Turning a profit from repurposing food waste

Turning a profit from repurposing food waste

Angela Youngman

Repurposing produce that might otherwise be thrown away is providing some lucrative revenue streams for producers. It is a market that is expanding partly as a result of new research initiatives and quite a number are underway or about to come on stream. Produce Business UK investigates.

Potatoes are one such product. Grown for the tubers, there are always waste products that are rejected by the supermarkets or cannot be used for human consumption. Potato leaves are inedible and are traditionally dumped, turned into compost or simply burned. Scottish scientists at the James Hutton Institute believe that these leaves could be a valuable resource.  Professor Derek Stewart and Dr Mark Taylor, researchers at the Institute, are working on ways to extract solanesol from potato leaves. If they succeed, as they believe they will, it could be prove to be a major financial benefit for potato growers.

Solanesol is a key component in the manufacture of coenzyme Q10.  Traditionally this compound has been used in the cosmetics industry for its anti-ageing effects. Most supplies come from China.  

“There is an awareness that solanesol may have properties in its own right, like antibacterial, anti-inflammation, anti-ulcer, so its end uses are fairly wide. It’s also looking like it may have some ability to reverse things like antibiotic resistance or sensitising tumour cells, so that targeted treatments work even better – a double whammy. Other derivatives have come into focus with regard to treatments for cardiovascular disease, wound healing and osteoporosis. It sounds like a wonder drug,” says Professor Stewart.

Given that pure solanesol can command huge prices, it could prove to be a money spinner. There have been suggestions that if the research is successful, then those unwanted potato leaves could be worth up to £156,000 per hectare.

Award-winning Ogilvy Vodka is a new business stream created out of rejected and waste potatoes in Scotland. Frustrated seeing the amount of waste potatoes rejected by supermarkets, or left behind in the fields, Caroline Bruce-Jarron and her husband Graeme created the first potato vodka in Scotland. It has proved so successful that export deals are being negotiated with Australia, Japan and America and it has won countless awards. Ultimately the intention is to turn this diversification into their main business, utilising all the potatoes they grow for vodka production. 

On a very different scale, Branston, one of the biggest potato suppliers, has developed a new facility within its new prepared potato factory extension in partnership with Tesco. The extension separates visually imperfect but edible potatoes from the overall mix and peels them.  All shapes and sizes of potatoes can be used in the peelers. The peeled potatoes are then sent to Samworth Brothers, who produce ready meals for sale by Tesco. Samworth turn the peeled potatoes into mashed potatoes.

“This new partnership between Branston and Samworth, and the new facility means that in addition to our Farm Brands and Perfectly Imperfect ranges, we will be able to use up to 95% of our grower’s crops, and save edible produce from being wasted,” says Tesco commercial director for Fresh Food, Matt Simister.

In addition, Branston’s is able to put yet more waste potatoes to use by using an on-site anaerobic digestion plant to generate 40% of the site’s electricity.  


Turning to another product – grape skins – a Devon company has become the first micro distillery to create a UK version of the Italian drink Grappa. Cosmo Caddy’s Devon Distillery has been making Dappa since October 2013, using only British grape skins left over from the wine making process and sourced from top English vineyards such as Sharpham, Bolney, Three Choirs and Biddenden.  

Production is undertaken in a custom-designed, hand-crafted copper pot still and results in a high quality after-dinner drink and cocktail. The flavour depends on the quality of the grape skins and the specialist distillation process. 

“Only about 6% of UK wine making is for red wine, it is these grapes we require for dappa as they fermented on the skins rather than just the juice of grapes. Fitting in with the vineyards during their busiest time of the year has been key, making it simple to recycle,” according to Caddy.

Since the company is the only licensed UK distiller, the flavour of Dappa is described as being globally unique and has proved very successful. Dappa won a two star award in the Great Taste Awards 2015 as well as a Silver Award for its 2015 vintage in the 2016 International Wine and Spirit competition. It can now be found in restaurants from Devon to London.

Discovering that fifty tonnes of blackcurrants had been rejected by her usual buyer led farmer Jo Hilditch to seek an alternative to dumping them. Following experimentation, she created a British Cassis, modelled on the French liqueur of the same name. The result has been the development of a new market sector and successful diversification for her family farm.  

British Cassis is now stocked nationwide including Waitrose, John Lewis, Tanners Wine Merchants and Wholefood stores.  

“People love the fact that I live on this farm where I produce the berries,” says Hilditch. 

The drink even led to considerable competition for the opportunity to invest when she appeared on Dragons Den last year. She received offers from Sarah Willingham, Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden, but all were rejected, on the basis that Hilditch did not want to give away the amount of equity they were seeking. She was only willing to go as far as 20%, they were asking for varying equity rates of up to 40%.

Repurposing surplus herbs has given Valley Produce a new market sector.  Based in Berkshire, Hampshire and West Sussex, Valley Produce grows small volumes of culinary herbs for use in the retail, food processing and food service sectors.  

Recognising the scale of potential waste from out of spec herbs, Valley Produce worked with the University of Reading to create a special preparation system. The herbs are washed, chopped and processed thus increasing chilled shelf life to 28 days while cutting down on the preparation time needed for the processing and food service sectors.


With traditional microbeads widely used in cosmetics and many household products now being banned due to the harm caused to oceans, attention has switched to the creation of alternatives. This is good news for Zembra, a joint venture with biotechnology company Celbius which is creating a natural microbead from olive stones. At the same time, olive waste is also being used to create a colourant, and when all the liquid has finally been removed, the dry material is pressed into briquettes for use in log burners.

“In the agri-tech sector, we look at the extraction of products from agricultural waste, fruit and vegetables. You constantly need to evolve in this market,” says Dr Steve Taylor, founder of Celbius.

“Many conventional extraction systems use harsh petrochemicals and have limited efficiency, so we developed a new sonic flow cell. This exposes the liquid or slurry for extraction to low-power ultrasonic energy and can greatly increase productivity.

“In addition to using olive stones for replacing plastic microbeads, Celbius is producing a semi-purified extract from olive pomace, which includes waste skins, fruit and stones for reprocessing. This has some very interesting biological properties and we are looking to incorporate it into a number of products for example in skin care and cosmetics.”

The range of potential uses for this new technology are considerable such as the creation of colourants and look set to eventually involve a wide range of waste fruit and vegetables as Taylor explains.

“The amount of energy being put into the material flowing through the cell e.g tomato slurry, blackcurrant, olives extract, helps pull extra amounts of colour cultures which can then be reused. We will be looking at strawberries and bananas next.  

“There is a lot of interest in this process. To be able to use rejects from bananas which are not edible, and still put them to use, before turning them into compost is great. People struggle to deal with vegetable and fruit waste, it is low value if you are just turning it into compost but if on the way to that you can earn something more extracting compounds then that gives added value to the farmers and producers.  

“When people talk about waste and raw materials, they do not think of the compounds possible and how to extract them to gain the best value.” 

Waste woodland mushrooms are set to be turned into mushroom beer.  Harper Adams University student Harriet Livesey is a member of the mushroom growing family, Livesey Brothers and is all too aware of the amount of waste that can result from mushroom growing. She has received a John Longwill Agricultural Scholarship to cover the start-up and training costs for her new business.  

“Growing fresh woodland mushrooms creates many challenges, from seasonal demand, crop failure, dealing with supermarkets, to overproducing, wastage, man management and financial control. I’d like to diversify and start a new agricultural enterprise making artisan shiitake beer from our waste mushrooms,” she says.

Jenny Costa, founder Rubbies in the Ruble

Rubies in the Rubble manufactures chutneys made from fruit and vegetables originally destined for the rubbish bin. Owner Jenny Costa began by obtaining discarded produce from wholesale fruit and vegetable markets, and as her business grew, the demand for supplies increased. She now buys would-be waste products from farmers at a discounted price, and even collects discarded apples from Virgin Train’s catering service. 

The apples are used to make chutney, which is then sold back to Virgin Trains to use in sandwiches. Other retail customers include Ocado, Waitrose and Fortnum & Mason. She plans to introduce a range of ketchups next, including a banana-based product. 

Fancy a fishing rod made from vegetables? It might sound strange, but Scottish based company CelluComp has created a fibre called Curran which is derived from the extraction of nano-cellulose fibres of root vegetables.  Sugar beet and carrots are said to be particularly rich in these fibres.  Consequently, CelluComp manufactures Curran from vegetables discarded by the food industry.  

“Curren can be used in shampoos, paints, face creams, oils and we have even made a fishing rod out of the cellulose from carrots. Other demonstration products have included a skateboard and a formula one racing car steering wheel,” says CEO Christian Kemp Griffin.

“It can be made into flat sections, bonded together for strength or turned into powders and liquids. We are constantly investigating other options including looking at potatoes. These are long term projects which need patience.”

Even packaging is being created out of waste vegetables. On sale in Waitrose are red lentil and green pea pasta in which peas and pulses that do not make the food grade during production are used to create the product packaging. Since the box can be in direct contact with the food, there is no need for any inner sleeve, thus reducing the amount of packaging involved. The box itself is completely recyclable.

In 2016, Solidus Solutions won the Packaging Europe Sustainability Award for its solid board packaging containing tomato plant fibres. The packaging is even more sustainable because the tomato plants are grown on the same site, and at their end of their productive life cycle are converted into fibre board which can be used to pack newly cultivated tomatoes. The idea is that one year’s crop provides packaging for the following year. One hectare of tomato plants can provide up to 100,000 tomato boxes which are, in turn, recyclable.

Perhaps the most unusual form of repurposing is the creation of building bricks out of fungi and agricultural waste. The bricks can be grown in five days, and ultimately can be composted and turned into fertiliser. A Hy-Fi brick tower built in New York won the 2015 MoMA Young Architects Programme.  Similar bricks are being created by Mycotech Indonesia from vegetable waste mixed with mushroom mycielia. 



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