By Tinia Pina, Founder and CEO at Re-Nuble
As circular innovations and upcycled waste business models continue to give us hope that we can produce food and other goods using fewer resources, we have to reconsider how our agricultural inputs are being sourced. At Re-Nuble, we recognize the global push to form a sustainable, low-carbon, and secure future food system, and we always start with how we could develop an inexpensive method to achieve this. This method would seek to reclaim minerals and nutrient compounds, such as phosphorus, for sustainable fertilizer production from verified, food-safe waste streams that would usually be left to waste.
Food waste, often compost, can be a rich source of nitrate and phosphate due to its abundance of diverse organic material, especially when used for open-field (soil) applications. However, this same material proves problematic as a source of nutrients for hydroponic or soilless cultivation of food and plants. We took the challenge head-on to focus on the deep science involved in reducing our dependence on emissions-intensive synthetic forms of phosphorus (or phosphate) and instead focus on efforts to source it from regenerative waste streams such as food waste.
Our efforts evolved into an approach we call “Organic Cycling Science.” It is the method of efficiently taking organic nutrients and transforming them into water-soluble nutrients. A carbon-negative process, done at scale, places it back into the food system for continuous reuse until a small percentage of its solids no longer have any residual value. It creates a closed-loop system through an organic nutrient supply chain, making it competitive to less sustainable commercial-level options, and fully aligns with the methodology shared in the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.” Still highly referred to by sustainability practitioners and those seeking a second life for materials, its basic principle is that we should use discarded items to create new products.
However, before companies consider trying to upcycle all waste, we should hold ourselves accountable to a few key questions to ensure that we’ve been as diligent and ethical as possible. Where do you start, though? Here is what we would advise:
Question #1: What Does Upcycling Waste Mean to Companies?
Definitions of “upcycling” differ, but in the best case scenario, upcycling leads towards innovative sustainability outcomes. Take the example of TerraCycle. They began as a sustainable fertilizer company, taking worm-digested organic wastes and packaging them in recycled plastic bottles. This is a great example of upcycling and they’ve since expanded to become a licensing company that “offers a range of national, easy-to-use recycling platforms.” However, other definitions of upcycling waste could lead to suboptimal or even unethical outcomes. Where one company may view upcycling as simply moving waste up the supply chain, another may only consider waste to be truly upcycled if the dollar value or quality has increased.
An example is the use of algae to bioaccumulate minerals during wastewater treatment. Such processes recycle these nutrients into an algae biomass that can then be further mineralized as a fertilizer. This recycling helps offset wastewater treatment costs and the cost of sourcing phosphorus fertilizer. However, what downstream risks are we potentially introducing to consumers if this algae has not been thoroughly treated to minimize the exposure risk of pathogens, PFAS compounds, and pharmaceutical compounds? We strongly believe a business model should fully consider all upstream and downstream risks, especially concerning an input that will impact a human or animal due to consumption.
Being specific about what upcycling means to a company serves as a useful North Star. Take a look at the Upcycled Food Association’s definition: Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and positively impact the environment.
Question #2: Is There an Off-Taker, and Has a Stable Relationship Been Established?
If a company’s objective is to create impact at scale, it’s essential to ensure that the waste that’s being upcycled is a viable product. An off-taker (a company that is willing to take the waste that is being upcycled) needs to be identified. Say, for example, Company P decides to upcycle plastic waste in the form of phone cases into high-quality but affordable furniture for low-income communities. They then sell the final product to a distributor. Sounds reasonably straightforward, right? Almost.
Plastic prices are intrinsically linked to the notoriously sensitive oil market, and when crude oil prices move, companies in the upcycled plastic industry are exposed. Ideally, Company P has set up long-term offtake agreements to build business confidence so they can reduce exposure to everyday volatility. They can instead emphasize to their distributor the long-term benefits of a durable but affordable upcycled product. It is critical to work closely with the off-taker to ensure they align with a company’s goals.
Question #3: What are the Potential Downstream Impacts of Upcycled Waste?
Upcycling waste at Re-Nuble provides an opportunity to efficiently take organic nutrients and transform them into commercial-grade, water-soluble nutrients. These nutrients are placed back into the food system for continuous reuse until a small percentage of their solids no longer have residual value. However, we are acutely aware of the byproducts of our process and work to ensure that every aspect of our operation is closed-loop and does not adversely affect communities and the environment.
Rethinking the Upcycling Narrative
So, with these three questions, what can a company take away from all of this? Above all else, there should be an intentional deep dive into what the design of an upcycling process means. Rethinking the upcycling narrative consistently is required to address any potential adverse side effects of the process. All of this sounds relatively easy in theory, but we empathize with the difficulty putting it all to practice. As a company, we constantly revisit these three questions when approaching product development for transparency and integrity and to keep true to our values.
Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance.