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KeyLeaf: Upcycling in The Circular Bioeconomy

The earth’s natural resources are bountiful -- but they are limited.‍

Concerned that overuse of those resources could bring about detrimental changes to the quality of life for current and future generations, scientists, academics, and innovation leaders in the early 2000s began to promote a practice they called upcycling which they defined as “taking an item that is no longer needed or wanted and giving it new life as something that is either useful or creative.” Upcycling has also been defined as “the re-use of discarded materials which results in an increase in value.”‍

One of North America’s leading experts in upcycling is plant-based ingredient maker KeyLeaf Life Sciences, founded in the 1970s to assist Canadian farmers to better commercialize their oilseed crops. “KeyLeaf has been upcycling in the plant-based ingredient space decades before upcycling became trendy,” says Justin White, KeyLeaf’s Vice President, Global Sales and Business Development. “Here, at KeyLeaf, we are living upcycling every day. Upcycling plant materials is our entire business.”‍

According to White, over the years, KeyLeaf’s scientists and engineers have evaluated and processed thousands of seeds, flowers, leaves, cells, and other plant components to best monetize their biochemical contents by creating value-added product streams.‍

“We don’t consider used biomaterials to be waste. Those materials all have value -- it’s just that someone hasn’t yet discovered that value. That’s our job,” says White.‍

When biomaterial is delivered to KeyLeaf to be processed, KeyLeaf’s task is to create a value-added processing stream for the main product. After accomplishing that, the company’s objective then becomes to discover and identify all potential value-added streams available from the plant material (i.e., co-products) and to find applications for each identified co-product. White says clients will often share processing with KeyLeaf when multiple co-products and multiple value-added streams are involved, as in the case of hemp seed.‍

Hemp seed has a long history of being upscaled into value-added products. Containing all 9 essential amino acids, along with essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 and other bio-compounds of value, the seeds are dehulled, leaving their inner hemp hearts available and edible in the form of breakfast cereal and snacks. In additional processing streams, the seed’s protein can be obtained by aqueous or solvent extraction or fractionated from dry press cake and milled into flour and protein powder. The seeds’ pressed oil has more value-added streams as the oil is processed and upcycled for use in nutritional, nutraceutical, and cosmetic products and applications. Even the seeds’ discarded hulls open a value-added co-processing stream as new applications for the hull’s fiber are explored and developed.‍

“Finding new sustainable uses for plant-derived biomaterial makes sense economically and environmentally,” says White. “It’s a vital component of the ever-expanding circular bio-economy, which is based upon upcycling renewable biological sources and converting waste streams into value-added products.‍

KeyLeaf is available for free consultation with plant-based food, beverage, and nutraceutical ingredient makers on how to find more value in their processing streams.

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