This month the Upcycled Food Association faced a challenging and historic event: creating the formal definition of the term “upcycled food.” Representatives from Drexel University, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, ReFED, and the World Wildlife Fund met to do the painstaking work normally left to the Oxford dictionaries of the world. The process of defining this term was so powerful that it has inspired me to challenge the wider waste industry to do something radical: redefine “waste” — literally.
Over six months, the Upcycled Food Definition Task Force deliberated the complex implications of the definition and toiled incessantly over every last word. The final product was a summary paper, an infographic, and, of course, the definition itself:
"Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment."
Duh, right? To those in the industry, it might even sound a little bland. You might wonder why we would care to go through a rigorous six-month process to come up with such an obvious definition. But to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, it’s the journey, not the destination. What we had set out to do was come up with a definition that could be used by government, industry, nonprofits, and academia for measurement, policy, and communication. What we found in the process was much more powerful. We found a center of gravity, a North Star, an anchor for our industry. After all, in terms of building a powerful message, isn’t it most important to get everyone to use the same language?
Before the new definition came to be, most people in the upcycled food world were using different terms to describe the same thing. Is it upcycled food? Recovered? Rescued? As a result, the message was fragmented, which makes it harder for consumers to understand. Personally, I found myself tongue-tied when trying to explain upcycled food, and I usually had to use examples instead. Now that there is a formal definition, it takes the stutter out of our voices, and we can speak with confidence when we receive the inevitable question, “What’s that?”
The process of defining “upcycled food” ourselves was empowering and exciting for those in the upcycled food industry. It instilled a sense of collaboration in us, and gave us a place to cement our values of sustainability and transparency. As a result, our industry will be more effective. Isn’t it amazing that an act as abstract as redefining a word can have the practical outcome of reducing more food waste out there in the real world? We gave the term “upcycled food” meaning, and in turn it will change our behavior.
So let’s get practical: Were we allowed to do this? I don’t know. Please don’t call Merriam-Webster on me. Does a red squiggly line still appear under the word “upcycled” when I type it out in Word or Docs? Yep. Is this the official definition? Sure, because we said so. I mean, isn’t it true that those who are most affected by an outcome should have the most agency in making the decision? The meanings of words and phrases are always drifting throughout history, so why don’t we put these shifts to work for us? How can taking ownership of a keyword create the outcomes we want to see in the world?
Merriam-Webster says that a word enters the dictionary when people from across industries and regions use it in the same way. But I believe the opposite is true, too. By assigning a definition to a word we care about, we can shift the way we think about that word and what it represents, and change our behavior accordingly.
Therein lies my challenge to the waste industry: It’s time to redefine “waste,” literally.
Social and industrial movements such as the circular economy, regenerative agriculture, and sustainability in general have been urging us to redefine “waste” for decades. How many times have we heard this phrase at waste conferences: “We need to rethink waste.” While this sentiment has good intentions, it hasn’t exactly empowered or inspired the movement at its core. Meanwhile, the world is moving along towards sustainability with or without the waste industry.
If we want a sustainable future, or a circular economy, does that mean the waste industry goes away? Our confusion of “reduce, reuse, recycle” with “reduce, reduce, reduce” gives the impression that the best we could do is to just not exist at all, but that’s not true. Humans are, evolutionarily speaking, a keystone species, meaning we have tremendous impact on the ecological systems in our midst, good or bad. We can’t “zero-waste” ourselves out of our problems; we have to design ourselves out of them. We in the waste industry can stay relevant, but we need to be proactive. We need to define the future.
If we do successfully make the transition to a circular economy, who better to benefit than the waste industry? If the technological, ecological, and policy innovation necessary to a create circular economy is going to live somewhere, why not within the waste industry itself? Old-fashioned and clunky as it can sometimes be, the waste industry could be the lean innovator holding the door at the threshold of the circular economy. And redefining “waste” could be the key.
I’m not suggesting that individual companies adopt new sustainability policies, nor that we lean any harder into the cliché, “Waste has value.” I’m suggesting that the larger waste industry do what the food waste movement did with “upcycled food”: come together and facilitate a collaborative process where the outcome is a consensual, fundamental new understanding of the word “waste.” What will follow are the new sustainable practices that the new definition insinuates. Let’s shake the current definition so hard that the baggage falls away and we’re left with a clean slate.
One of the current Merriam-Webster definitions of “waste” is “damaged, defective, or superfluous material produced by a manufacturing process.” Not exactly the inspiring battle cry of an industry holding the key to the future. Let’s write a definition of “waste” that propels the waste industry into the circular economy, rather than anchoring ourselves to a sinking ship. Imagine the power of working for the waste industry when the definition of “waste” found in the dictionary is something like, “Noun: The input to innovative materials processing. The linchpin to the circular economy.”
You may be reading this thinking, “You’re crazy. We can’t do that!” But remember, there are no rules. No dictionary police will bust down your door. Words have meaning because people give them meaning. But their meanings also change the way we think and behave. Let’s work together to create a new definition for “waste,” and design the future we want for our industry and world.