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Science Technology

You Gonna Eat That? It Could Become Plastic 30

Kaz Riprock writes "Jian Yu and associates at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute have been working on a system to convert food waste into plastic polymers. There is a CNN article that gives an overview of the process. More information on the anaerobic acidogenesis and aerobic synthesis at Dr. Yu's page at HNEI. This could be a really good step in the right direction, assuming it provides a cheaper source of plastic than current methods (to be accepted and highly regarded by the plastic industry)."
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You Gonna Eat That? It Could Become Plastic

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    So much time is dedicated to solving special cases, could someone please come up with a generic matter converter instead?
  • by Xner ( 96363 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @11:39AM (#4844304) Homepage
    The first time I heard of biodegradable pastics manufactured from things usually regarded as food was in the late 1980s.
    The Italian company Montedison [montedison.it] had developed a compound from corn that they called Mater-Bi [novamont.com], and you could get a watch made out of the stuff with the italian version of the mickey mouse magazine [topolino.it].

    The only practical applications that I have seen so far are things like this bio-degradable bag [edie.net], for groceries and waste disposal.


    • The first time I heard of biodegradable pastics manufactured from things usually regarded as food was in the late 1980s.

      Things like margarine...

      The way my old chemistry professor put it - loosely quoted - "If you hydrogenate a petroleum oil, you call it plastic. If you hydrogenate corn or soy oil, you call it margarine."

      Think about it.

      I think I'll stick with butter. MmmMmmm... toast deep-fried in butter.

  • by RyoSaeba ( 627522 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @11:54AM (#4844438) Journal
    Sounds nice, but they aren't addressing the main trouble: the overuse of plastic everywhere !!
    Just do a little experiment: during a full week, do your shopping as usual, and pay attention to all plastic stuff you trash immediately after purchase. Figure you really needed how much of all that plastic ?
    I'm pretty sure plastic use could be reduced drastically in certain fields, before even thinking of making it cheaper....
    • Fair point... I hope their next project is to reverse the process, turning fourteen carrier bags into an apple pie. That could help solve a few of the world's problems.
    • The problem is not in the fact that plastic is 'overused'

      The problem is, in you r own words "plastic stuff you trash immediately after purchase"

      I would say that having all that plastic is fine -- even needed. In fact, if done properly, plastic is the ideal material for most of the products we use. This helps solve a major problem on the horizon: Most of the plastics we use are based on oil, which we are burning as fuel, rather than a more productive use for it. Oil has many useful compounds in it that are either difficult or expensive to obtain from any other source. So being able to create plastic from a renewable source is a boon.

      This is the real waste; plastic is easily and cheaply recycleable. It can be re-used nearly ad-infinitum. The problem is that while plastic is cheap to recycle, it isn't profitable enough. (Blame this one on cheap oil; this will change in due time).
      • by upper ( 373 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @06:21PM (#4848420)
        Plastic is a useful material, and there are times when it is a better choice than anything else. But an awful lot of plastic used today isn't necessary. Consider a typical plastic toy for a preschooler. Plastic is often a good choice for the toy itself -- you can make odd shapes easily, and the result can be smooth, rugged, and rustproof with no paint to put on or chip/wear off. But when you buy it, it's nested in a plastic box-filler, in a box which is shrink-wrapped, and you take it out of the store in a plastic bag. That's four layers of packaging, three of them plastic. One of the layers may be necessary, but only if there are multiple pieces.

        Furthermore, plastic is only "easily and cheaply recycleable" if you leave a bunch of things out of the numbers:

        • Only PETE (#1) and HDPE (#2) are recycled in any volume; other plastics are almost completely burned or landfilled.
        • Recycled plastic bottles aren't made into new plastic bottles. They're made into things like "plastic lumber" and carpets [solidwaste.org]. Then they're landfilled. So much for repeated use.
        • Cleaning and de-labeling a plastic bottle isn't usually a big deal -- but do you know how hard it is to wash out a thin plastic bag? How about separating the plastic in a bubble-pack from the paper?
        • Because beverage bottles are low density (i.e. very bulky for their weight) they are a nuisance to transport. The truck fuel used transporting them isn't trivial.

        Plastic recycling is a sham. I do it, because it might someday evolve into something real, and because twice through is better than once through. But mostly I try to buy less plastic packaging.
    • Just do a little experiment: during a full week, do your shopping as usual, and pay attention to all plastic stuff you trash immediately after purchase. Figure you really needed how much of all that plastic ?

      Yes. Almost all of it is needed. Without the plastic, a lot more of the even more expensive stuff the plastic was covering would be wasted by spoiling, being damaged during shipping, etc.

      Even more importantly, plastic can be recycled. It's effectively impossible to recycle paper used to wrap food because it is hard to disinfect without ruining the material. You also have to use really toxic chemicals, specifically bleach. Plastic is relatively easy and cheap to recycle.

      The other thing that gets me about this stuff is biodegradeability. Do you think stuff really degrades in a landfill? Landfills are locked out of the water system and stuff doesn't degrade like it does sitting in your compost heap. It doesn't really matter whether it's made out of corn or oil. It's still going to be there in 100 years. I think the most interesting aspect of food-based plastics is that they could become more economical or allow plastic to be used in new situations where biodegradeability really matters.

      Finally, I just wanted to say that I love styrofoam. Ever see how much plastic actually goes into a styrofoam cup? They're almost all air. (Of course, I still prefer paper cups since my hot coffee will cool off faster so I'm less apt to burn myself.)

  • by Hubert_Shrump ( 256081 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .tenarboc.> on Monday December 09, 2002 @11:59AM (#4844490) Journal
    In the case of Moon Pies, you can begin milling / molding operations immediately.

  • That plastic grocery bag was made from Soylent Green...

  • and we can all sh*t a brick.
  • by Ashurbanipal ( 578639 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @12:51PM (#4844875)
    ...since it's mostly produced from byproducts of oil refining.

    Unless you're talking about the body-panels on your Trabant, which also include agricultural waste.

    Bravo for pure research!
  • by VikingBerserker ( 546589 ) on Monday December 09, 2002 @01:09PM (#4845008)
    Finish everything on your plate like your mother told you. There are plenty of kids in desperate need of plastics in China.
  • they could find a way to reverse this and turn plastic polymers into some sort of edible substance. Oh wait... McDonalds already does that....
  • An interesting process for sure, but I wonder if this is any more energy efficient than recycling old plastic which is, as I understand it, largely a mechanical process that involves separation and chipping. Where I live in Massachusetts, I'm shocked by the number of households that still don't recycle. You would think that after decades of environmental education, people would be in the habit of not tossing out their plastic milk jugs out with the trash, but still I see this all the time. There is still lots of cheap usable material out there, if people just weren't so damned lazy.
  • ...about the grits at Summer Camp.
  • Although I agree that plastics are usually thrown out and something should be done about that, leftover food is usually thrown out and someone (like these guys) should do something about this as well. When I was in high school, I worked in a bagel shop. At the end of the day, we would throw out roughly 100 bagels (and this happened seven days per week). I was appalled at the amount of food we were wasting. This would be a pretty good use for those bagels. If a big-name bottler like Gatorade were to sign with these guys, I think it would be wonderful. They could probably even get the food waste for free from restaurants. Their PR would soar. However, first we need a company to agree to use this system.

    • Instead of turning leftover food into plastic, how about using it to feed people?

      Organizations like Second Harvest [secondharvest.org] already exist. They need not only food but also donations of time and talent or money. Check them out!
      • Many restaurants and caterers do not give away their leftovers because of the liability if someone were to eat something that had been around for the day and gone bad or in any other way gotten ill from the food.

        My brother organized with a local soup kitchen to receive leftovers from a catering business he worked for, and when management found out, they stopped it. Especially with catering, you don't know who or what touched the food once it's put out.

        Good idea...and I think it's still manageable in some situations, but a lot of the food industry shies from doing this for this reason.
  • Can I get the recipe?: "Yu and his team collected food scraps from a restaurant and blended them with water to create a grimy, slurry mix. The concoction was stored in a warm, airtight container for a few weeks so that strains of bacteria that survive without oxygen would multiply."

    I'll bet the smell would gag a maggot.

  • by k98sven ( 324383 ) on Tuesday December 10, 2002 @02:13PM (#4856276) Journal
    People point out plastic as an environmental problem because it is a cheap material,
    often used in cheap (and sometimes, unneccesary) products.

    Simply put: Plastic has low status and appeal.
    And that's why it is an ideal target as an environmental problem.

    Now I'm not denying that plastic *is* a problem, especially in landfills, where it degrades slowly.
    However, if you burn it, that is a different matter.
    Burning plastic gives you somewhere around 80-90% of the energy that burning the oil that it
    took to make plastic, in the meanwhile the plastic has had an entire lifetime of practical use.

    Somewhere around 1% of the worlds oil is used to make plastic, the rest?
    It just gets burned up.

    As I said, it is a problem, but it is NOT a major concern,
    not when we still have oil power plants. (and SUV:s!)

    (And if you ask me, this bad understanding of priority is one of
    the enviromentalists' big problems)
    • Simply put: Plastic has low status and appeal.

      I disagree, I think Plastic [plastic.com] has a lot of appeal. I now waste much more time there than on SlashDot.

      As to status, Plastic having a lower membership would seem to make it somewhat more exclusive and therefore higher status. Plus regular members get to participate in the high status job of rating the submit Q.

      Of course YMMV.

  • Now I have an excuse for eating much. "But mom, I'm helping the worldwide plastic industry!"

If all the world's economists were laid end to end, we wouldn't reach a conclusion. -- William Baumol

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