Waste Not, Want Not: A Circular Food Economy

Author: Yewon Kim, Graphics: Anna Szymoniak

The BRB Bottomline: In a circular food economy, leftovers are not waste. They are valuable ingredients that can be upcycled with a new purpose. From fertilizer to pizza or even to shoes, the possibilities for this innovative solution are boundless.

The Cost of Your Meal

When asked “What did you eat for dinner yesterday?,” it often takes a considerable moment to recall your meal or, sometimes, to realize that you have, in fact, forgotten entirely about your past meals. Forgetting is easy because once a meal ends, any remaining food is promptly put in the trash or, for many, stored in the fridge first. Even so, research examines that the average American tosses out 103 pounds (nearly 47 kilograms) of spoiled food from their fridge every year. Just because the leftover food is disposed of and out of sight, however, doesn’t mean it vanishes in thin air; instead, it piles up as food waste destined for landfills or incineration. Unfortunately, less than 3 percent of wasted food in the U.S. is recovered for consumption or composting. In the U.S., 40% of food is lost or wasted, accounting for 24% of solid waste in landfills. The consequences are significant, food waste being the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S. and causing an estimated annual cost of $218 billion (1.3% of GDP). 

Despite these high levels of food waste, a large portion of the population still lacks adequate food to support themselves and their households. As of 2022, 44.2 million people live in food-insecure households in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this issue, with unemployment and food insecurity spiking, highlighting the importance of having robust systems for community food banks and nutritional programs. The paradox of abundant food waste and food insecurity emphasizes the urgent need for systematic changes to efficiently utilize food resources, ensuring more people have the means to lead healthy lives. Reducing food waste can mitigate the numerous negative externalities associated with it whilst creating opportunities to enhance food security, drive economic productivity, and promote conservation practices, ultimately contributing to a sustainable future.

From Linear to Circular

The food system’s current linear model of “take, make, and dispose” results in significant waste, highlighting the need to transition from a linear food economy to a circular one. A circular food economy offers a life cycle framework that comprehensively manages resources from production to consumption and waste disposal, fostering sustainability for the long run.

Figure 1: A comparison between a linear and circular economy.

In a circular economy, resources are not lost during production and disposal but are instead returned and renewed, mirroring the cyclical nature of the natural living world. This framework seeks to redesign the economy’s operating system so that it preserves the quality and utility of materials beyond their individual product shelf life by repurposing waste into new products. This cyclical approach aligns with Sustainable Development Goal 12, which emphasizes responsible consumption and production to reduce material footprints in countries. Goal 12 serves as a framework for countries to understand the entire life cycle of resources resulting from their societal economic activities and strive toward multilateral solutions for the collective goal of sustainable development.

Redesigning the current food system into a circular food economy is crucial. In this system, the end goal is not the waste of a product but the repurposing of unused food materials into by-products such as fertilizer, animal feed, and even new shelf products for human consumption. This shift in the production, distribution, and consumption of food could potentially achieve $2.7 trillion in savings by 2050. Beyond reducing landfill waste, it also creates opportunities to provide more affordable choices, thereby enhancing food security by maximizing material utility. For instance, an increasing number of supermarkets now offer “ugly” fruits and vegetables, originally considered as food waste due to their flawed appearance, as more affordable produce choices for consumers on tighter budgets. This simultaneously provides customers with affordable nutrient options and adds value to resources, reducing food waste from retail stores.

Building New Purpose

Food upcycling is the practice of using ingredients that would otherwise become food waste to create products for repurposed consumption and use. This practice aligns with the life cycle thinking perspective and is a crucial strategy for fostering a circular food economy, involving efforts from both households and businesses. In recent years, many startups have taken the initiative to introduce this innovative method by considering waste as a resource for generating new, higher-quality products and materials. The global upcycled food products market was reported to be $53.7 billion in 2021 and estimated to generate $97.0 billion by 2031. These business models, known as Trash-to-Cash business models, have three essential components for achieving success. The first is efficient waste collection and sorting systems that obtain as many valuable materials as possible and to minimize the amount sent to landfills or incinerators. The second is advanced recycling and processing facilities that transform waste into materials used to build new products. The third component is forming partnerships with collaborators and suppliers to bring these products to customers and ensure the circular flow of materials continues even after consumption. Here are a few examples of upcycling startups addressing food waste through innovative solutions: 


ReGrained, based in San Francisco, takes the remaining grains from the beer brewing process, which still contains proteins, fibers, and micronutrients, and converts them into nutritious foods. Starting with granola bars in 2013, they now offer pasta, puffed snacks, and baking mixes made from their “SuperGrain+” flour produced from the brewer’s grain. According to ReGrained’s website, every pound of their SuperGrain+ flour used prevents the carbon dioxide equivalent of burning 1 pound of coal and saves over 300 gallons of water. As of December 2022, ReGrained raised a total of $7.58 million, with a post valuation of $15.0 million in 2021.


Idaho-based BioLogiQ noticed the waste starch from the surplus potatoes grown in the state and utilizes this starch to produce bioplastics called NuPlastiQ, aimed at reducing plastic pollution. NuPlastiQ’s Biopolymers allow the production of thinner bioplastic films that are much stronger than traditional polyethylene-only films. This innovation enables a reduction in film thickness (up to 30%), resulting in less plastic used for the same purpose, in addition to being biodegradable. BioLogiQ’s website states that bags composed of 25% NuPlastiQ and 75% polyethylene, down gauged in production by 30%, result in 50% less fossil fuel being used to manufacture the bags. In 2023, BioLogiQ’s revenue was estimated to be over $11.5 million, with a post-valuation of $20.80 million in 2016.

Rens Original

Rens Original, based in Finland, transforms leftover coffee grounds into sneakers made from coffee polyester yarn, a material created by blending coffee yarn and recycled polyester. Coffee grounds, when sent to landfills, emit methane, contributing to global warming. Leveraging coffee’s natural anti-odor and anti-bacterial properties makes it an ideal resource for footwear. For each pair of sneakers, Rens Original upcycles 26 cups of coffee and six plastic bottles. The company aims to address polluting practices in the fashion industry through its sustainable and stylish shoes. In 2023, Rens Original’s revenue was estimated to be $1.2 million, and they reported to have raised over $3.0 million during their funding round in 2021.

Opening the Wallets

Figure 2: The Popularity of Secondary Markets and Upcycled Products.

Even if startups successfully create upcycled products and place them on store shelves, the success of this emerging market depends on consumer demand. Environmental considerations have become increasingly important to consumers, reflecting a trend of support for brands aligned with values of sustainability and social responsibility. According to a report from First Insight, 72% of Gen Z, 70% of Millennials, and 63% of Gen X shoppers said they base their purchase decisions on the social and environmental principles of brands. In regards to upcycled products, 59% of Gen Z, 57% of Millennials, and 47% of Gen X shoppers expressed their willingness to purchase them. Although the acceptance of upcycled products is notable, it is still lower than the number of shoppers who prioritize sustainable brands. 

While upcycled products are eco-friendly, consumer knowledge of their production may impact purchasing decisions. Particularly for food products, consumers might hesitate to buy items with ingredients that were initially destined to be food waste. The critical task now is for producers and businesses to effectively promote their upcycled products and create positive associations with consumers, especially for food items. Increasing the usage of upcycled foods in restaurants, through partnerships between restaurants and upcycle producers, can positively influence perspectives. Shuggie’s, a restaurant in San Francisco, serves pizza made from upcycled ingredients, known as their “trash pie,” and customers have reportedly waited up to two hours for a table. Smaller-scale initiatives, like pop-up stores and taste test sections in retail stores, can offer shoppers a non-pressuring but effective way to develop positive experiences with upcycled foods. Now that businesses can provide the supply, they need to creatively build a loyal customer base to consistently generate demand and make the shift to a circular model for long-term success in the future.

50% by 2030

In addition to the business sector’s efforts to curb food waste, the government sector is also actively engaging in partnerships to work towards a circular food economy. In September 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly announced the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal. This first-ever domestic goal aims to halve food loss and waste by 2030. In 2016, it was reported that 328 pounds of food waste per person went to the landfill or incineration, and the 2030 goal targets a 50% reduction to 164 pounds per person.

In October 2018, the USDA, EPA, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established a Federal Interagency Collaboration to Reduce Food Loss and Waste. This collaborative agreement involves collectively leveraging government resources to support research, community investments, education, public-private partnerships, and policy discussion toward reducing food loss and waste. Formal agreements with partners like ReFED and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance utilize networks and resources to effectively engage non-profit agencies and the business sector in the food industry. These efforts strategically aim to facilitate a circular food economy, reducing food waste in landfills and redirecting nutritious food to those in need. The aim is for these government-led initiatives — bringing together business, non-profit, foundation, and government leaders — to significantly contribute to achieving the 2030 goal, aligning with the Sustainable Development Goals’ deadline, especially Goal 12. There are 6 years remaining — a short yet golden time to make significant achievements towards these goals.

The Upcycled Food Association, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing food waste, focuses on accelerating the upcycling economy. Apart from research, strategy, and policy advocacy, they introduced the Upcycled Certified® Program, which is the world’s first third-party certification program for upcycled food ingredients and products. This program enables consumers to identify certified upcycled products on the shelves. This formal recognition of businesses adopting upcycling practices fosters a community and network of like-minded entities working towards a shared goal, encouraging other businesses and organizations to join the trend of reducing food waste. Combined with government efforts and the increasing involvement of businesses in creating a circular food economy, these initiatives help progress towards the goal of reducing environmentally harmful waste and create more strategies to provide diverse populations with ways to enhance food security for a sustainable future.

Not Once, but for a Lifetime

Changing the food system is a tangible transformation that economics can accomplish. With advancements in technology and creativity, producers can quickly find the knowledge and tools to implement necessary changes on their end. Similarly, informed consumers understand their role in shifting their consumption patterns towards more sustainable options. The challenge, however, lies in not merely experimenting with these sustainable products once but embracing them as a lifelong commitment to facilitate the transition to a circular economy that ensures positive change for current and future generations. The task is to foster consumer preferences that consistently favor products aligned with a circular food economy. Without sustained demand, even a well-designed supply framework cannot survive in the long run. Yet, the possibilities presented by upcycling and repurposing what was once deemed as food waste are extremely exciting. It’s not just about reusing leftover production ingredients as food products but also innovating them into materials for creating various, unexpected products, such as clothing, plastics, shoes, and more. The diverse potential of this approach holds relevance across many markets, catering to diverse consumer preferences and needs. Teaching consumers how to make smart decisions and integrate circular practices, not just once, but consistently throughout their daily lives, is the crucial step for achieving and sustaining a circular food economy.

Take-Home Points

  • Reducing food waste not only addresses negative externalities but also creates opportunities to enhance food security, drive economic productivity, and promote conservation practices for a sustainable future.
  • A circular food economy, mirroring the cyclical nature of the natural world, aims to redesign the economic operating system, reducing landfill waste and creating opportunities for affordable choices rather than the linear model of “take, make, and dispose.”
  • Food upcycling, aligning with the life cycle thinking perspective, is a key strategy for fostering a circular food economy through the creation of new, higher-quality products from otherwise discarded ingredients.
  • Government-led initiatives, such as the U.S. 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal, aim to reduce food waste per person by 50%, aligning with Sustainable Development Goals targeted timeline.

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