bizarre, food, microbes, recycling, technology

Making Plastic from Food

As we become more aware of the resources that we’re quickly using up, we increasingly look for ways to recycle and reuse what we’ve got. For example, some people have been figuring out how to “reuse” food waste by turning it into plastic. And not just any type of plastic — it’s actually biodegradable plastic, which makes the exchange even more exciting and desirable.

bread bakery baked goods
Researchers have been taking leftover baked goods and turning them into key ingredients for making biodegradable plastic. (Image credit: Scott Bauer, U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The biodegradable plastic, which is specifically polybutylene succinate (PBS), is made using a chemical called succinic acid. Succinic acid can be produced using various types of chemical reactions, from different source materials. Succinic acid has typically been petroleum-based, but recently people have been working on making bio-based succinic acid. Such as by using food waste.

How is succinic acid made from food? A simple sugar (specifically glucose) can actually be fermented (using bacteria) to make succinic acid. Knowing this, researchers in Hong Kong have been working with Starbucks to take their leftover baked goods, have them broken down into glucose with the help of some fungus, and then feed the glucose to bacteria, which turn it into citric acid.

In this way, a widely-used material (i.e., plastic) can be made that is biodegradable and uses material that may otherwise end up in a landfill.

Another group, specifically the biotech company BioAmber Inc., has also been making the news. Just last month, this company signed a large contract to supply bio-based succinic acid to a biochemical company established by Japan’s leading chemical company and to Thailand’s largest gas and oil company. Several other companies, including Reverdia and Myriant, are also starting to get involved in commercially making bio-succinic acid. There’s definitely growing interest in this key, renewable component of PBS.

As we become increasingly aware of our limited resources and the problems these limitations pose, it can be hoped that innovative strategies (like the creation of bio-succinic acid from food waste) will continue to be pursued and funded to address these problems.

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