Towards a greater circular economy of bread

In France alone, 585 000 metric tonnes of bread are wasted every year, together with 1.9 million euros spent on producing them and 908,000 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Luckily, more and more companies in the food as well as the chemical industry are starting to use bread waste as a raw material. This promotes a circular economy model which is often achieved through fermentation.

Tackling bread waste – which represents 13% of food waste – is both an environmental and an economic challenge. This is the reason why professionals in the industry, such as craft and industrial bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants and canteens, are now actively seeking solutions to maximise the recovery of their waste. And with a lot in the pipeline already, the timing could not be any better. Supporting the development of a circular economy in the food industry, the European Commission launched on 5 July 2021 the EU Code of Conduct on Responsible Food Business and Marketing Practices, under its Farm to Fork Strategy presented in May 2020. The Code sets out seven targets for 2050 that promote the prevention and minimisation of food waste by optimising the development of circular food supply chains, in an effort to save resources, source more responsibly, create jobs and value, and protect the climate and people’s health at the same time.

Further action to reduce bread waste

Waste prevention is not a new concept in the sector of craft bakeries and restaurants. Professionals in the industry do whatever they can to recover their waste, either by turning stale bread into croutons, breadcrumbs, bruschetta, dumplings, stuffing, French toast or puddings, or by giving leftover bread to charities, nearby farms or animal shelters whenever collections are organised. But that’s not always enough to recover all the waste they end up with, let alone the leftovers thrown away by industrial bakeries and supermarkets.

While the challenge here lies in the amount of bread that goes to waste and the rate at which it becomes stale, the health requirements for this type of product are also very much part of the issue. Indeed, bread has to be stored in the best possible conditions to keep it from moulding. Bacterial spores can also survive the baking process, be reactivated and release toxins.

Bringing bread back to life, and the circle is complete!

In view of the reasons outlined above, bakers are not allowed to soak leftover bread from the previous day and mix it into their fresh dough. They can, however, turn their old bread into flour. French startup Expliceat, a company specialising in food waste, designed a bread grinder known as the Crumbler, used so far by more than 150 bakers in France to transform their surplus bread into flour. In addition, the company drafted in collaboration with two microbiological testing labs and the ADEME (French Agency for Ecological Transition) a set of health control guidelines to ensure the safe recycling of bread. It also created around fifty special recipes for making bread and cakes. While the nutritional quality of bread flour is the same as traditional flour, the taste and texture, on the other hand, are not exactly similar.

Lactic acid fermentation is another way of giving bread a new life. Industrial bakeries and supermarkets have created a new generation of sourdough made with ‘old bread’, in an effort to reuse their production leftovers and unsold products. The objective is to replace some of the flour used in sourdough recipes with bread, which can act as a new substrate for fermentation. In fact, some research has shown that this method of recycling bread can protect it from microbial spoilage, as the acidity in sourdough helps to preserve the new bread for longer.

Beer and plastic: unexpected avenues for bread fermentation

The comeback of fermented beverages that had been forgotten for some time has also opened up new avenues for stale bread. Kvas for instance, a low-alcohol sparkling drink made from fermented bread, has become popular again. Consumed in Egypt as far back as 3,000 years before our time, Russia and the Baltic States have been the only countries to enjoy this beverage in the last centuries.

Beers brewed with surplus fresh bread are also making a huge comeback on the brewery scene, with the launch a few years ago of Toast Ale in London, the Brussels beer project in Brussels and Draw Your Beer in Lille (France). Inspired by ancient recipes, these brewing companies collect leftovers from local restaurants and transform the unwanted bread into beer. This approach to brewing not only allows them to replace some of the cereal grains and cut down on the energy used for their transport, it also helps them to create value in their regions by sourcing (very) local raw materials and focusing on (very) local distribution. This method was also taken up by others, not only in England, the United States and South Africa, but also in France at Lesaffre’s Baking Center™ in Marquette-Lez-Lille. In collaboration with Fermentis and a Belgian brewer, it has developed its own process that involves replacing one third of the malt used in traditional beer recipes with its bread leftovers. The bottles produced, which are brewed at less than 30 yards from the centre and branded ‘Pinte perdue’ (Lost pint), are about to become one of our customers’ favourite goodies.

When making a bottle of bread-brewed beer, you need three slices of leftover bread, you save 25 pints of water and the same amount of energy used to light your living room for 3.14 hours.
Florence Delchambre
Knowledge Manager Officer at Lesaffre

And stale bread is also a boon to the social and solidarity economy. Work integration social enterprises, such as Ondaine Agro in the Loire region, and associations, like CIPRES in the north of France, have decided to start collecting unsold bread from local bakeries and supermarkets for recycling purposes. The bread is sorted by removing the mouldy parts and cutting the rest into slices, which are then dried and grinded to produce an alternative to cereal grains. Cheaper than wheat, it is just as nutritious for poultry, swine and ruminant species.

Even more surprising, the chemical industry is considering using stale bread as a raw material in its quest for alternatives to fossil fuels. The synthesis of plastic biopolymers (e.g. polylactic acid, or PLA) from stale bread obtained through enzymatic fermentation is one area where significant progress has been made. The concept was successfully tried and tested at the pilot scale by an industry consortium, in coordination with the Spanish Technological Institute of Plastics (AIMPLAS). Meanwhile, the energy sector is looking into the anaerobic digestion (or methanation) of bread as well as its fermentation into bioethanol. Unsold bread could also be used as a substrate in hydrogen production, once again through fermentation.

Consumed for centuries, bread is an ancient food still capable of surprising us.