University Researchers Turn Food Waste into Sustainable Form of Plastic

by Erika Castanon

A Fresno State professor’s bold thinking is leading to a new way to reuse food waste and give it a new purpose.

Dr. William Wright, a civil engineering professor in the University’s Lyles College of Engineering, and his students are producing bioplastic — a material derived from renewable resources, like food waste from food processing operations.

“It’s really fascinating and interesting because what we’re doing is developing technology that allows us to produce a material that is used extensively throughout society — plastics,” Wright says.

These plastics are unlike typical, petroleum-based plastics, a resource Wright says is abundant, but “there will be a day when those reserves start to dry up.” Wright believes the sustainability of bioplastics is its greatest selling point.

William Wright

In 2012, brothers Dane and Jeff Anderson approached Wright with the idea. They founded a firm called Back2Earth Technologies (B2E), then later Full Cycle Bioplastics (FCB). Wright ran with the idea and, in partnership with B2E, began looking for ways to fund the research. The first investor was Bill Smittcamp, president and CEO of Wawona Frozen Foods in Clovis and a longtime supporter of Fresno State.

Wright and his students now have an onsite research facility at the frozen fruit production location. “He supplied us with a building, air, water, power and air conditioning, everything we needed,” Wright says. “And all the fruit we wanted, which was essential to what we were doing at that time.”

Brian Dawson, executive chairman of Full Cycle Bioplastics, says Fresno State was an ideal partner for the company. “It’s not only from a technical expertise, it was also a great relationship to leverage because of the connection to agricultural clients like Wawona,” Dawson says. “The technical help and the business development help puts us on the map in the agricultural ecosystem.”

Wright also secured a grant in 2013 from Agricultural Research Institute, a California State University entity, which operates out of Fresno State’s Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. That grant was matched dollar-for-dollar by Bill Smittcamp and the Lyles College of Engineering. However, the vast majority of the funding has come from FCB, which has been an excellent partner and strong supporter of cutting-edge research at Fresno State.

Potential community impact

Imagine a meal being packaged in a plastic container made from food waste. Imagine eating the meal with a fork or spoon made from that same waste, and drinking from a wholly repurposed plastic water bottle.

The technology even has medical potential.

“The advantages to bioplastics are that it’s biocompatible, that is it doesn’t negatively react with human tissue,” Wright says. “So one of the uses that has been developed in recent years is for plastic parts associated with implants and other things that go into people.”

These plastics are produced with volatile fatty acids from fruit, vegetable, fats and other types of organic waste. Natural microorganisms break down complex molecules in the food waste into simpler molecules, and a different bacteria is used to convert the molecules into acids, including fatty acids. These are fed to another bacteria, which is placed in a controlled environemt with an excess of carbon but

[with] a restricted amount of nutrients and oxygen. The microorganisms “fatten up,” and as a result, a polymer material called polyhdroxyalkanoate, or PHA, is produced and used for plastics.

“We take something that is a problem and turn it into a high-value product,” Dawson says.

Excessive costs are circumvented by avoiding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for bacteria, which pose potential issues to the environment. “We were the first to get our costs close to petro-plastics while others before had come in with plastics two or three times the cost,” Dawson says. “The plastics are also biodegradable in the ocean, which propels us further than others.”

Wright’s lab manager, Mike Nunes, envisions vast possibilities. “There is a long-term vision that we get the material and plastic to the point where we can re-digest the plastic itself so that we can take a food container with food in it at a cafeteria, someone could eat the food, throw both the leftover food that they didn’t finish and the plastic itself into the waste receptacle,” Nunes says. “We collect that, re-feed it into the reactors, and then we have a completely recyclable product.”

Wright believes it can be done.

Nunes says their research is out on the “ragged edges of technology,” and Fresno State is surpassing other universities worldwide.

“This has never been done before, only thought of and looked at in niches, but never looked at as this all-encompassing method that could change how we deal with waste.”

—Erika Castanon is a student news assistant in University Communications at Fresno State.