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07-11-2024

Transforming food waste into biodegradable bioplastics

Food waste is a significant issue when it comes to food production, where we invest huge amounts of energy, water, and capital. Yet, as per the statistics, an alarming 30-40% of it directly goes into the landfill in the United States. One can’t help but wonder — wouldn’t it be remarkable if we could repurpose this waste into something more beneficial like bioplastics?

A group of enterprising researchers at Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have taken on this challenge.

The team is leading a pioneering project. They are developing biodegradable bioplastics from food waste. This brilliant initiative gives these materials a new life. It promotes sustainability and addresses crucial issues such as plastic pollution and food waste.

Defining the vision

“By creating cost-effective bioplastics that naturally decompose, we can reduce plastic pollution on land and in oceans and address significant issues such as greenhouse gas emissions and economic losses associated with food waste,” shares Zhiwu “Drew” Wang, the lead researcher, sheds light on the project’s vision.

Considering that microplastics affect nearly 88% of all marine species, as mentioned by the World Wildlife Fund, this project holds significant importance for marine life preservation.

Quick biodegradability of Virginia Tech’s bioplastics in seawater can substantially decrease the detrimental impact of pollution on marine life worldwide.

Harnessing microorganisms to produce bioplastics

The project employs a process akin to fermentation in microbreweries. 

The team harnesses microorganisms to convert food waste into fats, which then convert into bioplastics.

These bioplastics can be composted with ease, diminishing marine pollution caused by non-degradable microplastics. It’s a revolutionary approach that holds promise on both national and global scales.

Wang hopes that these sustainable plastics will be beneficial for people, companies, waste management systems, and communities globally.

Collaboration and innovation

Working closely with experts at Virginia Tech, the team is involved in purifying polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and creating valuable bioplastic products. Undergraduate and graduate student researchers also actively participate in this project.

Among the various sustainability solutions, Young Kim from the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials strongly advocates for the use of biodegradable material.

He asserts, “Using bioplastic is a viable option to solve our increased plastic pollution. Our approach is to improve sustainability using biodegradable options.”

The popularity of home compostable packaging is on the rise. These include single-layer films for evaluating utility as actual products, replacing traditional coated paper products with PHAs. 

PHAs, unlike polyethylene or polyactic acid coatings often found on single-use plastics, are fully biodegradable.

Creating sustainable alternatives

Student researchers like Chloe Taylor view this project as an opportunity to pave the way for creating sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. 

“It inspired me to pursue graduate studies because traditional plastics are unsustainable. We aim to create bioplastics that are viable alternatives and can be used in everyday products without harming the environment,” she shares.

A $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds this applied research, making new waves in the ocean of sustainability.

Addressing food waste at the source

One crucial aspect of this initiative is understanding and addressing food waste at its source. 

Identifying the key contributors to food waste, such as production inefficiencies, overstocking in retail, and consumer habits, allows for targeted interventions. 

Farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers each play a role in the ecosystem, and through education and policy adjustments, significant waste reductions can be achieved.

By minimizing food waste before it even reaches the landfill, we can channel more raw material into bioplastic production, thus maximizing the environmental benefit.

From food waste to bioplastics

The journey from food waste to functional bioplastic products is a testament to innovative research and cutting-edge technology. 

The process begins with the collection of food waste. This is followed by microbial conversion into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). Finally, it ends with the creation of a wide array of biodegradable products.

The versatility of these bioplastics means they can be used in packaging, agricultural films, and even household items. 

This transformation mitigates plastic pollution. It also demonstrates the value of reimagining waste as a valuable resource. This approach fosters both environmental and economic sustainability.

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