Over the past year, Starbucks has launched a range of initiatives to reduce their footprint, and now in order to tackle their share of the 1.3 billion tons of food that is put into landfills worldwide each year, the coffee giant is working with biorefinery scientists to transform food waste from their stores into a key ingredient for making plastics, laundry detergents and a host of other everyday products.

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Starbucks made the announcement about their new sustainability project at the 244th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. The chain hopes to be able to use the tonnes of spent coffee grounds and stale bakery goods that might otherwise be wasted and turn them into useful products.

“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,” said Carol S. K. Lin, Ph.D., who led the biorefinery research team. “The strategy reduces the environmental burden of food waste, produces a potential income from this waste and is a sustainable solution.”

The scheme was launched between representatives of the nonprofit organization called The Climate Group and Lin at her laboratory at the City University of Hong Kong. The Climate Group will first apply the transformative technology at Starbucks Hong Kong, with the coffee subsidiary planning on donating a portion of the proceeds from each purchase of its “Care for Our Planet Cookies” gift set.

Lin’s team are building upon research that has previously turned corn, sugar cane and other plant-based material into a range of ingredients for bio-based fuels and other products.

“We are developing a new kind of biorefinery, a food biorefinery, and this concept could become very important in the future, as the world strives for greater sustainability,” Lin explained. “Using corn and other food crops for bio-based fuels and other products may not be sustainable in the long-run. Concerns exist that this approach may increase food prices and contribute to food shortages in some areas of the world. Using waste food as the raw material in a biorefinery certainly would be an attractive alternative.”

The impact would be huge. For Starbucks Hong Kong alone, it would see nearly 5,000 tons of used grounds and unconsumed waste bakery items each year put to use. Currently, this waste is incinerated, composted or disposed of in landfills, but Lin’s process would convert these piles of foul-smelling waste into useful products avoiding incineration and reducing the pollutants entering the atmosphere.

+ Starbucks Hong Kong

+ American Chemical Society

Images: DBduo Photography and marcopako