Can we get new food packaging please?! By upcycling biomass, innovators aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the economic viability of farming.

When we pick up a piece of fruit, bar of chocolate or package of flour. We don’t often think of the massive amounts of agricultural waste. Because you have the stems, leaves, seed pods and more. So much agricultural waste that never make it off the farm.

Yet the scale of agricultural waste is huge. Globally, crop residues is the plant waste left in the field after harvest. For all totaled 5 billion metric tons (5.5 billion tons) in 2013. This is according to a 2018 Brazilian study. A study from South Africa reported that crop residues retained in the field are responsible for 13% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Also as I’ve written, food choices and production comes as a result from all across the world. More over it does a lot of damage to the environment. And most interestingly with a growing world population. In addition, increasing global temperatures. For this is a problem. Especially in need of a speedy solution. So here are a few ways your food choices impact the environment. Also, what you can do about them.

Choosing Local and Organic Produce

How many miles does the food you buy travel? I mean all before it reaches your plate? It’s taken from the farm, to a depot, to a warehouse. Then to a supermarket. More interestingly and eventually it then makes way to your home. So when food is transported by a non-electric vehicle, not good. Because these “food miles” are all contributing to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. That is creating damage to the environment.

Local produce, furthermore is the produce you find at farmer’s markets.  It has to travel a much shorter distance in comparison. Especially to the food you find in big supermarkets. So those food choices don’t create as much damage to the environment.

Agricultural waste made into food Packaging. ensia-feature-ag-waste-cacao-main-920x458

Some of that material is used for organic fertilizer. Also soil enrichment or animal feed. But plenty is still available for other uses.

Meanwhile, farmers are facing increased economic uncertainty due to climate change. All of which is leading to increased rural migration. This is according to a 2018 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

As concern about waste grows, researchers and commercial partners around the world are working. As a result to turn what’s now being left behind or burned. All into new, useful products. By doing so, they hope to not only reduce adverse environmental impacts of agriculture. However they also provide a new source of income for farmers.

Waste of Good Chocolate

Take cacao, for example. For every pound of cacao beans — the part of the plant that ends up in your chocolate bar. So I mean farmers produce about 12 times as much biomass. Now, researchers in Colombia have created new products from this “waste” material. For starters and including beer, juice and desserts. Yes even similar to pudding and also nutraceuticals.

Cristian Blanco-Tirado is a chemistry professor at the Industrial University of Santander in Bucaramanga, Colombia. For he leads the Nextcoa project. All which has developed these products. Nextcoa also uses cacao beans and waste to produce 100 percent cacao chocolates that are less bitter than traditional all-cacao products.

Instead of using the cane sugar, milk and soy lecithin found in a typical chocolate bar, Blanco-Tirado says that the product uses sweeteners and emulsifiers derived from the cacao fruit, which used to be thrown away after the cacao beans were extracted and exported. Blanco-Tirado says he expects “Betul” brand chocolate to be commercially available in August 2019.

Blanco-Tirado says the biggest challenge is helping smallholder farmers. Especially to understand the benefits of commercializing the waste. All the while also making the process financially viable. Finally and attracting investment.

For now, the team’s financial analysis says the price of the chocolate is competitive. That’s with luxury 70 percent cacao chocolate brands. Blanco-Tirado added that other products. For they are being produced from cacao pods as well. That’s including cellulose, juice and syrup.

Packaging From Plants

In Europe, researchers armed with a €5.56 million grant. That’s from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme. Because all are working on new environmentally friendly packaging. Thereby reducing both agricultural waste and the 9 million metric tons (9.9 million tons). I mean of plastic packaging waste ending up in European landfills each year.

Residues From Food 

Valérie Guillard is a food engineering scientist. Located at the University of Montpellier in France and the coordinator of the project. For it’s called GLOPACK. The project uses residues from food industry and agriculture. That’s such as spoiled fruit juices, cattle manure, wheat straw and grapevine shoots. Especially as some of the feedstocks for the two key components of the packaging.

The first component, called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). For it’s synthesized by microbes and biodegradable, according to Guillard. The second component is made from wheat straw fibers. That’s as well as grapevine shoots. At least it’s not polypropylene. LOL

These components are made into pellets. All which are then formed into packaging in the same way petroleum-based polymers are. 

Guillard says she expects the cost of packaging developed from the biopolymer to be €3–4 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of raw material. That’s more than double the cost of the current. There at €1.5 per kilogram of polypropylene. It’s a common packaging plastic.

She added that using agricultural waste for packaging would permit industry to reduce its dependence on petrochemical products and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Guillard is looking to scale up the current GLOPACK prototype production to pilot-stage levels by June 2021.

Bring on the Biomolecules

On the other side of the planet, Australian researchers are working on extracting useful molecules from agricultural plant waste for use in medicine, cosmetics, food additives and more.

Australia currently imports many molecules that could be derived from agricultural waste. For that’s according to Vincent Bulone. He’s a glycoscience researcher at the University of Adelaide. Moreover lead investigator of a group of academic and industrial partners. Combined and aiming to develop high-value products from agricultural waste.

Tip of the Iceberg

According to Bulone, the most promising examples include food pigments from fruit. For example, chitosan from mushrooms. That’s for agricultural or medicinal uses. Also sulforaphane, a compound with a variety of potential health benefits. Again that’s from vegetables. That’s such as cauliflower and kale.

Particularly attractive are anthocyanins. That’s the pigments and antioxidants that give blueberries and blackberries their distinctive color. They are used in beauty and skin care products.

Bulone says the extraction process is simple and takes only a few hours. First the mixture is homogenized. Then the chemicals are extracted and dried. The process is all mechanical or solvent-based. All so no microorganisms are involved.

Apples, cherries, most types of berries, black olives, and the skins of onions and potatoes all produce different classes of this biomolecule, and all can undergo the same process. The different kinds of biomolecule can be separated and extracted at the end of the process.

Bulone says the total funding for the project is AU$11 million over four years, from government and industry partners. The next step is to get the process working at an industrial scale, followed by a local pilot plant and then full-scale commercialization.

And this is just the beginning. As scientists around the world explore new ways of using agricultural waste, other previously unappreciated materials are emerging as a valuable resource for helping farmers make ends meet while making a more sustainable world.

With Permission to Republish by Ensia