From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published August 22, 2012 09:00 AM

Coffee Scraps at Starbucks Reused as Plastics and Consumer Products

If there is any place that produces massive amounts of used coffee grounds, it is the thousands of coffee factories around the world, Starbucks. One would think that they would just throw the used grounds into the trash, but the people at Starbucks thought better of it. They were sitting on a considerable resource with great potential for secondary use. This not only includes the used coffee but also the day-old baked goods which the stores sell. They utilize a process of converting plant-based products into an acid which can be used to make a range of products such as plastics, detergents, and medicines.


The process is built upon existing technology used by the biofuel industry. Biofuels are made by converting corn, sugar cane, or other plant-based products into a fuel. The Starbucks method takes the food scraps and used coffee grounds and blends them with a mixture of fungi. This breaks down the carbohydrates into simple sugars which are ultimately converted into succinic acid. This acid is the building block that can be used to make other materials.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) lauds this method as a new paradigm for food recycling. Rather than devoting good cropland to the production of consumer materials, why not use the scraps that are typically thrown away.

According to the ACS, 1.3 billion tons of food is dumped in landfills, incinerated, or otherwise trashed every year around the world. They celebrate the success of Starbuck's new "biorefinery" at their 244th National Meeting and Exposition.

"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 led the research team. "The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution."

The potential exists to expand this technology to not just coffee chains, but to all major food services, including school cafeterias. Between the new biorefinery and various composting technologies, not a single food scrap would ever have to be thrown away.

According to Lin, the technology could become economically viable without much additional funding from investors. After the initial construction of the system, it could easily pay for itself in a relatively short time frame.

Link to the ACS 244th National Meeting and Exposition

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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