Upgrade wastes with industrial biotech!
At the very core of the EU circular economy model and recently proposed review of waste targets is the importance of changing mind-sets and habits related to waste. This is crucial for limiting landfill, preserving the environment and ultimately moving away from a throw-away society. We are now finding that one man’s waste is another man’s gold mine. Increasingly, clever entrepreneurs are setting out on taking full advantage of the opportunities from ‘byproducts’ and ‘waste’ by using industrial biotechnology.
Do not discard food residues
Being relatively easy to handle due to the predictable quantity and quality of the waste, waste streams from food processing industries have the potential to create economic value when integrated into biorefinery and/or industrial biotechnology processes. The resulting products and their possible applications are manifold and simultaneously bring considerable environmental and social benefits. At the local level in particular, such solutions have the potential to greatly contribute to regional growth and job creation.
For example, a German project has recently successfully demonstrated how limonene from the citrus fruit processing industry can be turned into perillic acid, which can act as a substitute for chemical preservatives in the ‘natural’ cosmetics industry . As well as being an environmentally friendly option, this idea has many additional applications, and is highly profitable too! To see just how spot-on the technology is, click here.
The use of citrus fruit waste is not only sought after in Germany; in 2014, Japanese researchers have managed to turn orange waste into biobutanol, a highly potent fuel that can be blended into normal gasoline.
Crustacean processing waste also has great potential through the use of industrial biotechnology. Take for example this technical feasibility project in the UK called iCRAB which demonstrated that the co-fermentation of crab shells and ryegrass is a good idea. The extracted chitosan has potential for both commodity and high value applications, and the cellulosic part can be easily converted into lactic acid. Within the Chibio project, an international consortium is looking to develop an integrated biorefinery to transform crustacean shell waste from all over the world into drop-in and novel chemical intermediates to produce high value and high performing biobased polymers.
In Scotland, the company Celtic Renewables uses the byproducts of whisky production within fermentation processes to generate fuels. Value has also been created through the ANIMPOL project which focused on the conversion of animal waste from slaughterhouses into biodegradable biopolymers such as PHAs. Biotechnological processes do not dismiss plant oil wastes as a feedstock either, in fact, EU-funded project BIO-SURFEST has succeeded in producing truly sustainable biosurfactants and ester oils from such waste streams.
The trickier waste streams are the unpredictable, non-homogeneous ones, such as municipal solid waste. FP7 project Waste2Go is currently working on a value-added alternative to burning the biogenic fraction of municipal solid waste by turning it into chemicals using industrial biotechnology. Several companies have found processes that enable the production of biobased fuels, chemicals and material from landfill and mixed organic wastes. While Fiberight and Ineos Bio both produce biofuels from these wastes, they have opted for different pre-treatment steps. Fiberight first thermo-mechanically treat the waste to recuperate the biomass before using it for fermentation into biofuels. On the other hand, Ineos Bio have opted for the gasification of the organic fraction of municipal solid waste as a first treatment step. The subsequent conversion of the syngas is done by bacterial biocatalysts to produce bioethanol or chemical building blocks such as ethylene (see video here). This step is actually no other than the biotechnological conversion of C1 gases which you can read about in greater detail here.
Wasting water? Wasting resources!
Then there are the fascinating stories in the making. Plant-based food company Alpro and Ghent University have developed a simple concept: feeding Alpro’s wastewater to microalgae. The question is what to do with the obtained biomass because it turns out the algae do not degrade easily and cannot be fermented. However, they can serve as shrimp feed. The downside is that EU regulation forbids the consumption of shrimps that have been indirectly fed by wastewater. However, this regulation may change in the future with a COST action aimed at establishing new effluent quality criteria which could safeguard the reuse of wastewaters.