Turning Waste Into High Value Products

Bioplastic bottles can be transformed into the environmentally-friendly solvent methyl lactate. (Photo courtesy The Dieline) Posted for media use

By Sunny Lewis for Maximpact

LONDON, UK, June 10, 2020 (Maximpact.com News) – New technologies are breaking through the barriers to a circular economy that would consign enormous landfills and incinerators to the dustbin of history. Waste has become a resource for the production of new materials, and entrepreneurs who ignore these facts will be left behind.

For instance, a move towards a more sustainable bio-based economy has a new boost from an international team of researchers who simplified a process to transform waste materials into high value chemicals.

The collaboration between researchers from the UK and Brazil has shown that sugarcane waste, known as bagasse, and wheat straw from agricultural processes can be made directly into valuable chemicals that increase their value 5000-fold.

Bagasse is already used as a biofuel for the production of heat, energy, and electricity, in the manufacture of building materials, compostable plates and takeout containers, and paper.

The new breakthrough demonstrates that high-value chemicals, such as chemicals used the food industry and precursors for human therapeutic drugs, can be produced directly from waste biomass such as bagasse in a single “one-pot” process.

The international team of scientists have demonstrated the production of the versatile chemical building block, coniferol, for the first time, directly from dry plant matter biomass.

Coniferol obtained from sugarcane and wheat straw. The compound has applications in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries (Photo by Felipe Maeda courtesy the São Paulo Research Foundation) Posted for media use

The biocatalytic treatment of the waste plant matter releases and converts ferulic acid into coniferol with high efficiency. The entire process can be cost effective because it takes place in a single vessel.

Coniferol is so valuable that a gram can cost as much as €300. It is used to synthesize various chemicals that are equally costly, such as pinoresinol, a hypoglycemic agent, and sesamin, which has anti-hypertensive properties and helps lower cholesterol levels. Coniferol is also a floral scent precursor and has the potential to be used by the perfume and cosmetics industries in developing fragrances.

Sugarcane waste and wheat straw are currently burned rather than reused. The new process provides alternative routes to fine chemical building blocks currently derived from petrochemical sources.

Dr. Neil Dixon who led the study from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology at the University of Manchester, said, “Sustainable production of fine chemicals and biofuels from renewable biomass offers a potential alternative to the continued use of finite geological oil reserves. However, in order to compete with current petrochemical refinery processes, alternative biorefinery processes must overcome significant costs and productivity barriers.”

“This new system represents a consolidated biodegradation-biotransformation strategy for the production of high value fine chemicals from waste plant biomass, offering the potential to minimize environmental waste and add value to agro-industrial residues,” Dixon said.

The move towards a circular bio-economy is being driven by policy and regulation, which in turn is influenced by concerns over finite petrochemical feed stocks and environmental implications. Major scientific and bioprocessing challenges must still be met if alternative bio-based strategies are to become competitive with existing processes.

This research was published in the journal “Green Chemistry” under the title “Consolidated production of coniferol and other high-value aromatic alcohols directly from lignocellulosic biomass.”

This work is part of UK-Brazil a five-year program grant funded by two institutions. One funder is FAPESP, the São Paulo Research Foundation, a public foundation located in São Paulo, Brazil.

The other funder is the BBSRC, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which is part of UK Research and Innovation. This new body works with universities, research organizations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. The UK has an investment of over £2 million in this project which was awarded to The University of Manchester, University of Warwick, and University College London.

Keeping Fashion Out of the Trash

Globally we produce 13 million tons of textile waste each year, 95 percent of which could be reused or recycled, according to The Pretty Planeteer

Now a company in Bangalore, India called Trashin

has worked out a way to utilize that textile waste to help people in the age of coronavirus.

Trashin is producing reusable masks from textile waste, such as company uniforms and the bags and backpacks used by couriers. More coronavirus, fewer restaurants open and more food deliveries. The more deliveries, the more courier bags to be recycled.

The company transfers these fabrics to partners who were not producing, such as Cós – Costura Consciente, a sewing group from Vila Flores, Porto Alegre, and Ciclo Reverso, a group of seamstresses from Viamão, composed of women in vulnerable situations. The finished masks are donated to needy communities.

“This action has several results: income generation for local production groups, correct disposal of textile waste, availability of affordable masks for the population and reduced demand for specific masks for health professionals,” said Trashin’s director, Sérgio Finger.

Trashin has also prepared educational materials on the correct disposal of waste and the provision of hygiene materials and basic baskets for workers of its partner recycling cooperatives.

The startup has also been working on the development of educational materials for customers (companies and condominiums) on the correct disposal of recyclable waste. The goal is to reduce the potential for contamination by these materials and ensure the safety of workers who transport and sort waste.

Another action is the provision of hygiene materials and personal protective equipment for workers in partner cooperatives, in addition to the donation of basic food baskets for these professionals.

“We are also working in contact with the network of buyers of recyclable waste so that they continue to acquire the materials and seek new stakeholders, so that the material does not get stuck in the cooperatives, avoiding problems with cash flow and guaranteeing income for the cooperative members,” says Finger.

Now Trashin has also entered the plastic chain to meet the demand for the production of face shields through the reuse of plastic bottles.

Waste Bioplastic Transformed Into a Green Solvent

A faster, more efficient way of recycling plant-based bioplastics has been developed by a team of scientists at the British Universities of Birmingham and Bath.

The team has shown how their chemical recycling method not only speeds up the process, the waste can be converted into a new product – a biodegradable solvent – which can be sold for use in a wide variety of industries including cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Bioplastics, made from polylactic acid, are becoming increasingly common in products such as disposable cups, packaging materials and children’s toys. Typically, once they reach the end of their useful life, they are disposed of in landfill or composted, biodegrading over periods of up to several months.

In a new study, the researchers have shown that a chemical process using methanol and a zinc-based catalyst developed at the University of Bath can be used to break down consumer plastics and produce the green solvent methyl lactate.

Their results are published in the journal “Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research” under the title, “Chemical Degradation of end-of-life Poly(lactic acid) into Methyl Lactate by a Zn(II) Complex.”

The team tested their method on three separate polylactic acid products– a disposable cup, some 3D printer waste, and a toy. They found the cup was most easily converted to methyl lactate at lower temperatures, but even the bulkier plastic in the toy could be converted using higher temperatures.

“We were excited to see that it was possible to obtain high quantities of the green solvent regardless of the samples’ characteristics due to colorants, additives, sizes and even molecular weight,” said lead author Luis Román-Ramírez of the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering.

Lead researcher Professor Joe Wood at the University of Birmingham, says, “The process we’ve designed has real potential to contribute to ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of plastic going into landfill or being incinerated creating new valuable products from waste.

“Our technique breaks down the plastics into their chemical building blocks before rebuilding them into a new product, so we can guarantee that the new product is of sufficiently high quality for use in other products and processes.”

The chemical process has been tried up to 300 ml, so next steps would include scaling up the reactor further before it can be used in an industrial setting.

This research was funded by Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council


Coniferol obtained from sugarcane and wheat straw. The compound has applications in the food, cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries (Photo by Felipe Maeda courtesy the São Paulo Research Foundation) Posted for media use

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