Starbucks To Recycle Coffee Grounds Into Bio-Plastics

by | Aug 21, 2012

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Starbucks is working with biorefinery scientists to turn its used coffee grounds and bakery food waste into bioplastics, laundry detergents and other everyday products.

Scientists have completed a successful laboratory testing of the new biorefinery process (pictured), according to Carol S. K. Lin, who led the research team and reported on the Starbucks partnership at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society this week.

Some 1.3 billion tons of food worldwide are wasted or dumped in landfills each year, Lin said. Just in Hong Kong – where the research is underway – Starbucks produces about 5,000 tons a year of used grounds and unconsumed bakery items that are incinerated, composted or dumped.

The food biorefinery process works by blending the baked goods with a mixture of fungi that excrete enzymes to break down carbohydrates in the food into simple sugars. The blend then goes into a fermenter, a vat where bacteria convert the sugars into succinic acid. A 2004 US Department of Energy report named succinic acid as a key material that could be used to make products from laundry detergents to bioplastics to medicines

The technology has other environmental benefits, Lin said. Fewer pollutants enter the atmosphere, because the waste isn’t incinerated, and the CO2 produced is reused during the biorefining process.

The idea came out of a meeting last summer between nonprofit The Climate Group, of which Starbucks is a member, and Lin at her lab at the City University of Hong Kong. Starbucks Hong Kong donated proceeds from each purchase of its Care for Our Planet Cookies gift set to help fund the research.

Starbucks has launched a host of sustainability initiatives in recent months, including using cleantech software company Lucid’s real-time Building Dashboard at 10 locations in an attempt to change employee energy use behavior and introducing EarthSleeve, a compostable hot-cup sleeve that Starbucks says decreases raw fiber material use by 34 percent and increases post-consumer content by 25 percent, compared to similar products.

The coffee chain, which has a goal of offering front-of-store recycling in all of its company-owned coffee shops by 2015, has also developed a “closed loop” recycling system in its Chicago stores, shipping used cups to a Green Bay, Wis., facility where they are mixed with other recyclables and turned into napkins for use in Starbucks locations. And it says it’s looking into turning used cups into serving trays.

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