Hong Kong-based biorefinery takes Starbucks refuse and creates usable chemicals

Thanks to a new process created by engineers at the City University of Hong Kong, coffee grounds and old pastries – which are normally tossed into the nearest landfill – may find a second life as a cleaning product.

The scientists, known at the university as the Climate Group, working together with Starbucks' Hong Kong-based affiliate, built on previous technology that took biowaste and transformed it into ingredients for renewable energy projects.

The group took the refuse and exposed it to a population of fungi that utilizes natural enzymes and chemicals to break down the matter into glucose and sucrose. After this step, the product is place in a fermentor where bacteria convert the sugars into a chemical known as succinic acid. This substance can then serve as a primary ingredient in plastics, detergents and certain medicines.

"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," Dr. Carol Lin, Ph.D., said before a recent convention held by the American Chemical Association. "The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution."

Lin went on to say that while the technology is still in its infancy, it could one day help alleviate pollution issues experienced by industry-heavy areas in China or around the world. Theoretically, materials that were previously placed in landfills could be recycled in biorefineries, which in turn would free land currently devoted to waste management for other projects.

The support of a major company like Starbucks, which donated proceeds from a recent green awareness drive to the Climate Group, suggests that biorefineries will remain a focus of the low-impact movement.

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