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Tina Casey headshot

A New Trick for Starbucks Baristas: Bioplastics from Coffee Grounds

Starbucks is exploring the possibility of recycling its spent coffee grounds and other food waste to make bioplastics, detergents and other useful products. If the new project is successful, it could yield enormous benefits to the company in terms of easing waste disposal costs while making a significant contribution to its sustainability profile, too.

The new initiative also illustrates the bottom-line benefits of engaging with non-profit groups and other stakeholders to stay abreast of new developments in sustainable technology. The new initiative came about through The Climate Group, a multinational non-profit organization that helps businesses get on board with up-and-coming innovations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting waste.

From coffee grounds to fungus to bioplastics

The new food waste initiative was kickstarted last year by Starbucks Hong Kong, after The Climate Group approached research team leader Carol S.K. Lin at the City University of Hong Kong for help.

The idea of using vegetable matter to make plastics and other products is far from new, but until recently the focus has been on using corn and other edible crops. That sets the bioplastics industry up for competition against the world's food supply, which is already under enormous stress from population growth and climate change among other factors. Using food waste offers a workaround, but the challenge has been to develop a cost-effective conversion process.

According to press materials from The American Chemical Society, Lin and her team found a solution by ramping up the process with the help of enzymes from fungi. The extra enzymes help to convert the carbohydrates in food waste into simple sugars. The process continues:

"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."
More food waste recycling on the horizon

If this all rings a bell, you may be thinking of food waste recycling in terms of another popular beverage, beer. Global brewery giant AB InBev is reclaiming brewery waste  in a recently announced partnership with a biorefinery company called Blue Marble Bio.

The new venture will produce carboxylic acids, which are commonly used in soaps and other products. It will also yield renewable biogas, which AB InBev plans to use for reducing its breweries' reliance on grid-connected power.

The process has proved successful in the lab and this year it is being scaled up for a small AB InBev facility in Montana.

Food waste recycling, large and small

Starbucks and AB InBev could be just the start of an avalanche of global food and beverage giants transitioning to sustainable food waste disposal, helped along by organizations like The Climate Group.

At the other end of the scale, individual restaurants and other small businesses are beginning to see more options on the table for dealing with their food scraps.

One good example is the company Totally Green, which has just launched a program for businesses to lease its equipment, which renders food waste into a liquid similar to compost tea. The business model is based on the increasing popularity of solar power lease agreements.

Another type of model is offered by companies like EcoScraps, which will haul away food waste to a central facility and convert it to marketable compost.

Image: Starbucks coffee. Some rights reserved by markomni.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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