Downcycling - is it really a 'thing'?
I’ve come to view resource use as a critical issue. This applies to me, as a bakery operator. It applies to you too.
The Zero waste bakery
I’ve been working towards a ‘zero waste bakery’ for a number of years now. My approach has been to either remove the waste from the system altogether, or to turn waste into a resource.
An example of the former approach is our paperless subscriber based ordering and supply system, so that there is less waste in guessing how much to bake each time, and no waste paper or ink to do the necessary communications for placing orders and so forth.
The example of the latter approach, that of turning any waste generated or left over from the manufacturing process into a resource, is our waste bread or food scraps being processed (using waste heat) into fuel (biochar) for the oven to burn and heat the thermal mass.
This biochar is also a readily available soil nutrient. It’s rich in nitrogen, and its physical structure encourages worms and various soil grubs to inhabit it, meaning that it assists with the composting process. From time to time I produce enough biochar to compost (I occasionally manage to mess up a dough, or on bake day I have some ‘less than presentable’ bread). Mostly, though, I only have enough waste bread for fuel, as mentioned earlier; I bake to order.
I compost all other organic waste which finds its way through the bakery, and this compost will be used to grow various crops. It’s the next stage of unfolding things here - and when I have set this up, its crop output will be utilised by the bakery.
Another example of the way we use waste as a resource would be the oven itself; for many years it has been powered by waste timber - either tree fall, sawmill offcut or building waste hardwood. Upon her reinvention (for the third time) here, she has been insulated with waste brick, concrete crusher dust (leftover from building the bakery on site) and bottles. All waste, and all incredibly useful and fit for purpose.
Upcycling or downcycling?
The idea of a zero waste bakery extends to everything used in the process of making bread. So when a piece of equipment reaches the end of its useful life, I’ve been finding ways to either ‘upcycle’ or ‘downcycle’ it. An example might be ‘transit boards’. Many artisan bakeries use them. They are plywood (or similar) boards which are used to ‘final proof’ dough, just before it gets baked. These boards last for many years, but eventually they get mouldy, and often start to delaminate. Burning them is a problem, because they are made with glues and preservatives, and when burned these produces some quite noxious gases. So they can’t be burnt.
Often I’ve simply cleaned them up, sanded and oiled them. Other times I’ve cut them up and used them to make other things. So far, I’ve made big and small baker’s peels, dough cutters, wooden boxes for making dough in, furniture (shelves) and bakery transport crates. This could be considered ‘upcycling’, I guess, as the new products have a greater value than the old ones. These old bakery boards have become a resource which I can either use again, or remake and sell.
Processing waste bread into biochar is definitely ‘downcycling’. The value of the bread when it’s fresh is far greater than when I have to reduce it to carbon; however, as carbon, it still has a value. Indeed, as a ‘fournier’ (one who runs a furnace), I use the biochar for quite specific things when I’m running my fire. I miss it when I don’t have it, actually! It’s extremely handy in establishing a bit of hot coal quickly. It also flames very strongly when the firebox bricks are hot, so I use it to kick the fire along as I bake.
I also use the semolina which finds itself on the floor of the oven after loading the bread as fuel. When flicked onto the embers in the firebox, it provides quick and intense flame, so that I can revive a fire after the fuel is spent.
I burn anything which can be burned in the firebox - paper, cardboard, cellophane wrapping being some usual things. Here’s the thing; once the bricks get really hot, most things burn with little or no smoke. After the oven has been running for eight hours or so, the bricks are almost white hot. At this temperature (I estimate about 500 to 600 C - my laser heat gun only goes to 500C), the firebox becomes an incinerator. I’d be kidding myself if I said there was no smoke at all, but once the firebox gets this hot, there is very little smoke at all. The firebox is so hot that it burns its own smoke!
I love this idea; smoke becomes fuel. So is this upcycling, or downcycling? It’s a grey area.
There’s a pun in there somewhere.
Lately I’ve even been using bottles as insulation around the oven. These can easily be recycled, but if I use them as they are, without even breaking them, then I’ve saved the energy that would normally be used to recycle them. It’s another example of ‘downcycling’, which I put before ‘recycling’. The bottles work exceptionally well as a means of holding beer, and then to hold heat. Now on the hunt for more of them!
At the moment I’m working on a means of reducing packaging. The bread goes out in cellophane wrap each week (cellohane is NOT plastic. It’s made of cellulose, so it can be made from trees, or indeed any fibrous material including sugar can stalks and hemp), but with a bit of setting up, the bread will be delivered and displayed in special boxes, which will be health code compliant for retail purposes.
There are many more practical ideas which have already gone into the setting up and day to day running of this bakery. It’s nothing new for me, it’s just an extension of things I’ve been working with for many years now. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface; then I look back at what I’ve done and thought about over the years, and I can see I’m making progress towards a zero waste bakery business.
What about you? I’d love to hear about your ideas, or even better, what you have done to make a smaller footprint, or to reduce the wasteful use of resources. And if you want to come and check out what has been done here, and learn how this bakery runs, feel free to come and work with me for a day or more!
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