Upcycling, the main road to research and innovation

Upcycling, the main road to research and innovation

By: Dario Dongo 01/01/2023

From: GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade)

Original article

Upcycling– that is, enhancing the lateral flows of processes, in agrifood chains as in others – is the magic word to look at in every research and innovation activity. (1) 

Natural resources are limited and their availability is increasingly uncertain, due to geopolitical and climatic factors. The circular economy is a requirement common to every system. (2)

Automation and digitisation, collection and processing of data through AI (Artificial Intelligence) must therefore be oriented towards the service of this primary objective.

1) The concept of upcycling

The concept of upcycling includes any form of reuse for improvement of materials otherwise destined for recycling in chains with lower added value (e.g. from food to feed), rather than for energy valorisation or waste disposal.

Upcycled foods are therefore foods that reuse (at least in part) co-products and waste from other productions, otherwise destined for uses other than human consumption. a favourable impact on the environment and society.

2) Sustainable innovation

The five pillars of sustainable development – PeoplePlanetProsperityPeace and Partnership – find convergence in the sharing of participatory models (open innovation) aimed at optimising the efficiency of use of available resources and redistributing their benefits.

The upcycling in agrifood supply chains is an innovation that accords the needs of: 

  • economy (new value to recovered raw materials of lower cost than the original ones),
  • environment (less pressure on ecosystems, in the production and disposal of scraps and waste),
  • social (reduction of food waste, food accessibility).

3) First objective, to reduce waste

Food waste  is divided into food losses – from primary agricultural production, excluding distribution to the consumer – and food waste, in the following stages. Their estimates in the EU remain completely approximate, pending the definition of reliable measurement criteria. (3)

Eurostat (2022)  estimated food waste in the EU in 2020 in about 57 million tons (-45% compared to the 88 million tons estimated in 2014. See note 3), for a market value of about € 130 billion. 127 kg of food waste per inhabitant, broken down as follows:

  • 45% of food loss. First food and beverage processing (18%), followed by primary agricultural production (11%), catering (9%) and distribution (7%),
  • 55% of food waste. Waste, or surplus, generated by consumers (70 kg per capita). Although an estimated 36,2 million inhabitants were unable to afford two adequate meals each day.

4) Practical applications. From food loss and food waste to upcycling

The waste – in vegetable supply chains (e.g. peels and seeds of fruits and vegetablesby-products of cereals and legumes) and animal supply chains (eg. waste from the fish supply chain) – can be used as raw materials in new food production processes, rather than made food loss.

Food surplus – which should above all be prevented, at a systemic level (2) – can in turn be subjected to new transformation processes food, or donated to charities ( food banks), to reduce the food waste.(4)

5) Circular bio-economy and hierarchy of food recovery

The concept of ‘circular bioeconomy’ is proposed in a recent study (Klein et al., 2022) to propose a ‘hierarchy of strategies for the prevention of food surpluses, by-products and food waste’. (5) Researchers actually apply the waste hierarchy, or Lansink scale, to the agri-food supply chains (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 – Hierarchy of strategies for the prevention of food surpluses, by-products and food waste (Klein et al., 2022). (5)

The ‘Pyramid of Value’ presented in the study classifies the different options for treating waste and surpluses, with regard to their added value and level of sustainability. To promote economic growth through eco-innovation, but also vertical integration in the value chain, between the various sectors and with institutions (6,7).

6) Provisional conclusions

2030 is approaching and the biggest challenge on the planet – the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal No 2, Zero Hunger– is increasingly distant as we are still looking for solutions. (8) 

The only solution available today in every supply chain and sector, regardless of political decisions, is therefore the upcycling. To integrate social, environmental and economic objectives.


Dario Dongo


(1) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Upcycling, the improved reuse in the agri-food chainGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 6.10.21

(2) Giulio Vulcano, Dario Dongo. Food waste, a systemic approach to tackle the ecological and social crisisGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 17.3.19

(3) Dario Dongo. Food waste in the EU, a common method of measurement is on the wayGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 22.6.19

(4) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Redistribution and donation of surplus food, the ABCGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 11.11.22

(5) Klein, O., Nier, S. and Tamásy, C. (2022), Towards a Circular Bioeconomy? Pathways and Spatialities of Agri-Food Waste Valorisation. Tijds. voor econ. en Soc. Geog., 113: 194-210. https://doi.org/10.1111/tesg.12500

(6) European legislation may itself require some reforms. For example, to allow the reuse of animal by products under conditions capable of guaranteeing the highest levels of food safety. In addition to promoting the activities of upcycling and their reporting. This will be worked on in the research project Wasteless, in Horizon Europe

(7) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Wasteless, EU research project on circular economy and blockchainGIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.9.22

(8) Sabrina Bergamini. The hunger pandemic does not stop. Zero Hunger is a mirageEquality. 24.12.22

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