Horseradish Pesto and Barley Biscuits: VÄRT Tackles Food Waste With a Pinch of Creativity

The Swedish sustainable food lab is serving up innovative strategies for food companies to turn their waste into new products.

VÄRT:s upcycled factory building in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo: Fyrberg/VÄRT.

Every week, groups of people arrive at the disused factory building that VÄRT occupies in the industrial area of Gothenburg, Sweden. They’re a rag-tag mix of start-ups, car companies, old-fashioned carrot farmers and existential high schoolers. Some have walked just around the corner to get there. Others have come from across town, or even from the other side of the world. Yet, they all ask the same thing; how do we stop wasting food?

When I ask VÄRT:s founder Corina Akner that very question, she leads me to her industrial-sized freezers and pulls out large boxes of frozen grains. It’s beer waste, the leftover spent barley from the brewing process, and there’s a lot more where that came from; every year, EU breweries throw away around 3.4 million tonnes of it. Glancing down on the stale brownish goo, I instinctively think of horse manure. Akner, on the other hand, is enthusiastic:

“Most people have drunk thousands of litres of beer, but they have never eaten anything with beer waste, they don’t even know it exists… But it is a resource to have something so protein and fibre-rich because the food industry is looking for new vegetarian meat alternatives. However, it is not beer. So if you sell beer and get a lot of stuff like this, you don’t know what to do with it.”

Because companies focus on creating a distinctive brand for a specific product, they sometimes struggle to find any use for their waste. That’s where VÄRT steps in to help companies develop innovative byproducts: products made from the main product’s waste, resources that are considered inedible or unusable but which could be reused to utilize more of the raw material. In collaborating with a local microbrewery, VÄRT has developed twelve beer waste byproducts that range from bread, pizzas, biscuits, power bars, truffles and chilli nuts. “We’d like to think that you buy your beer and then you buy your nuts … So that you eat your whole beer, in a way,” Akner explains.

For over three years, the design studio and sustainable food lab VÄRT has arranged workshops, consultations, labs and lectures where the physical experience of food waste is used as a tool to understand how the circular economy works — and the benefits of getting involved.

“If you decide to become the first circular brewery, then you already have a free raw material: four tonnes of beer waste per week that is hygienic, sterile and already in place, she explains. You just put it in a clean container and drive it into the room next door and make something else out of it,” Akner says.

The idea behind VÄRT is to use food as an intimate tool in the mental process to understand circularity. Where the focus is on experiencing waste — how it feels, smells and tastes — to come up with new ideas on how to reuse it.

“Not everything can be solved with one app,” Akner says.

Corina Akner, founder and CEO of VÄRT. Photo: VÄRT.

“For me, it is important that people have things in their mouths and make connections … That you don’t just sit and have a work lunch with a boring presentation of the latest numbers from a status report and then sit and puzzle post-it notes, but that you get a physical experience.”

VÄRT uses food as a starting point to discuss sustainability because it is something that everyone has a personal connection to; you may not be the sharpest knife in the kitchen, but most people have boiled pasta or chopped a tomato at some point in their lives. Sustainability, on the other hand, is something many feel estranged and alienated from, even though sustainable habits are not too far away in time.

“When we have workshops on berry waste, most participants instinctively think about their grandmother and how she spent several weeks picking berries and making jam out of them to extend the shelf life,” Akner says. “Most people have a similar connection to someone who has a habit of taking care of waste naturally built into their life.”

Whereas the old Swedish farmers pickled, salted, and smoked, today’s average Sven tends to throw food away; dry bread loaves, leftover cucumber stumps, and brown apples usually end up as waste rather than breadcrumbs, pickles, and apple pie. Of the 133 kilos of food waste that each Swede throws away per year, nearly half of it is still edible. The remaining food waste consists of things that are considered inedible or unusable, such as coffee grounds and potato peels, but which could be reused in other ways. The imagination of the older generation’s storage methods has been lost, Akner says, even though it is needed more than ever.

To reintroduce sustainable habits on an individual as well as on a corporate level, Akner has built VÄRT’s workshops as a creative space where norms around our consumption can be examined and criticized in a relaxed way.

“Sustainability easily gets depressing”, Akner grins. “Quite often you end up in discussions that end with people feeling that they would rather do as they usually do because it is much nicer. So then we come very quickly to the question of how to challenge our standards; how do we do what we know we should do, but generally don’t want to do? How do we make fewer people own cars when it’s so wonderful to own a car? But in a serious way.”

Inside VÄRT:s venues. Photo: Siri Christiansen.

This is the central theme of the workshop “Question Pleasures”, where the participants get to explore a problematic but much-loved product such as coffee. The conversation is shaped by the experience of tasting the coffee and changing some of its properties; perhaps by drinking it cold and then reflecting on why cold coffee tastes bad and why the heat is considered an essential part of coffee drinking. The participants then discuss what they want to get out of the coffee; is it the caffeine, the taste, the heat, or the social ritual of it all? While the environmental impact of coffee consumption is discussed, the participants start talking about what an exchange of coffee could look like, if a hot spicy apple juice and a caffeine tablet could replace some of your coffee drinkings. This to make room for prices connected to ‘True trade’ coffee, where farmers are paid to cover the real cost of growing the beans. In doing so, VÄRT wants to promote better beans, changed behaviours and treating coffee as a luxury good rather than a common staple.

Refraining from the daily cup of morning joe can feel daunting even for the most environmentally conscious Swede. At the same time, it is clear that consumption in Sweden must decrease in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. According to the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, household consumption accounts for 60% of Sweden’s total greenhouse gas emissions. To limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees by 2050, annual consumption-based greenhouse emissions need to be reduced significantly: from eight tonnes per person to a maximum of one tonne per person per year, which roughly equals to a return trip to southern Spain.

In promoting the exchange of waste-generating products for local environmentally friendly alternatives, VÄRT’s goal is to not only take care of the waste but to eliminate it in the long run.

”It is about finding something else that can fulfil the functions of the exclusive import goods,” Akner says. This is the case in one of VÄRT:s current collaborations with a radish farm where they are promoting radish leaves, which are currently being thrown away, as a sustainable alternative to imported salad: “Horseradish leaves fulfil the same function as rocket salad, only that we do not have to fly radish leaves all the way from Italy or the Netherlands. We already have these wonderful, spicy horseradish leaves in our fields, without electricity, without greenhouses, without irrigation,” she continues.

While the debate on food waste tends to emphasise individual consumer choices (hands up if you’ve ever tried making a coffee ground body scrub), Akner wants to shift the attention to the role of producers in creating unsustainable consumption patterns. “If private individuals are to be held responsible for their waste, they must have better raw materials to work with,” she explains. It’s not worth making a tomato chutney on watery Dutch tomatoes, just as it’s not worth patching up a cheap, mass-produced t-shirt. It’s produced to break: it’s already broken.”

But according to Akner, companies have long been sceptical about the circular economy and continue to be slow in their response to the climate emergency. This isn’t necessarily because they don’t want to change, she continues.

“Many companies we work with want to be involved and create change. But when we come back to them with suggestions for circular materials, recipes or new strategies, it becomes more difficult, because genuine sustainability disrupts companies’ prevailing economic strategies and often means a concept tweak, which might affect image and brand. They want us to do a sample collection as inspiration and then they want to wait for other companies to take the first steps. It is easy to see what needs to be done, but it is difficult to dare to be an early adapter.”

At the same time, Akner has noted an increased interest even in the more unexpected sectors. Last year, VÄRT hosted a sustainability brainstorm meeting for Geely, Volvo’s sister company, to discuss how a car company can question car ownership without losing profit. And Akner expects more companies to follow suit:

“Those who are at the heart of consumption, the ones driving the economic development, have a hard time making decisions like this”, Akner says. “But the car industry, as well as large companies in general, understand that they must do something else to be relevant in the future. And to be first in such an industry requires innovative ideas.”

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