Food Waste Feeds Ambitions for Fuel, Bioplastics

By Samantha Watters | Illustration by Valerie Morgan

From leftovers forgotten until they get furry in the fridge to crops that spoil from faulty storage, a shocking one-third of the world’s food—nearly 1.5 billion tons yearly, according to a United Nations estimate—goes uneaten. Now, a University of Maryland professor is leading two new grants totaling $6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy that could take some of the bad taste out of all that food waste.

Traditional fuels and plastics rely on petroleum and other fossil energy sources, which are finite and costly to the environment to extract and use. The two grants are funding a consortium of scientists and industry partners led by Stephanie Lansing from the Department of Environmental Science and Technology to develop methods to create biofuels and bioplastics from food waste—potentially benefiting both the planet and people’s pocketbooks. “How can we take the resources we have and find a way to use them sustainably?” Lansing says.

Her research has long focused on converting waste products into valuable, marketable products, often through a process called anaerobic digestion, which uses bacteria to break down waste and create natural gas, or gasification—a controlled thermochemical reaction that also produces the needed gases.

Both the fuel and plastics-focused grants include funding to allow the researchers to test the new, greener products against ones now for sale to see how marketable these new bioplastics and biofuels can be. “This project is really about giving food waste a value,” Lansing says.


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