market demand and acceptance of valorised products. Poor awareness of the benefits and potential of such products has resulted in slow market growth and limited adoption. Encouraging public acceptance would likewise encourage producers and researchers to persevere towards a more circular economy. 

Communication is necessary between both the producing companies and the bio-industries, and among the producing companies themselves. Platforms or secure channels, with other initiatives, should be implemented to ensure trust and promote information-sharing among different stakeholders involved in waste valorisation.

How the EU can respond

The European Union certainly has its role to play in this regard. Researchers could use a centralised European database for residual streams to be the basis for circular economy research and innovation initiatives. This database would be created, developed, and monitored by the EU and include information about agri-food residual streams such as their origin, characterisation and use, and potential by-products. 

Industries could benefit from harmonised legislation for residual stream valorisation costs across EU member states. This could eliminate economic barriers (i.e. taxation) caused by different legislations and will stimulate circularity and sustainability while reducing concerns about costs. 

Elsewhere the EU could promote the access to revalorisation of by-products by creating financial investment programs that cover research, development, technological infrastructure, and operational adjustments necessary for producers (especially SMEs) to enter the valorisation market. Meanwhile, designing and applying top-down initiatives to ensure growing acceptance and demand of products coming from a circular origin could help open demand.

Finally, to ensure and boost future approaches to plant extracts valorisation it would be ideal to have a harmonised regulatory framework; financial support to scale-up technologies such as subcritical water extraction to the industrial level; research and innovation on plant extraction and enrichment processes such as adsorption resin; awareness raising among stakeholders and consumers about the benefits and positive impact of using plant extracts.

In a world increasingly focused on sustainability and circular economies, these residual streams are a treasure trove of untapped potential. However, it is imperative that Europe's efforts span across sectors, academia, and industry to develop innovative and efficient methods for their valorisation. By integrating advanced characterisation techniques, we can unlock the unique composition of these residual streams, leading to tailored strategies for their transformation into high-value products, thus contributing to economic growth, environmental preservation, and a more sustainable future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Tamara Fernández Arévalo is a researcher in the Water and Waste group of Ceit Technology Center. Tamara's activity is aimed at carrying out applied research projects for water and byproducts management and optimisation through modelling and simulation tools.

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Miguel Asin is a researcher on the circular economy. With an MA in Global Criminology and a Bachelor's in International Relations, Miguel is concentrating his skills and interests on researching solutions to reduce environmental impacts and harms through circular solutions.

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