Upcycling – the art of recycling plant matter

Upcycling: this term refers to an idea that’s both ecological and economical: using ingredients and materials that would otherwise be bound for the rubbish dump as raw materials.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is about recycling while trading up. Instead of taking a spent product and breaking it down (e.g. a garment gets recycled by being turned into rags, fuel or a different material), we recycle it honourably. On the fashion scene, upcycling consists of creating clothes either out of worn-out clothes that get recut and reassembled, or out of as yet unused fabric offcuts. 

Upcycling is about viewing a product in terms of circularity from the outset. We no longer create a product, use it and then throw it away. Instead, we create it to use it and then re-use it for a whole other purpose. Or use the material from its production process to create a different product.

Upcycling has two meanings: it refers to either post-usage conversion or the use of production residues.

On the beauty scene, the idea has been around for a long time: using waste, “by-products” or biomass from other industries – essentially the food trade – to make superior active ingredients. With good reason, since these derivative products generally contain super-beneficial molecules.

Supplies disrupted by the pandemic

As revealed by a study published by Ecovia Intelligence, the pandemic crisis shook up the beauty product industry’s supply chains, leading to:

  • Reflection on raw materials used
  • Seeking out supplies in the local and regional area
  • Development of the circular economy

This being the case, waste from the local agri-food industry would seem to be a source of superior natural raw materials.

Good news: not only are they easy to come by, but they also completely match consumer demand for naturalness, traceability, environmental responsibility, “localism” and circularity. Lastly, they recognise the value of local natural heritage, crops and make it possible for farmers, market traders or producers to tap into the value of another part of their produce. Not to mention that these raw materials often cost very little!

Why is plant matter a super candidate for upcycling?

The measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic affected plant extract harvesting, processing and freight transport, with shortages, longer timelines due to port quarantining and increased costs. 

At the same time, as it happens, all plants develop strategies to adapt to their environment and protect themselves from adverse weather conditions, external damaging factors, etc.

To do so, they produce an array of molecules. The most beneficial ones are the antioxidants: vitamins (A, C, E), carotenoids, polyphenols, anthocyanins, flavonoids, etc… All fruit and vegetables contain them.

In addition, these molecules are often the most concentrated in the outer covering (shell, peel or germ) which acts as their protection. As well as in stalks and seeds / pips. And again, more good news, these are the parts not used by the food trade. So this makes them super candidates for upcycling. Besides, many a beauty product brand based on a key plant-based ingredient was originally created by a family or industrial group whose main line of business involved the key product, and who were seeking lucrative opportunities to use derivatives from it. 
The pioneers in the skincare sector:

Grapes from French vineyards

marc de raisin - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN BEAUTY

Every year, worldwide wine production tosses aside 13 million tons of grape must (dry residue consisting of seeds, skin and grapevine branches). And grapevines contain a phenomenal amount of antioxidants, which obviously end up in wine – not least red wine – and also in these by-products: polyphenol from the seeds, resveratrol from vine stems and age spot-fighting viniferin from the sap. And grape must, once freeze-dried and ground, can also be used as an exfoliant with antioxidants proprieties.

Burgundy oak

Two patented oak extracts – anti-ageing Quercus Petraea Concentrate and moisturising Pétrasève – come from oak woodchips from the forest of Bertranges. They are used as a beauty product ingredient by Charlois group, based in the Nièvre subdivision, under the La Chênaie brand. Charlois group produces barrels for the top vintage wines in the neighbouring Burgundy and Champagne regions.

 Pine from the Landes

Le pin des Landes - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN BEAUTY

OPCs (OligoProanthoCyanidines), which come from pine bark, are a powerful antioxidant, with protective power greater than that of vitamin C. They are also a collagen protector, and therefore an excellent anti-ageing remedy. They are also found under the name of Pycnogenol, which is in fact a trade mark filed by a German laboratory on a French seaside pine extract. Pin also contains colophane, waxes and terpenes from which perfume notes are made. As for pine nut oil, it is high in essential fatty acids, polyphenols and phytosterols (Océopin).

“Ugly” Mediterranean fruit

fruits «-moches-» méditerranéens - WE ARE CLEAN - CLEAN BEAUTY

Perhaps you remember the French advert for “fruits moches” (“ugly fruit”) that’s fine to eat? Well before this funny promotion, back in 2008, a small brand from Marseille hit on the idea of converting this much-overlooked plant matter into organic beauty products, sourcing them from local market traders.

Cider apples from Normandy and Brittany

It’s possible to process apple must and apple tree leaves (post-pressing residues) to yield cider juice made up of phenolic compounds which have a great many proprieties (antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, etc.). A-hydroxylated acid from apples (malic acid) is among the acids most frequently used in beauty products, to refine skin tone. Lastly, pectin from apple must is used as a texturiser for creams and balms, and as a thickener/stabiliser for body lotion, shampoo, etc..

Coffee grounds from cafés in Paris and Denmark

Cafés throw away tons of coffee grounds every year. A Parisian brand picks up those from its neighbourhood cafés to make them into an exfoliant that’s high in slimming caffeine. A Danish brand has done the same, and also yields a coffee oil from it, with anti-ageing and tissue-healing properties.

To get with this upcycling trend, a great many producers of natural ingredients are developing beauty product ingredients from crop residues, whether from avocados (Expanscience), blueberry seeds, vetiver, coffee grounds (Givaudan) or tree bark (BioForeXtra).

In perfumery, too

Perfume designers have also started focussing on circularity and seeking out new ingredients for putting together upcycled perfumes. They may come either from an internal perfume ingredient creation process or from external waste, like farm residues which would otherwise have been turned into compost.
In this way, for example, once the flowers have been distilled, Turkish rose petals still contain fragrant molecules. These molecules are retrieved to create a reinterpretation of the rose fragrance, with new facets of apricot, tobacco and spice (Rose Ultimate™ from LMR Naturals by IFF, and also Rose NeoAbsolute™ Colourless Orpur® from Givaudan).
As for the upcycling of waste not related to perfumery, an ingredient with woody, smoky and vanilla notes (Oakwood CO2 LMR Naturals by IFF) comes from the unused oak woodchips of a barrel manufacturer based in Cognac. 

Further examples: Givaudan, which yields an ingredient (Apple Oil Orpur®) from apple juice must, and Firmenich, which has been implementing a program to create upcycled fragranced ingredients since 2020.

There is even a project – AgriWasteValue – supported by the Interreg North West Europe program, in partnership with AgroParisTech, France’s Cosmetic Valley, suppliers and corporations, to turn farm residues into bioactive compounds that can be used in the beauty product and nutraceutical sectors.

Thanks to upcycling, waste is now being turned into honourable raw materials for beauty products, whose value can be and does get tapped into. 

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