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Green plastics from the slaughterhouse
Tomorrow’s plastics could come from an unusual source: slaughterhouse waste. European researchers are developing new approaches to produce biodegradable plastics from the waste products without using fossil fuels.
Currently most waste from slaughterhouses and animal rendering plants is incinerated but this means that some potentially very useful chemicals are sent up in smoke. The scientists working on the ANIMPOL project are particularly keen to put the lipids – long, carbon-rich, polymer molecules – in animal waste to better use.
In Europe, half a million tons of these lipids are produced annually by the animal slaughtering industry. ANIMPOL project leader, Dr Martin Koller of the University of Graz, Austria, says: “What we were thinking when we started this project is that nature creates polymers like these lipids, as well as proteins, free of charge – why should we incinerate them?”
Industrial biotechnologies will be at the core of new and innovative processes, avoiding or reducing high amounts of toxic solvents that are essential in current conventional approaches for the recovery of bioplastics.
As Dr Koller points out, we are living in something akin to a “plastic age” with an estimated 250 million tons of plastic produced globally using fossil fuels last year. This situation ties thousands of businesses to wildly fluctuating oil prices, depletes natural resources and creates a further environmental headache once the plastics have been used and need to be destroyed.
“It is clear that biopolymers will have an increased significance in the future”, says Dr. Koller. The question is, do we want to import these biopolymers from outside Europe?” Asian and South American researchers have been making headway in recent years using raw materials found in plentiful supply on those continents.
Started in January 2010, the ANIMPOL project is a Europe-wide collaboration between academic institutions and industrial partners in seven countries. One of its major goals is the establishment of a bioplastic manufacturing facility that is using the processes developed.
The project – which is also investigating how animal waste could be used more efficiently as biofuel – has been part-funded by nearly €3 million from the EU.
The ANIMPOL website can be found at: http://www.animpol.tugraz.at/
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