Sustainable plastics: Courtesy of the slaughterhouse
The search for alternative products to wean the world away from its dependence
on petro-chemicals is an intensive and ongoing one, which takes many forms.
Researchers have explored many different avenues. However, one place the search
has led them to is perhaps more unexpected than many others: the slaughterhouse.
Animals naturally contain substances known as lipids – long, carbon-rich polymer molecules that make an ideal building block for bioplastics. It follows that the parts of animals, which do not get used for food or other products, are therefore a potentially valuable – but so far untapped - resource.
An EU-funded project, ANIMPOL, established at the beginning of 2010, has brought together scientists from research institutes and industry from seven European countries with the objective of finding ways to make the best use of these important biopolymer molecules. In the past, they have simply been incinerated.
Assisted by € 3 million of funding under the EU's 7th Framework Programme, the three-year project is aimed at maximising the potential to use this animal waste and its by-products in order to produce both materials for bioplastics, known as PHAs, and biodiesel.
Currently the amount of animal lipids being discarded annually from slaughterhouses is in the region of 500,000 tons. Together with the estimated 300,000 tons of waste materials from the biodiesel production, these materials could be utilised for the biotechnological production of bioplastics.
In addition, the project is investigating ways of producing these plastics at an economically viable cost, and then devising products and establishing markets where they can be distributed.
It is estimated that as much as half a million tons of these animal lipids are discarded every year by the animal slaughtering industry.
As ANIMPOL's project co-ordinator, Dr Martin Koller of the Graz University of Technology in Austria puts it: "Nature creates polymers like these lipids, as well as proteins, free of charge – why should we incinerate them?"
In the process being developed by ANIMPOL, fatty material is extracted from the animal waste, analysed and converted into fatty acid compounds. In turn, using a method pioneered by the project team, these are separated into saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. The unsaturated fraction can be used to produce high quality biodiesel, while the saturated fraction can be biotechnologically converted into PHAs.
The production of biodiesel in this way is similar to existing systems using recovered waste fat and oils. Therefore, the ultimate key for ANIMPOL will be its success in providing added value through PHA production. In other words, ANIMPOL polymers will - quite rightly - have to prove their worth in economic value terms against competing forms of polymer production such as composting or anaerobic digestion.
Success is not guaranteed, therefore. Nevertheless, ANIMPOL scientists are confident that their project – which will also feature life-cycle analyses, feasibility studies and market research - will result in a variety of novel, environmentally friendly, biodegradable plastics that will meet clear industrial needs in a realistic, value-adding manner.
Last but not least, ANIMPOL would also, if successful, solve local waste problems affecting locations around the entire EU.
At a time when the world seems increasingly addicted to plastic, ANIMPOL offers clear evidence that, with imagination and ingenuity, mankind can make use of a wide range of potential sources of biomass to generate sustainable alternatives.
Never has it seemed more appropriate to state that necessity is indeed 'the mother of invention'.