How to make Money Turning Food Waste into Valuable Products

food waste avocado @youthinfarming.org
I recently watched a video report below, where Business Insider visiting six companies turning fruit and vegetable waste into biodegradable plastic (bioplastic), hair extensions, fertilizers, sanitary pads, biogas providing energy for lighting and heating, biodegradable plates and other products. It got me thinking.

Lessons and action points I took away:

  • Look around your home and community for unwanted food items and write them down.
  • Visit landfills to know what gets thrown out
  • Research if any of the unwanted food items in your community can be utilised to make biogas energy, fertilisers and several other sustainable products 
  • Understand and figure out how much money you can make from a sustainable agribusiness project providing services in your community.
  • Investigate level of awareness and community/government policies around food waste, and how this can be relevant for your agribusiness project.
Below are the key points I took away from watching the Business Insider video linked below.

Think of: How can you turn food waste abundantly and freely available in your surroundings and community into valuable products while making a healthy income?

Key take-aways:

Leather from unwanted mangoes:

Intro: Dutch Company Fruitleather, produces Vegan Leather made from thousands of mangoes that would otherwise be thrown away, used to make wallets, handbags, shoes.

Quality controls: Due to Dutch quality controls requires importer to cut mangoes which cant be sold ending up as trash. Company collects 1500 mangoes per day from dutch importer. Vegan leather company recieves mango fruit waste for free helping the company to get rid of mango waste without paying trash collection fees. 

Process: Mangoes are crushed into pulp, where is mixed with other additives to turn into leather material. They are put on trays to dry, added resins and a coating exposed to 100 degrees to make coating dry. Vegan leather is transformed to appear like animal skin, and it is sold around the world

Founders dream was to turn something value-less into something valuable. Through several experiments founders discovered product they make today. 

    • Fruitleather is able to produce about 250 pairs of shoes per month.
    • Started out processing watermelons and discovered not many fibers inside watermelons but mainly water. Settled on mangoes because fruit was easy to work with. 
    • And researched how many mangoes Holland imports. More than half of the mangoes in Europe are imported or traded by Netherlands. Around 12 percent of the food in Netherlands is wasted.
    • Vegan leather company is able to get a large amount of resource to make its products, and thus decided to stay with mango fruit waste processing. 
    • Founders are also able to cut on global emissions affecting the planet, due to chemicals used to tan leather that are dangerous to both humans and environment.Also methan emissions from rearing cattle are reduced.
    • New environmentally friendly materials are needed that leave a smaller carbon footprint.

Vegan leather challenges: some of it is made from mushrooms and pineapples, most of it is made from plastic leaving a huge carbon footprint.

    • In 2020, synthetic leather market is valued at $31.4 billion increasing to over $40 billion in next six years, a fraction of entire leather industry valued at $400 billion.
    • Mango leather does not last as long as cow leather. Company hopes to improve production one mango at a time.

07:48 Bioplastic from unwanted avocado:

Background: In 2021, americans consumed 6 billion ovacadoes, developing alot of food waste. A company (biofase) transforms ovacado waste into Bioplastics that help to reduce pollution because they break down faster and use less fossil fuels.

Process: Company biofase in Mexico, exports about half of worlds ovacado. Bioplastics are products made of biological substances instead of petroleum. The process starts with ovacado seeds, which are shredded and turned into sheets 

Technology: bioplastics are an improvement over traditional plastics as they take less fossil fuels to produce, contain fewer toxic chemicals, and decompose faster. The technology to make bioplastics has improved to grow to $20 billion industry. Biofase produces 130 tonnes of bioplastic each month, with products shipped around the world.

Challenges: bioplastics require special industrial facilities to properly compost and can contaminate regular recycling stream, and more expensive than regular plastic.

    • Production capacity for bioplastics is currently low while fossil fuel plastic capacity is much bigger.
    • Bioplastics are mostly used in restaurants but idea that biodegradables can be thrown into nature and will go away is false. It takes about one year for bioplastics to break down in natural conditions, which is plenty of time to block waterways and harm animal habitats, though its much shorter than time traditional plastics take to breakdown some of which take hundreds of years.

12:33 Cloth from banana stems:

Intro: bananas are one of worlds most wasteful crops, especially the banana stems, with farmers typically burning them and thus polluting the air. Ugandan company, texfad, has figured out how to pulverise them into fibre to make mats, rugs, and hair extensions. Could bananas become a green alternative to cotton or silk?

Enter TexFad: Every banana plant fruits once in its lifetime, and for every ton of fruit, theres two tonnes of debris. Texfad founder, Kimani Muturi saw potential in banana debris due to his love for handweaving while in college.

    • it takes about a month to weave a rug inspired by east african patterns, starting at about $500.
    • Texfad employs 23 people with an internship program. 
    • Uganda produces more bananas than any other in East africa about nine million tonnes every year. Founder is not worried about banana materials as long as consumption of bananas continues.
    • Texfad has grown in past eight years, a fraction of the $30 billion global banana industry. Environmentalists say that composting banana stems into fertiliser would be a more immediate solution.
    • Texfad produces biodegradable fabrics than are more sustainable than other popular fabrics. Banana fibre absorbs dyes better than cotton meaning that it needs less water and less land to produce


    • Banana stems are cut into chunks and left to dry in the sun. 
    • And thereafter feed the stems into an extractor, a crucial step and only one that requires machinery, extractor costs range from $1,000 to $10,000 for a new one, which is an obstacle for expanding the business, while rest of work is done by hand.
    • Extracted fibres are dried again until they feel like silky yarn, which is later dyed and the weaving shed where making of handicrafts begin.

Challenges: Special equipment and expertise hold back this method from becoming more widespread. Banana fibre may well be the next popular fibre in fashion.

17:47 Plates from unwanted pineapple:

Process: At Lifepack, plates are made from shredded pineapple crowns mixed with recycleable paper and turned into sheets left to dry out in the sun. A machine presses plates into a form, and if the disposable plates end up in places with soil and water, tiny seeds inside will blossom in a few days.

Founders wanted to create not only biodegradable product but rather one that generates life.

  • Workers at lifepack turn out 10,000 eco-friendly plates. 
  • In addition to plates, company makes sandwich containers and coffee cup sleeves that contain seeds from edible plants like amaranth, strawberry and cilantro.
  • For every ton of products that company makes, it saves about 16 trees. It sources pineapple crowns from nearby processing plant where owners dont charge anything for the pineapple waste.
  • Company is trying to promote creation of circular economies, founded 12 years ago by husband and wife pair, when they noticed people in parks polluting environment with products from plastic or styrofoam.
  • Columbia is trying to reduce plastic waste. In 2018, country introduced a tax on single-use plastics that increase each year.
  • Lifepacks sells for $2.5 per dozen, more than double price of traditional plastic plates. Its plates are sold in three large supermarkets and company handles large orders via website. 
  • Lifepack has managed to capitalise on increasing demand for sustainable packaging which has increased 40 percent since company started. 
  • Currently there is more demand than what company is able to supply, which means there is a positive response from clients and ready market for products company sells.


    • Lifepack needs to modernize machinery and improve production and founders hope to franchise the business and expand it to other countries to help more people cut back on plastics.
    • Getting consumers to buy Lifepack products is not easy, due to people not being environmentally aware.

21:47 Sanitary Pads from unwanted banana stems:

Intro: India grows more bananas that anywhere else in the world. One company is turning banana waste into biodegradable sanitary pads that help more people have safer periods. With disposable plastic pads on the rise, can banana stems save planet from mountains of trash?

Enter Saathi: In 2015 when Saathi started, only about a third of women in India had access to pads, meaning missing out on school or work every five days every month which sets women back.
    • Just one banana plant stem can yield up to 3,000 pads saathi says. Bananas bear fruit only once, and one harvested, farmers clear the field for new growth
    • research found out that turning banana waste into fertilizer, fabric, and even candy.
  • banana stems are cut in half and peeled layer by layer, that are fed into machines that turn them into fibres and hanged to dry.
  • banana stem fibre extration machines are setup around so that farmers to extract the fibres, and saathi pays farmers for the fibres.
  • At saathi factory, dried fibres are fed into machines to cut them further into small sizes, and turned into cotton-like fluff  material using saathi secret technology. And then pressed into thinner and thinner sheets which forms the absorbent layer of the pads. And workers manually arrange the layers of the pad together.
  • After pads are cut to size, they are tested using water and ink from each batch, and thereafter samples sanitized via light to kill off bad bacteria and viruses.
  • All pads and packaging are biodegradable, and would break down in under six months and if left in the open, takes 18 months. Conventional pads are made mostly of plastic, which if all menstruating women in India used them would create a huge amount of trash
  • farmers can also use the liquid from the stems as fertilizer in their gardens.
  • Before disposable pads were invented, people used cloth, dried plants and other absorbent substances. Many women still use cloth which can cause infections if not washed and dried frequently.
  • Saathi sells pads in shopping stores and online, and for each pad it sells, saathi gives one away free to people in rural areas where they are needed most. Distributed almost 2 million pads now.
  • When pads are introduced local women are taught in menstrual health. Issues include cultural taboos and price of pads.
  • In some communities, women's behaviour is limited while menstruating. Art, activism and government programs are used to make it easier to talk about periods.

30:14 Biogas energy from unwanted vegetables:

Intro: 10 tonnes of food go unsold at the market instead of going to a landfill, its turned into electricity that powers street lights, buildings and a kitchen preparing food for 800 people using biogas which experts says its plentiful and low-tech and burns cleaner than any fossil fuel. Why cant we make energy from 1.3 billion tonnes of food thrown out every year?

Enter Bowenpally market in Hyderabad, India:

Process: Larger vegetables are chopped into smaller pieces. Coveyer belt carries them into factory where they are shredded further, and food pulp pumped into digesters where bacteria are bred in absence of oxygen. They feed on the food waste giving out carbondioxide and methane, gases emited by any organic material as it decomposes.

Reasons why food is thrown out: Some are thrown out because they are spoilt and some because it will cost farmer too much to transport back home. Vegetables are useless if rotten, thats why they are used in biogas.

  • Massive amounts of food waste makes landfills third largest source of human-caused sources of methane emissions just behind fossil fuels and agriculture.
  • Burning biogas to make electricity is a way to harvest those gases before they enter the atmosphere

Product: At Bowenpally, biogas is stored in four huge balloons until its ready to use, serving enough power to a kitchen serving 800 meals per day.

  • Aside from energy, the biogas plants creates another byproduct - fertiliser. Farmers buy it back to spread in their fields where the vegetables grow, improving yields. 
  • Biogas can be produced from any organic material including animal and human feaces.

Challenges: If biogas can be locally sourced to cut down on emissions and reduce food waste, why are we not all doing it? 

  • Because in most countries its still cheaper to burn fossil fuels. In North america biogas costs five times more than natural gas, though gap is smaller in Asia where price is less than $2 per unit. Worlds largest biogas plant was recently built in Denmark and new facilities are being built in Europe and Africa.
  • Biogas will never replace natural gas, theres just not enough waste to keep up with the demand for electricity, but it does reduce on landfill waste, something natural gas cant do.
  • A missed opportunity in US, where 30-40 percent of food gets thrown out. These projects need to happen to make life more sustainable 

In summary, growing food results in a lot of waste or unwanted plant fibres left behind that can be harnessed to produce fertilizers or feed bacteria to produce biogas energy that can bring cheap energy for cooking, lighting and heating in many rural communities in Africa. 

Let this get you thinking and please share with us your ideas in the comments below.

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