Justin White
Justin White

As one of North America’s leading experts in upcycling, plant-based ingredient maker KeyLeaf Life Sciences was founded in the 1970s to assist Canadian farmers to better commercialize their oilseed crops. Today, KeyLeaf is finding new sustainable uses for plant-derived biomaterial, which makes sense economically and environmentally. Below, Justin White, KeyLeaf’s vice president of global sales and business development, explains his company’s mission to add vital components to the ever-expanding circular bio-economy.

MPT: How would you best explain the term “upcycling” and how it differs from the recycling most people are familiar with?

Justin White: 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.”

MPT: How has KeyLeaf integrated upcycling into its business? 

Justin White: KeyLeaf has been upcycling in the plant-based ingredient space decades before upcycling became trendy. Here at KeyLeaf, we are living upcycling every day. Upcycling plant materials is our entire business.

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. 

MPT: And how does the upcycling process work?

Justin 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 (that is, co-products) and finding applications for each identified co-product. 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.

MPT: Can upcycled materials lend themselves to a greater variety of applications than traditional recycling?

Justin White: Take our previous example. Hemp has a long history of being upscaled into value-added products, including its seeds. Containing all nine 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. 

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