Bio-Refinery Makes Plastics From Coffee-Shop Products

A bio-refinery could turn waste from coffee and baked goods into plastics, laundry detergents, and other everyday consumer products.Starbucks coffee

Chinese scientists have teamed up with the Starbucks restaurant chain on this recycling waste project, prompted by The Climate Group, an international nonprofit organization that promotes a carbon-free future. The parties involved are concerned about the sustainability of 1.3 billion tons of food waste and food products dumped in landfills globally every year.

“Our new process addresses the food waste problem by turning Starbucks’ trash into treasure — detergent ingredients and bio-plastics that can be incorporated into other useful products,” says Carol Lin from the City University of Hong Kong, who led the research team. “The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution.”

Lin’s team is developing the bio-refinery. Just like oil refineries convert raw petroleum into fuel and ingredients for consumer products, including plastics, bio-refineries convert corn, sugar cane, and other plant-based material into a range of ingredients for bio-based fuels, reports Laboratory Equipment of the American Chemical Society.

Lin explains:

We are developing a new kind of biorefinery, a food biorefinery, and this concept could become very important in the future, as the world strives for greater sustainability. Using corn and other food crops for bio-based fuels and other products may not be sustainable in the long-run. Concerns exist that this approach may increase food prices and contribute to food shortages in some areas of the world. Using waste food as the raw material in a biorefinery certainly would be an attractive alternative.

Like any conversion, the bio-refinery process includes adding, mixing, and breaking down component parts. Laboratory Equipment explains:

Lin described the food biorefinery process, which involves blending the baked goods with a mixture of fungi that excrete enzymes to break down carbohydrates in the food into simple sugars. The blend then goes into a fermenter, a vat where bacteria convert the sugars into succinic acid. Succinic acid topped a U.S. Department of Energy list of 12 key materials that could be produced from sugars and that could be used to make high-value products — everything from laundry detergents to plastics to medicines.

Starbucks Hong Kong produces almost 5,000 tons of used coffee grounds and unconsumed bakery items every year. Right now, the waste is incinerated, composted, and dumped in landfills. Lin’s process, on the other hand, could convert that waste into useful products, instead of burning it, polluting the air, and adding to landfills.

Also, the process recycles the carbon dioxide produced during the bio-refining process. In addition, the products made from succinic acid, such as bio-plastics, are made using bakery waste, a renewable product, they are sustainable, as opposed to products made from petroleum-based plastics, which are nonrewable.

Source: “Biorefinery Makes Plastic from Used Coffee Grounds, Stale Muffins,” Laboratory Equipment, 8/21/12
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