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Chinese Researchers Converting Starbucks Coffee Grounds Into Plastic

Chinese researchers are working on a new concept to turn spent coffee grounds and expired bakery items from Starbucks into plastic.

Biorefinery at the University of Hong Kong

Biorefinery at the University of Hong Kong

At this week’s National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, University of Hong Kong professor Carol S. K. Lin and her team outlined their use of a “biorefinery” that takes used food items and coffee grounds and converts them into plastic, laundry detergents and other everyday products, avoiding contributions to landfill waste and the burning of trash.

Lin and her team are collaborating with Starbucks of China on the project.

“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,” says Lin. “The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution.”

Starbucks Hong Kong alone produces nearly 5,000 tons of used grounds and unconsumed waste bakery items every year, according to the researchers. Currently, this waste is incinerated, composted or disposed of in landfills. Lin believes her biorefinery process could convert these piles of foul-smelling waste into useful products, getting trash off the land. Lin had already been working with technology to refine corn and create other biofuels, but an Chinese nonprofit, The Climate Group, suggested the Starbucks partnership.

“We are developing a new kind of biorefinery, a food biorefinery, and this concept could become very important in the future, as the world strives for greater sustainability,” Lin says. “Using corn and other food crops for bio-based fuels and other products may not be sustainable in the long-run. Concerns exist that this approach may increase food prices and contribute to food shortages in some areas of the world. Using waste food as the raw material in a biorefinery certainly would be an attractive alternative.”

The researchers believed the used grounds and baked goods could even be refined to help produce lids for Starbucks coffee cups.

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