How Gelatin Manufacturing Contributes to the Circular Economy

From an original article, ‘From Chain to Circle: Unlocking Upcycling Potential in Food Production.’ GROW – Gelatin Representatives of the World

With a growing world population, food consumption and waste generation are expected to increase. This leads to one of the most challenging global issues: to manage food waste and loss and their social and environmental impact. As there are limited resources on the planet, the food industry needs to develop and pursue sustainable approaches in food production. Upcycling is one way to close the loop to a circular economy.

Gelatin has by definition, always been an upcycled product and the gelatin industry supports a circular economy by creating new valuable output from by-products of another industry.


Availability of Resources and Impact of Food Loss and Food Waste

One of the most pressing challenges at the global level is the growing population.

Projections suggest that by 2050, the world population will have increased by 25% compared to now, totaling almost 10 billion people*—who all need to be fed.

As food production already comes with negative externalities such as biodiversity loss or soil erosion, which impact the capacities to produce food, our resources cannot be increased infinitely. “We will have to feed more people from the same quantity of resources in the coming years because we only have one planet. It’s not easy to expand resources, and resources are already scarce,” explains Eva Gocsik, Research Specialist Animal Protein at Rabobank.

At the same time, we are already wasting a lot of resources and products that could be eaten by people: One-third of food produced is lost or wasted between harvest, retail, households, and food service. Limiting food waste can, therefore, be a major factor in tackling the challenge of a growing world population and increasing food waste.

But how can food waste be reduced? The Circular Economy.

That is where the transition from a linear to a circular (bio) economy comes into play. According to the European Commission, the Circular Economy is a model of production and consumption that involves reusing, repairing, and recycling existing materials and trying to keep them in the cycle as long as possible.

The goal is to reduce waste to a minimum by extending the life span of products. But as the food industry is prevalently concerned with biological resources, Dr. Evelyn Reinmuth, Head of Bioeconomy Office at Hohenheim University, likes to refer to a circular bioeconomy.

The bioeconomy relies on three pillars of sustainability: economy, ecology and social aspects reflected in education and innovation.

According to Evelyn, to tackle food waste, we need to aim for a more sustainable food system in which we have a greater understanding of our resources and valorize them in the right way. Moreover, she stresses the importance of processing by-products into valuable edible ingredients or non-edible products like packaging to close the loop.


How Gelatin Implements a Circular Production Cycle

The gelatin industry supports a circular economy by creating new valuable products from animal by-products of the meat industry, such as fish or pig skin and bones. The animals were originally raised for meat production, so no animal is intentionally raised for gelatin production.

In this way, gelatin has, by definition, always been an upcycled product and, therefore has a long tradition of being part of the sustainable supply chain, says Richard van Lijssel, Chair of the Sustainability Committee at GME:

“Not only is gelatin itself a by-product of the animal industry but the by-products that emerge from gelatin production can be valorized in further applications even outside of the food industry, such as pet food or fertilizers.”

This makes gelatin an example of an improved sustainable system that closes the circular loop.

As the gelatin industry was built on making use of animal by-products, without this industry the volume of food waste and loss would be even higher. For example, the main product used in gelatin production is pig skin, which makes up to three to four kilograms per pig and would be lost if the gelatin industry did not make use of it, as Eva explains.

How Gelatin Implements a Circular Production Cycle

At the same time, the role of consumers in the transition to a more sustainable food system should not be underestimated. Eva elaborates that most of the food waste occurs at the household level, because people buy too much and it eventually ends up in the trash.

Moreover, “we have been trained just to use the filet, the best parts of the products,” adds Evelyn.

However, there is hope that in the near future,

“consumers [will] rethink their perception of by-products (or co-products) that are actually not by-products but resources, and we need to use those resources to feed the growing population.”

So, to achieve a more circular economy, we need not only a system change but also a fundamental change in our mindsets.

Apart from that, new innovations can pave the way toward a more sustainable production cycle.