Starbucks Turns Stale Baked Goods Into Valuable Plastics

Food waste has become a hot topic lately. We recently reported that 39 percent of Americans feel guilty about wasting food, yet in 2010 alone the U.S. wasted an astonishing 33 million tons of food. I’m no expert, but I’ve got to believe that most of our problem with wasting food comes from the fact that we have access to so much of it–and it’s relatively cheap.

Fast food restaurants and lots of highly-processed convenience food have muddled our perception of what food actually costs. Portion sizes have become huge, but almost totally devoid of nutrients. We figure “Hey, I only paid $1.99 for it, so what if I throw half away?” Now, Starbucks, itself a purveyor of this grab-and-go food, is working on a clever solution. Hong Kong locations of the coffee giant are recycling ingredients from expired baked goods and coffee grounds into chemicals for making plastics, laundry detergents and other ubiquitous products.

baked-goods

Image via Shutterstock

The pilot project is the result of collaborations between Starbucks and researchers at the City University of Hong Kong. “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,” said Carol S. K. Lin, Ph.D., who presented from the project at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. “The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution.”

This food bio-refinery, as the researchers called it, uses black fungi to convert the baked goods’ carbohydrate bases into the simple sugars glucose and fructose. After adding a pinch of nitrogen, the sugary broth is stored in a vat to promote bacterial growth. Microbes feasting on the sugar produce succinic acid as their waste .It’s this byproduct that the researchers then strain out and crystallize into a white powder.

Recently 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 bioplastics to medicines. Until then, Lin will have to wait for funding to test the process on a larger scale.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog

    • http://www.facebook.com/kalio1 Kali Orkin

      gross. Just what the world needs: another excuse to be okay with wasted cheap food, and more plastic.

      • David D.

        So, it is better to just throw it all away in a dumpster?! Because that is what most restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores do. Once the food is past its sell by date, they inventory and then throw it away in a dumpster. At least this type of plastic is bio-based and most likely more easily degradable than a petroleum based plastics. Personally, I don’t go to Starbucks (I hate corporate chains, the quality is never as good as local businesses) or use plastic for my food; I buy in bulk and re-use glass jars as containers. Do I use plastic on a daily basis? YES! That computer or cell-phone you used to type your slack response… yea, PLASTIC! 90% of my food is made from scratch; I avoid pre-packaged goods like a plague. I do support re-using materials and food that would have otherwise been thrown out. Less waste is better. This article is not an “excuse to be okay with wasted cheap food and more plastic.” Did you even read it? You are not going to stop Starbucks and corporatism by being negative. A lot of people like Starbucks and you aren’t going to convince them all to ditch Starbucks. It is much better for these corporate entities to have some semblance of responsibility; everyone has to start somewhere.

      • bethbot

        I don’t think the point of this study was to make it ok that we waste food. Clearly, food should be eaten and composted whenever possible. However, there is a point after which food is no longer healthy to be eaten, and if there’s a more productive option than composting, it deserves to be explored. I would also point out that plastic isn’t the only result of this process. It can be used to create other things. Also, the resulting plastics wouldn’t be petroleum based, and therefore would be more or completely biodegradable than what’s currently swirling around in our oceans.

    • Guest

      So, it is better to just throw it all away in a dumpster?! Because that
      is what most restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores do. Once the
      food is past its sell by date, they inventory and then throw it away in a
      dumpster. At least this type of plastic is bio-based and most likely
      more easily degradable than a petroleum based plastics. Personally, I
      don’t go to Starbucks (I hate corporate chains, the quality is never as
      good as local businesses) or use plastic for my food; I buy in bulk and
      re-use glass jars as containers. Do I use plastic on a daily basis? YES!
      That computer or cell-phone you used to type your slack response…
      yea, PLASTIC! 90% of my food is made from scratch; I avoid pre-packaged
      goods like a plague. I do support re-using materials and food that would have otherwise been thrown out. Less waste is better. This article is not an “excuse to be okay with wasted cheap food and more plastic.” Did you even read it? You are not going to stop Starbucks and corporatism
      by being negative. A lot of people like Starbucks and you aren’t going
      to convince them all to ditch Starbucks. It is much better for these
      corporate entities to have some semblance of responsibility; everyone
      has to start somewhere.