Good idea: leftover food could soon be upcycled into plastic

It's hard to believe anyone throws away a pastry or excess coffee — that's extra body fuel you're wasting, buddy! With big food chains it happens all the time. In Hong Kong, the fact that Starbucks has about 5,000 extra tons of stale food and coffee grounds per year prompted the company to explore bio-refining.

The bio-refining process takes food waste and combines it with fungi that excrete enzymes that tackle the carbohydrates in the food. The second stage is to toss the mixture into fermenting vats where bacteria further decomposes the material resulting in a sugary substance known as succinic acid. The big upside is that the process could see waste end up as plastics or laundry detergents, instead of just heading to the landfill.

Succinic acid forms into colorless, odorless crystals. When processed further it can be used as a sweetener, or turned into biodegradable plastics that could again be re-processed.

Starbucks Hong Kong tapped scientist Carol S. K. Lin of City University, Hong Kong as a leader of the project. She already enjoyed success using this form of bio-refining on a smaller scale, where she turned cafeteria waste into useful materials. Lin reports the next step is to see if the process works on a large, commercial scale. The team will be testing the refinery process at a pilot plant in Germany.

The exciting part of this project is that it uses existing waste to create new items. Bio-refining is not new, but has traditionally used materials or crops created specifically for the process. In this case, it's materials created (and used) for another purpose that do the job — essentially creating a giant up-cycling project.

According to their financial reports, Starbucks is an $11.7 billion dollar company with thousands of global locations. If it decided to take all the trash it generates beyond the pilot project at Starbucks Hong Kong, it makes you wonder what impact that could have.

Could pastries and coffee grounds supply the plastic for our next generation of phones, household items or cars? What a delicious thought!

The results of the project have been reported at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

American Chemical Society, via Gizmag and PopSci

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