Someday soon your leftover lunch may be transformed into useful plastics such as trash bags, diapers, or even a lunch box, thanks to research at the University of Hawaii. A scientist at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology has developed a new, environmentally friendly way to transform table scraps into biodegradable plastics using bacteria.
Dr. Jian Yu, with the school’s Department of Ocean Resources and Engineering, has signed a license agreement with I-PHA BioPolymers Ltd. [PDF] of Hong Kong to use the technology he developed to produce bioplastics and organic fertilizers in Hong Kong, Macau and China, according to UH officials.
“It’s a simple, economical, energy-saving way to convert food wastes into bioplastics,” Yu said recently in an interview with Honolulu Magazine.
Bioplastics are made by microbial organisms from natural renewable resources, are completely biodegradable in the environment, and are non-toxic to the ecosystem. The new technology may have a unique market niche with their environmentally friendly properties and cost advantage.
In Honolulu Magazine, Dr. Yu explained how his technique significantly reduces the cost of producing bioplastics from about $4.50 per pound for older techniques to about $1-$2 per pound for his new method. Two species of natural bacteria are responsible for converting organic material into bioplastics, and the process takes about a week.
“My research began in 1995, while I was at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology,” Yu told the magazine. “Hong Kong faces a similar problem to Honolulu’s, with a growing population, growing amounts of waste and limited space.”
Biodegradable plastic and elastic polymers have a wide variety of uses, including disposable products such as food packaging, foam peanuts, and laminated paper; consumer goods such as plates, cutlery and toys; medical products such as syringes and sutures; and agricultural applications including planters and mulch film.
“People discard organic waste materials during food production and consumption. We collect and turn organic waste into slurry, and use natural microbes to break it into simple fermentative compounds such as acetic, propionic and butric acids,” Dr. Yu explained in a press release. “From these fermentative acids, some special microbial strains, isolated from soil, produce bioplastics under a controlled environment. The waste residuals that cannot be decomposed by the natural microbes are further stabilized as excellent soil conditioner and organic fertilizers.”
Incorporated in 2002, I-PHA BioPolymers Ltd. is engaged in environmental biotechnology development. The company’s business scope focuses on organic waste management and the production of bioplastics and organic fertilisers.
“I am grateful for I-PHA BioPolymer’s willingness to make an investment in a technology that can truly make a difference in our lives,” said Richard Cox, Director of UH’s Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development. “By helping commercialize this technology, I-PHA BioPolymers will be helping to tackle one of those thorny problems that confront virtually every country on earth — solid waste management and overflowing landfills — and that will be a benefit to us all, truly a benefit to society.”
In Yuen Long, Hong Kong, I-PHA BioPolymers will commission a research center to develop and build a pilot plant to produce bioplastics and organic fertilizers using the new technology. Dr. Yu will be chief scientist for the pilot plant design and construction.
“We are honored to have Dr. Yu as our technical consultant, whom we believe will ensure a smooth transfer of technical know-how and enhance our technology,” said I-PHA BioPolymers Managing Director Andy Lo. “With the I-PHA technology, we have come up with a cost-effective approach to handle biodegradable organic waste materials by converting it into bioplastics and organic fertilizers without secondary pollution.”
More information can be obtained at the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Economic Development website or at the UH Hawaii Natural Energy Institute website.