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5 Cool Ways Food Waste Is Getting Upcycled

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Near Apartadó, Colombia, activist Tristram Stuart examines bananas too short, long, or curved for the European market. Locals consume some rejected bananas, but growers in the region annually dump millions of tons of edible fruit.

Readers of The Plate are no strangers to the colossal problems of food waste and food loss: the countless crates of imperfect, but perfectly edible, produce dumped at the U.S.-Mexico border; the massive amount of food purchased by restaurants that is never served; the meats and produce that go to waste due to lack of proper cooling in many parts of the world, and the forgotten items moldering in countless refrigerators in others.

Across the globe, there are efforts large (the new Rockefeller Foundation initiative) and small (communities that have enlisted cab drivers to transport restaurant excess to the hungry) designed to tackle different facets of this problem. And here at National Geographic, we’ve worked hard to educate the public about the problem. If you haven’t read it yet, check out the cover story from the March issue from National Geographic Magazine, How Ugly Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger. We’ve even mobilized our own Your Shot photography community to remind folks that #uglyfoodisbeautiful.

Many food waste prevention efforts seek to address a mismatch between supply and demand; namely, bringing excess food to needy people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get it. But repurposing food—that is, turning products that would otherwise be thrown out into something else entirely—is another approach. We’ve rounded up a few efforts below that have caught our eye. Even better, you can try some of these yourself (though perhaps not the salmon leather. Best leave that to the experts).

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1. Not-So-Baby Baby Carrots
Those baby carrots available in snack packs at the supermarket? Sorry to break it to you, but they’re not babies. Often, those little nuggets are adult deformed carrots—the kind producers know many consumers in the U.S. won’t buy—cut up in to “baby” sizes. Yes, the marketing here is somewhat duplicitous, but it’s also an ingenious way to save those poor imperfect carrots from the landfill.

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2. A Second Life for Mangoes
More than half of Kenya’s mango crop spoils before it can make it to the market. And everyone knows mangoes are far too delicious—and nutritious—to get tossed out, particularly in a country where many people go hungry. Enter Nairobi’s Azuri Health and German development agency GIZ. The collaborators are working on a facility where fresh mangoes will be transformed into tasty dried mango slices for the global market. (And if you’d like to try your own hand at salvaging fruit and veg before it’s too late, there are lots of resources online for drying produce at home in your oven.)

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3. Everyone Loves Ice Cream. And Smoothies. And Chips

Students at Drexel University’s Food Lab last year identified foods that often went to waste at a Philadelphia supermarket chain: bananas, apples, and potatoes. They then set to work creating products that the store could then resell to consumers: banana puree for ice cream and smoothies, and fried chips made from salvaged potatoes and apples. Food Lab is now working to bring their idea to market.

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4. Salmon Skin as Funky Fashion
This effort, dreamed up by two commercial salmon fishermen, scores some serious creativity points. Troubled by the fish skin tossed out by the industry, the duo behind Tidal Vision decided to transform it into items like wallets that you can actually use. These wallets look good and won’t make your pocket smell like fish. Next up for Tidal Vision: turning crab shell fiber into high-tech, antimicrobial clothing.

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5. When in Doubt, Make a Frittata!
OK, most of the approaches above aren’t exactly things you can do at home. But our savvy readers are innovators, too, and this one’s just for you. Making a frittata is a classic, painless way to use up random odds and ends in the fridge. All you need are a few eggs, milk, and those forgotten bits and pieces, and you’re well on your way to a super-simple meal that somehow always tastes good. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s easy. Here’s a recipe to get you started—make one tonight!