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Canadian company claims it can 100% recycle Lithium Batteries

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Li-Cycle, a three-year old company headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario recently announced that had developed a method that allows it to achieve a recycling rate of 80% to 100% of materials in lithium-ion batteries.

​It is estimated that 5% of lithium-ion batteries are collected for recycling (i.e. not reuse) globally, with some jurisdictions (e.g. some member states of the European Union) having much more efficient portable battery collection rates of >20%. Once lithium-ion batteries reach recycling facilities today, the existing best available recycling technology uses high-temperature processing (i.e. >1,000°C, also known as smelting, a pyrometallurgical method) to recycle lithium-ion batteries.

Smelting typically recovers 30-40% of the constituent materials in lithium-ion batteries. The residual 60-70% is either volatilized, cleaned and emitted to the atmosphere, or ends up in solid waste (i.e. slag). Smelting specifically targets the recovery of the base metals in lithium-ion batteries – cobalt, nickel and copper – with only proportions recovered thereof. Critical materials such as lithium are not economically recoverable via smelting. Low recoveries result in an impartially closed lithium-ion battery supply chain loop.

Li-Cycle Technology™ uses a combination of mechanical size reduction and hydrometallurgical resource recovery specifically designed for lithium-ion battery recycling. The technology can do so with an unparalleled recovery rate of 80 – 100% of all materials. The recycling process consists of two key stages: (1) Safe-size reduction of all lithium batteries from a charged state to an inert product and (2) recovery of the electrode materials to produce battery-grade end products.

In 2018, Li-Cycle received $2.7 million in funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to develop its novel process for the recovery and recycling of valuable materials from all types of lithium-ion batteries.

Earlier this year,  Li-Cycle was named as one of the top 100 international start-ups contributing to the energy transition through the 2019 Start-up Energy Transition (SET) Awards competition. This competition is run by the German Energy Agency (dena) and supported by the World Energy Council.

Li-Cycle has completed three research and development programs/physical validation work streams to date. The company is currently operating an integrated demonstration plant and is in the progressed stages of commercial plant development.  Li-Cycle’s physical validation work streams have been premised on a ‘scale-down’ focus, i.e. scaled down relative to commercial scale.  Each scale-down stage has been focused on the validation of specific key performance indicators.

Canadian Government funding for innovative plastic recycling technologies

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The government of Canada is partnering with Canadian businesses to develop innovative solutions to keep plastics in the economy and out of landfills and the environment.

The government recently announced six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, a part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program. Dealing with issues related to food packaging, construction waste, and the separation of plastics for recycling, these Challenges are an opportunity to invest in innovative ideas and technologies that could play a role in addressing plastic pollution and moving Canada toward a zero-plastic waste future.

Copol International Ltd., one of the funding recipients located in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is a local small business developing a food packaging solution that would incorporate biodegradable components extracted from marine waste into a cast polypropylene film.

The $150,000 in funding will be used on a research project, in partnership with Cape Breton University’s Verschuren Centre, to develop and test biopolymer formulations extracted from marine plants and marine waste products and replace the unrecyclable product that is currently being used to make polypropylene film. For example, shrimp shells could be utilized in the manufacture of polypropylene film.

The research project will last approximately six months. If it is successful, then a prototype film will be produced for commercial testing.

Polypropylene (CPP) film products from the Copoal International Ltd. facility (Source: Copol International Ltd. website)

Copol International Ltd. has 54 employees, operates 24/7 in a 90,000-square-foot building. The company began operations approximately 20 years ago. IT currently provides customized mono- and multi-layer films for food and textile packaging, industrial applications, and heath care products for customers across North America 

Copol International Ltd. joins other small businesses from across the country who will each receive up to $150,000 to develop their idea.

Phase 1 recipients, such as the six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, who successfully develop a proof of concept will be invited to compete for a grant of up to $1 million in Phase 2 to develop a prototype. The Government of Canada then has the option to be the first buyer of any successful innovation.

Innovative Solutions Canada consists of over $100 million in dedicated funding to support the scale-up and growth of Canada’s innovators and entrepreneurs by having the federal government act as a first customer for innovation. Twenty participating federal departments and agencies have set aside a portion of funding to support the creation of innovative solutions by Canadian small businesses.

A total of seven Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenges were put forward as part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program, each encouraging innovative solutions to a different problem area in addressing plastic waste.

The seven plastics challenges are sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Natural Resources Canada; who each oversee the selection of the winning projects for their respective Challenges.

Italian companies developing waste to fuel technology

Eni, a large energy company headquartered in Italy, recently signed an agreement with NextChem, Maire Tecnimont’s green chemistry subsidiary headquartered in Italy, to collaborate on the development of a technology that can turn waste into new energy, hydrogen, and methanol.

The two companies have signed a partnership agreement to develop and implement a conversion technology, which uses high-temperature gasification to produce hydrogen and methanol from municipal solid waste and non-recyclable plastic with minimal environmental impact.

Together, Eni and NextChem will assess the technical and financial impact of the new technology, which could be implemented at Eni’s industrial sites in Italy. Eni has already expressed interest in evaluating the “Waste to Hydrogen” project at its bio-refinery in Porto Marghera, Venice, and carried out a feasibility study in collaboration with NextChem.

The agreement will position Eni as co-developer of NextChem’s technology. This will contribute to environmental sustainability at Eni’s industrial sites, forming part of an increasingly integrated and efficient system designed to contain and reduce atmospheric emissions of CO².

“This partnership will see Eni acquire highly innovative technology. When this technology is combined with the rich technological assets that Eni has accumulated over decades of refining, it will help to establish a tangible circular economic process whereby fuel is produced from waste with low environmental impact”, said Giuseppe Ricci, Eni’s Chief Refining & Marketing Officer.

Maire Tecnimont Group’s CEO, Pierroberto Folgiero, stated: “This technological partnership with Eni, a leader in the sector, is an exceptionally important step for our green acceleration project. Energy transition requires the industrialisation of new transformation processes, and with NextChem we are ready to respond to the growing demand for change”.

Jet fuel production from waste plastics

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Researchers from Washington State University (WSU) recently published a paper in the Journal Advanced Energy in which they describe a research study they conducted turning waste plastics to jet fuel through catalytic pyrolysis with activated carbons.

WSU’s Dr. Hanwu Lei and colleagues melted plastic waste at high temperature with activated carbon, a processed carbon with increased surface area, to produce jet fuel.

“Waste plastic is a huge problem worldwide,” said Lei, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Biological System Engineering. “This is a very good, and relatively simple, way to recycle these plastics.”

How it works

In the experiment, Lei and colleagues tested low-density polyethylene and mixed a variety of waste plastic products, like water bottles, milk bottles, and plastic bags, and ground them down to around three millimeters, or about the size of a grain of rice.

The plastic granules were then placed on top of activated carbon in a tube reactor at a high temperature, ranging from 430 degree Celsius to 571 degrees Celsius. The carbon is a catalyst; a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed by the reaction.

“Plastic is hard to break down,” Lei said. “You have to add a catalyst to help break the chemical bonds. There is a lot of hydrogen in plastics, which is a key component in fuel.”

Once the carbon catalyst has done its work, it can be separated out and re-used on the next batch of waste plastic conversion. The catalyst can also be regenerated after losing its activity.

After testing several different catalysts at different temperatures, the best result they had produced a mixture of 85 percent jet fuel and 15 percent diesel fuel.

Environmental impact

If operated at a commercial scale, the process would go a long way to addressing the world’s plastic waste problems. Not only would this new process reduce that waste, very little of what is produced is wasted.

The pyrolysis process itself is considered to have low environmental impacts as it does not involve the combustion of plastic which subsequently requires the air pollutants to be treated.

“We can recover almost 100 percent of the energy from the plastic we tested,” Lei said. “The fuel is very good quality, and the byproduct gasses produced are high quality and useful as well.”

He also said the method for this process is easily scalable. It could work at a large facility or even on farms, where farmers could turn plastic waste into diesel.

“You have to separate the resulting product to get jet fuel,” Lei said. “If you don’t separate it, then it’s all diesel fuel.”

This work was funded under program initiated by the United States Department of Agriculture.

$40 million Waste-to-Energy Research Facility Launched

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Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) recently launched a new Waste-to-Energy Research Facility that turns municipal solid waste from the NTU campus into electricity and resources.

Located in Tuas South, the facility is a $40 million project supported by the National Research Foundation, NEA, the Economic Development Board (EDB) and NTU, for its construction and operation over its projected lifetime.

Slagging Gasification

The first-of-its-kind facility in Singapore is managed by NTU and houses a unique slagging gasification plant, which is able to heat up to 1,600 degrees Celsius, unlike conventional mass burn incinerators which operate at around 850 degrees Celsius.

The high temperature of the plant turns waste into syngas (mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) that can be used to produce electricity, slag (a glass-like material that can potentially be used as construction material), and metal alloy granulates that can be recycled.

Led by NTU’s Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI), the research facility will facilitate test-bedding of innovative technologies for converting waste into energy and useful materials through unique plug-and-play features. These technologies, if proven successful and implemented, can enable more energy and materials to be recovered from waste, thereby prolonging the lifespan of Semakau Landfill.

In Singapore’s context, slagging gasification technology has potential to complement the current mass burn technology as it can treat diverse mixed waste streams that cannot be handled by these mass burn incinerators today.

This slagging gasification plant also demonstrates another first with the use of ‘clean’ biomass charcoal as auxiliary fuel – a unique combination not yet proven in the market.

Possible research projects at the new WtE Research Facility

Over the next few years, NTU scientists and engineers from NEWRI will collaborate with industry and academic partners to embark on various research projects aimed at developing and testing technologies in the waste-to-energy domain.

Unique to the research facility is the ability to test-bed new technologies in “plug-and- play” style, which includes the capability to process diverse feeds like municipal solid waste, incineration bottom ash and sludge; provisions for the evaluation of gas separation technologies to supply enriched-oxygen air; syngas upgrading and novel flue gas treatment techniques.

How the gasification plant works

Municipal waste from the NTU campus is transported to the facility, which can treat 11.5 tonnes of waste daily.

The waste is sorted, shredded and transported via a conveyor and a bucket lifted to the top of the furnace tower to be fed along with biomass charcoal that helps maintain the high temperature of the molten slagging layer at the base of the furnace.

The waste is dried and gasified as it moves down the furnace. About 85 per cent of the waste weight will turn into syngas, 12 per cent into slag and metal alloy, and the remaining 3 per cent into fly ash.

The syngas flows from the top of the furnace to the secondary combustion chamber, where it is burned to heat a boiler to generate steam.

The steam then drives a turbine-generator to generate electricity to offset the energy consumption to operate this research facility. In a commercial larger scale plant of this type, the amount of electricity output can be significant enough to self sustain the plant operations with the excess channelled into the electricity grid.

The exhaust flue gas from the boiler is then treated with slaked lime and activated carbon and passed through bag filter, before being discharged as cleaned gas through a stack into the atmosphere.

Moving forward, NTU expects to partner more companies to develop and trial new solutions at this open test-bed facility that aims to contribute to Singapore’s quest to be a more sustainable nation.

Developing Recycling Solutions for Fiberglass

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KWI Polymers, headquartered in Boisbriand, Quebec, recently received $150,000 in funding under the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge to develop a possible solution for recycling fiberglass. The CPIC is funded by the Innovative Solutions Canada program. The end result could potentially turn transformed materials into street furniture, railings, sidewalks and decking.

There are few options for recycling and disposing of boats made of glass fiber-reinforced plastic, commonly referred to as fiberglass. Most of these boats end up in a landfill, or worse, abandoned on land or in the water. To address this issue, Transport Canada issued a challenge to Canadian small and medium-sized businesses to develop innovative solutions for recycling or reusing fiberglass in an energy-efficient way which recovers as much material as possible. KWI Polymers was a Canadian company that took up the challenge.

A 2007 report by the International Council of Marine Industry Associations estimates that a well-kept fiberglass boat easily can last 50 years, during which time it likely will change owners several times. But “even the best-constructed craft someday will have to end its life,” the report notes.

Statistics from 2016 compiled by the National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates there are 8.6 million boats in Canada. Most of the boats are constructed from fiberglass.

KWI polymers is a company that manufactures polymers from from both virgin and recycled materials. This includes thermoset, thermoplastic, elastomer and rubber polymers.

One aspect of the business of KWI polymers is regrinding. Regrind is material that has already undergone a process such as extrusion or molding and then is chopped up to the appropriate size for repurposing. KWI Polymers offers regrind of consistent quality that can be separated by color and reach a purity level of 95%. These purity levels that are rarely, if ever, attained by other companies in North America. The advantage of using regrind is that it generally comes at a lower cost, and reduces stress on the environment because of the reuse of existing material as an alternative to creating new material.

milled plastic goods with color sample plates (Source: KWI Polymers)

The Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge

The Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge is a $12.85-million initiative supporting research projects that aim to address plastic pollution through new and innovative technologies. This initiative is funded by federal departments and agencies, through the Innovative Solutions Canada program, and invites Canadian small and medium-sized businesses to develop innovative solutions in response to specific challenges related to plastic waste.

Innovations Solutions Canada

There are 20 participating federal departments and agencies that will issue challenges through the Innovative Solutions Canada program. These challenges are designed to seek novel solutions and not commercially available products or services. Together, the funding from federal departments and agencies represents a $100-million investment for each of the next three years, to fund innovative challenges focused on various issues across all sectors including pollution from plastics.

Using biosolids to revegetate inactive mine tailings

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Vale Canada (a global mining company with an integrated mine, mill, smelter, and refinery complex in operations Sudbury, Ontario) has been working with Terrapure Environmental (an industrial waste management company) to utilize biosolids on its main tailings area.

For over 100 years, tailings from the milling operation have been deposited in the Copper Cliff Central Tailings impoundment. The facility is still active, but approximately 1,300 hectares are inactive and need reclamation work.


The Big Nickel in Sudbury (Photo Credit: pizzodisevo)

Over the decades, Vale has had some success in revegetation of its tailings area, but there are still large areas of bare or sparsely vegetated tailings, which have led to wind-erosion-management challenges. To control dust, Vale uses agricultural equipment to cover the tailings with straw or hay, as well as a chemical dust suppressant. These practices are costly, and they have to be done continuously to maintain an appropriate cover at all times. In 2012, Vale decided its tailings needed a permanent vegetative cover—not just to suppress dust and reduce erosion, but to improve overall biodiversity. They entered into discussions with Terrapure Organics Solutions (formerly Terratec Environmental) to collaborate on a trial project to apply biosolids on the mine tailings.

In 2012, Vale decided its tailings needed a permanent vegetative cover—not just to suppress dust and reduce erosion, but to improve overall biodiversity. They entered into discussions with Terrapure Organics Solutions (formerly Terratec Environmental) to collaborate on a trial project to apply biosolids on the mine tailings.

THE CHALLENGE

The biggest challenge was forging a new path for this type of work. Applying biosolids to mine tailings had never been done before in Ontario. Just to get the right permits and approvals took about two years. Vale Canada and Terrapure worked closely with the Ontario Environment Ministry to ensure standards compliance. Some of this work included helping to determine what those standards should be. Terrapure was able to contribute to these discussions, leveraging decades of expertise in safe biosolids application to agricultural land. Once the Environmental Compliance Approval came in April 2014, the team had to figure out the best application method and proper amount to encourage vegetation, which meant a lot of testing and optimizing.

THE SOLUTION

At first, Terrapure mixed biosolids into the surface layer of the tailings. Over time, however, the team learned that applying biosolids to the surface, without mixing, allowed for greater rates of application and coverage at a lower cost.

Terrapure also had to experiment with the right tonnage per hectare. After seeding four trial plots with different amounts of biosolids coverage—20, 40, 60 and 80 dry tonnes/hectare—it was determined that 80 dry tonnes was best for seed germination. At the time, it was the maximum allowable application rate. By the end of 2014, approximately 25 hectares of tailings were amended. Where the biosolids were applied, there were impressive results. Wildlife that had not been seen feeding in the area in years started to return. In 2015, the Ontario Environment Ministry approved an increase in the biosolids application rate to a maximum of 150 dry tonnes/hectare, which was necessary for providing higher organic matter and nutrient levels, and for stabilizing the tailings’ pH levels. This approval also increased the cap on the amount of biosolids that could be delivered to the maximum application rate per hectare. To enhance the program even more, Terrapure and Vale partnered with the City of Greater Sudbury to blend leaf and yard waste with biosolids. By blending these materials, the mixture becomes virtually odourless, its nutrients are more balanced and it allows for a more diverse application.


Glen Watson, Vale’s superintendent of environment, decommissioning and reclamation, surrounded by lush vegetation covering part of the company’s Central Tailings Facility in Sudbury

THE RESULTS

As of 2018, Terrapure has successfully covered over 150 hectares of Vale’s tailings with municipal biosolids. Vegetative growth and wildlife are well established on all areas where the team applied organics. Just as importantly, this project has diverted more than 25,000 dry tonnes of valuable biosolids from becoming waste in the landfill. Following the success of the initial trial, the Environment Ministry widened the approval to include all areas of the inactive tailings and a portion of the active tailings. At the current application rate of 150 dry tonnes/hectare, Vale’s central tailings facility could potentially require another 195,000 dry tonnes of biosolids. That’s more than 30 years of biosolids utilization, at an annual rate of 6,000 dry tonnes of material. Needless to say, Vale is very pleased with the results, and the relationship is ongoing. In fact, the Vale team is evaluating other sites in the Sudbury area for this type of remediation, ensuring a long-term, environmentally sustainable rehabilitation program.

Development of an Alternative Glass Market: Bio-Soil from Recycled Glass

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The Regional Municipality of Niagara, Ontario recently reported on a research and development project that explored alternative uses for recycled glass.  The project was partially funded from the Ontario Continuous Improvement Fund, which is a partnership between the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO), the City of TorontoStewardship Ontario (SO) and the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (formerly Waste Diversion Ontario – WDO).

In Ontario and throughout much of Canada, the marketplace for municipal grade mixed broken glass is relatively thin and, at the same time, quality specifications from end markets are becoming tighter, requiring added attention by Material Recovery Facility (MRF) operators.

Testing a Potential New End Market for Recovered Glass

Niagara Region is seeking to create a secondary market for recycled glass in the event its current market (sandblast) slows down. The project the municipality is currently working on is an innovative approach to development of an economically-effective way to replace up to 85% of the sand component of engineered bio-soil with processed recycled glass.

A perceived benefit to using recycled glass in bio-soil for the Region is that its granular sizing can be controlled and be easily reproduced at the Region’s glass processing facility.

The project features three main tasks to determine the suitability and feasibility of utilizing recycled glass as an ingredient in bio-soil.  The tasks are as follows:

  • Task 1 – Laboratory Testing of Bio-soil Quality;
  • Task 2 – Field Plot Testing of Bio-soil Quality; and
  • Task 3 – Economic Feasibility Analysis

Task 1 Progress to Date

Task 1 has three goals:

  1. Identify desired product specifications and characteristics to be in line with soil media currently used;
  2. Examine the physical, chemical, microbiological and leaching characteristics of the recycled glass; and
  3. Undertake greenhouse trials to test the effectiveness of the proposed media specifications and determine which of the mixes should be taken to larger field trails in Task 2.

So far under Task 1, the Region has experienced mixed success with laboratory germination tests. The first test revealed 80% germination and positive plant growth. However, the second growth test results were not as favourable, with only 20% growth. The discrepancy between the two is that different media mixes were used. Further testing is currently underway to confirm growth viability.

First Test with Positive Growth

Second Test with Less Than Positive Growth

The goal for Task 2, is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the proposed media through field plot studies. The results from the greenhouse studies undertaken in Task 1 will be fully evaluated by the project team and field plots will be designed. This evaluation will identify what media mixes showed the potential characteristics desired and which one should be brought forward for the field plot studies. The field plots will be located at a site that is suitable to meet the ongoing needs of the research over the length of the project.

Assessing Economic Feasibility in Task 3

Task 3 will build on the results of Tasks 1 and 2 to complete an economic feasibility assessment for including recycled glass in bio-soil.

A first step for Task 3 is a high-level assessment (tonnages, costs, revenues) of the current recycled market in Ontario. This plus Niagara data would be used as the baseline from for comparison. The efforts would then include an examination of all the costs for production of bio-soil utilizing recycled glass. A secondary goal is the evaluation of the market costs for comparable sand products and the value ranges for which recycled glass could be purchased.

Project Next Steps

Once Niagara Region has identified and developed the correct mixture for optimal germination and growth, staff will proceed to Task 2 and carry out some field trials. Please stay tuned for a follow up blog highlighting the results of the project.

Farm Boy Grocery to test on-site organic treatment system

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Farm Boy Grocery is partnering with Food Cycle Science on a project that will test an on-site organic food waste mechanical/drying system.  As a way to extract lost value from waste, this project will show how a small footprint, on-site system can process organic food waste at grocery retailers to reduce handling, storage and transportation costs – while producing an end-product with beneficial nutrient and fertilizer properties.

Food Cycle Science is an Ottawa-based clean-tech start-up company that was incorporated in 2011.  It claims that its FoodCycler unit is capable of reducing food scraps by 90%, while converting the remaining 10% in a soil amendment.  It also claims that its system is odorless, silent, and energy efficient.

When in operation, the enclosed system first agitates the food waste, breaking it down into small particles.  While it is being agitated, it is also heated, partially decomposing and sterilizing the by-product entirely. The carbon filter filtration system on the unit is used for odour control.  The FoodCycler process takes anywhere from 2-6 hours for the process to completely dehydrate the food waste.

The form of the by-product that is generated from the process varies depending on the type of food waste being processed. Fish or cooked vegetables appear as fine powder form, and uncooked vegetables appear in a small cereal-like form. Cake, rice, and starches will have a thicker, chunkier texture.

Home-size Food Cycle Unit

The St. Lawrence River Institute of Environmental Sciences undertook an initial characterization of the physical, chemical and biological properties of the organic material produced by the FoodCycler unit located at the Cornwall Community Hospital. The preliminary results indicated that the FoodCycler material met most of the requirements for metals, pathogens and maturity for AA compost in Ontario.

Partial funding for the project is provided through the BLOOM Centre’s Clean Technology Demonstration Program.  Under Bloom Centre program, demonstrations consist of unique collaborative projects involving both a cleantech solution provider and an end-use customer ‘host’ who is representative of the broader sector. In addition, each project includes other strategic partners to support the roll-out and market adoption of the low-carbon cleantech solution following completion of the demonstration.

The outcomes and results of the demonstration project will be used to:

  • Inform stakeholders in the food supply industry that viable cleantech and low carbon solutions are commercially available;
  • Reduce the perceived environmental, economic, and business risks of adopting cleantech solutions;
  • Bridge the ‘adoption gap’ and increase the market demand for cleantech solutions; and
  • Quantify the economic, GHG emission reduction and other environmental and societal benefits from the widespread adoption of cleantech solutions in Ontario.

This is not the first foray into food recycling by Farm Boy Grocery.  In 2017, the company partnered with a company that developed a mobile app, Flashfood, meant to help tackle the enormous environmental issue of food waste, while offering discerning consumers savings on products they would purchase anyway.  It’s the first and only app focused on reducing that food waste by partnering with grocers to sell surplus items at reduced prices.

The Flashfood app allows for grocery stores to post their high-quality, surplus grocery items like prepared meals, breads and dairy before they end up as food waste. As they near their best-before date, Flashfood lists the products at lower prices for them to be purchased instead of thrown out to landfills. Savvy shoppers can buy items through the app and pick them up in store at great prices.

The Farm Boy demonstration project is scheduled to be completed by March 31, 2019.

 

Plastic-eating enzyme discovered from Fungi

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As recently reported by Kew Gardens in their first ever State of the World’s Fungi report, one species of fungi has been discovered that can break down polyester polyurethane.  The fungi was discovered in a waste dump in Pakistan by researchers.

plastic eating fungus discovered in waste dump in Pakistan

The fungus – Aspergillus tubingensis – degrades plastic by feeding on it. In lab experiments, Aspergillus tubingensis mycelia, or the branched, tubular filaments of the fungus, seize the

polyester polyurethane plastic, engendering a breakdown and scarring of the plastic’s surface.

The specific plastic that the fungus ate was polyester polyurethane (PU), which is found in products ranging from fridges to synthetic leather.  The time to degrade the plastic was eight weeks.

Researchers hailed the discovery as significant, since PU and other plastics can take decades or even hundreds of years to biodegrade, making them potentially harmful to the surrounding environment.

Dr. Sehroon Khan, of the World Agroforestry Centre and Kunming Institute of Biology, who led the Environmental Pollution study, stated, “Our team’s next goal is to determine the ideal conditions for fungal growth and plastic degradation, looking at factors such as pH levels, temperature and culture mediums.”

The team found that — though this testing is still in early stages — following two months in a liquid medium, Aspergillus tubingensis had degraded a sheet of polyester polyurethane to the point of near-dissipation. It degenerated the polyurethane better under these conditions than on an agar plate and when buried in soil.

According to the study abstract, “Notably, after two months in liquid medium, the PU film was totally degraded into smaller pieces.”

Organisms have fed on plastic waste in prior instances, so this particular finding in the Pakistani landfill site is not the first.  This new result goes alongside the accidental discovery of a plastic-eating enzyme by scientists earlier this year when two professors inadvertently altered the enzyme PETease to be better at plastic degrading.