Scientists from Bangor University are working on a three-year £3million European scheme to save millions of tons of waste from food production being dumped in landfill or in the fields.
They aim to turn the unused leftovers from fruit, vegetable and grain crops from agriculture into products ranging from chemicals for the food industry, building materials and beauty products.
The University’s Bio-composites Centre is collaborating with public and private sector partners, including food giants Mars and Tate and Lyle, from six different EU countries on the Pro-Enrich project.
Their share of the funding is £400,000 from the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking, part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
The project aims to add value to a range of residues from crops grown in the EU, including rapeseed, oranges, tomatoes and olives, much of it currently ending up in landfill, used for animal feed or left to rot in the fields.
They are looking at new uses for the waste from rapeseed grown in North Wales, and Denmark and oranges, tomatoes and olives from Spain and Slovenia.
The team from Bangor has been a key player in identifying protein concentrate from bio-refined rapeseed waste for use as pet food, in veggie burgers and in adhesive for plywood.
They have also helped find uses for olive waste in skin care and developed a method for separating tomato seeds from the juice and pulp with possible uses in anti-ageing and sunburn protection.
Dr Adam Charlton, a member of the University project team, said: “We are looking at ways of using the waste from food production to make a range of useful products in ways that are commercially viable.
“In this project we are focusing on the waste products of agriculture and the food manufacturing sector to find new and higher value uses for them.
“We act as a bridge between research conducted at laboratory scale and commercial products, through collaboration with industry.
“We are not manufacturers but a research and innovation team taking ideas and helping companies commercialise them.”
In all Bangor University is part of a project which includes 13 companies – among them Tate and Lyle’s technical service centre and ingredient blending facility in Mold – from international corporations to specialist producers as well as three research organisations from seven European countries.
The industrial project partners include Anecoop from Spain, one of Europe’s biggest fruit and vegetable producers, French-based environmental-engineering company Vertech, Greek construction materials business Chimar and Danish biotechnology company Tailorzyme.
Dr Charlton said: “We are working with the plant-based by-products from the food industry which are under-used because there is a real focus now on food waste, from that thrown away by consumers in the home to unused residue at the farm, field and factory.
“These include rapeseed cake produced in Northern Europe, olive-mill residues produced in Southern Europe and tomato and citrus processing residues.
“We want to develop functional proteins that are plant-based for environmental reasons and we are looking at a variety of uses for them.
According to Dr Charlton some of these processing leftovers are used in anaerobic energy production and as animal feed, but large volumes, between a third and a quarter, are simply not utilised and the project is based on finding uses for these.
Across Europe the members of the team are exploring the possibilities of plant residue being used to make a range of different products, using proteins, polyphenols, dietary fibres and pigments for use as food ingredients, pet food, cosmetics and adhesives.
The aim is to make more use of the waste generated by the food industry but also to reduce the amount of chemicals and energy used in the production processes.
He likens the processes they are exploring to the development of the oil industry and he said: “Bio-refining is a bit like oil refining because you start with a raw material and at the end of the process you have all sorts of products.
“At present there are very few commercial bio refineries because the research is still in its infancy so we’re still developing approaches to how we processes these plant residues and convert them to products.
“We are doing it while minimising the use of chemicals like acids and alkalis and instead replacing them with more environmentally-friendly enzymes, the naturally occurring proteins that control biological processes.
“This is technically very challenging, particularly when it comes to scaling the processes up to commercial levels which is what we’re trying to do here on Anglesey because it has to be economically viable.
“It’s very prestigious to be involved in a project like this and to get this kind of funding because you have to show you are generating value and working with partners because there’s no point doing the research unless you have got a route to market.
“It is funded by the EU and it gets companies and academia working together and it’s good that Bangor University is involved in this because accessing EU funding remains important to us.”