What Does it Mean to Upcycle?

upcycled certified spent grain flour

What Does it Mean to Upcycle?

Upcycling is a “buzzword” that gets a lot of press these days, as our society tries to migrate towards a more eco-conscious brand of consumerism. During the latter half of the 20th century, industries boomed and innovation soared, but let’s be honest - very few businesses made environmental responsibility and sustainability a focus of their mission.

Luckily, that mindset has begun to change. Out of both necessity and in response to consumer demand, more and more businesses are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and become more environmentally conscious in their business practices. As climate change increases global warming at an alarming rate and resources become more scarce, it’s more important than ever to shift our focus from rampant and unchecked production and consumerism to a way of doing business that allows companies and the environment to thrive.

Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s remember the catchy environmental slogan: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” which can be traced back to the environmental movement of the late 1970s. While every elementary school student may have had that slogan drilled into their psyche, very few businesses cared to follow along. 

Nowadays, not only are more companies following the “3 R’s”, but a new trend in environmental sustainability has emerged: upcycling.

What is Upcycling?

The Dictionary defines upcycling as: reus(ing) (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original. If you’ve heard of this term, you most likely bring to mind Pinterest boards full of old shabby dressers that are jazzed up into all manners of trendy newness with little more than a brightly colored chalk paint and some new knobs, or vintage fashion that has been repurposed and remade to give it a modern spin. 

But did you know that FOOD can also be upcycled?? While this practice is wildly popular, many consumers have never heard of it, and may have no idea that many of their favorite products come from upcycled ingredients.  A 2019 Forbes article estimated the upcycled food industry to be worth approximately $46.7 Billion. 

That’s billion - with a B. Upcycling food products turns waste from food or beverage production into materials that can be used for a variety of new products, including products that run the gamut from chips and protein bars made from leftover fruit and vegetable pulp, to flour made from the byproducts of beer production.  There is even an Upcycled Food Association, which is a nonprofit focused on reducing food waste by growing the upcycled food economy.  

The environmental impact of upcycling is substantial. Not only does upcycling keep trash out of our already overfilled landfills, but since the manufacturing involved in upcycling is less than that required to produce new products from scratch, it reduces air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions AND conserves the natural resources that are usually exploited to obtain raw materials for the production of goods. There’s no denying that modern society is very materialistic. Perhaps more so than any generation that came before us, we are used to being able to obtain pretty much anything we want, at the touch of a button on our phone or computer. It’s so crucial, then, to make an effort to purchase sustainable and ethically produced goods to help offset the impact of our consumption.

Spent Grain Flour - Healthier for You, Healthier for the Environment

One of the most interesting upcycling food trends is the process of turning “spent grain” - the remnants left over from the beer making process - into a low carb, high fiber, high protein flour. The spent grain from a 6 pack of beer can make approximately 1 lb of flour, and repurposes food waste that would otherwise go to landfills. Beer has always been a popular American industry, but with the explosion of the craft beer business in the last few years, it has become an even more booming industry than before. In fact, the number of breweries in the U.S. has increased from approximately 103 in 1976 to over SEVEN THOUSAND in 2018. That number has likely grown since. The production of beer in the U.S. alone is over 190 barrels per year. The spent grain left over after this production is massive, and it can either be turned into 6 million tons of landfill waste, or over 10 billion pounds of upcycled flour. 

Not only is upcycled spent grain awesome for the environment, keeping millions of tons of waste out of landfills, but it’s super healthy too! Many people these days follow a reduced carb, keto, or gluten free diet as a means of achieving better health or weight loss. While there are many gluten free flours on the market, not all of these are considered low carb, and some of those that are, such as almond flour, take a pretty big toll on the environment. Did you know that it takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of almonds?

Supporting Companies who Produce Upcycled Goods Supports the Greater Good

It may sound like a bit of a generalization, but it’s not outside the realm of truth to say that companies who focus on producing upcycled goods are generally cognizant of the environmental, social, and economic impact of their businesses. Many of these companies were born out of a desire to make a difference in today’s society, whether that be from lessening the environmental impact of their production, improving local economies, or reducing the burden of more waste in our landfills. 

Upcycling has become so prevalent lately that no matter what type of product you’re looking for, there is likely a company that produces it using upcycled ingredients or materials. Upcycling has become an industry in itself, and upcycled products are more accessible than ever. We urge you to research these companies, and support their mission by choosing to purchase upcycled products whenever possible. By doing so, you’ll be offsetting our consumerism-focused society’s environmental impact and helping to support companies who make that a focal point of their business. 

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