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What if we could turn waste materials from beer and whiskey distilleries into useful plastics, and ultimately compost those plastics back into the land to fertilise more crops? That’s the goal of Grain-4-Lab, a project at Dublin City University that is turning trash into sustainable treasure with the aid of some happy bacteria.

That simple idea can solve two major problems being faced by Ireland and the world, explains Dr Jennifer Gaughran, who co-leads the project. “On one hand we have the alcoholic beverage industry making beer and whiskey, producing waste products and needing to get rid of them, and as the drinks industry in Ireland is booming, the levels of waste keep growing,” she explains. “Then you also have the issue that the world is producing too much plastic, mostly from non-renewable fossil fuels, and we have the environmental and economic cost of sending that plastic to landfill or incineration.”

The Grain-4-Lab solution is to turn the waste from the drinks industry into bioplastics for use in the life sciences industry. “Life science laboratories produce a huge amount of plastic waste every year, around 5.5 million tonnes, which is comparable to the mass of 545 Eiffel Towers, it’s pretty frightening,” says Dr Gaughran. “And about 99% of those plastics are derived from fossil fuels, we found that nobody was really producing sustainable plastic materials for lab use.” 

Gaughran and bio processing engineer Dr Brian Freeland came up with the idea to use bioproducts from breweries and distilleries to make bio plastics for lab use when they were room-mates during COVID-19 lockdowns. “Brian’s research meant he knew about the waste streams from the brewing and distilling industry, and he knew it would be possible to make a bioplastic from it,” says Gaughran. “We soon realised this could help to address the plastic waste issue in life sciences labs.”

To make the plastics, the Grain-4-Lab approach feeds the brewing and distillery waste to bacteria, which generate lactic acid. Then polymer chemist Dr Susan Kelleher implemented a way to link the lactic acid molecules together to form a bioplastic called poly-lactic acid, or PLA. By using manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing and injection moulding, the team was then able to make bioplastic consumables for labs and put them to the test.

“We decided to start with Petri dishes as we found they were the most-used plastic item in Irish teaching labs,” says Dr Gaughran. “We tested out our PLA Petri dishes and happily they pass all the tests and meet the standards for use in a lab with biological materials, and they have about half the carbon footprint of the polystyrene currently in use.”

Image of 5 people standing outside
Dr Brian Freeland, Samantha Fahy, Dr Jennifer Gaughran, Dr Keith Rochfort. and Dr Susan Kelleher

Once the PLA plastics have done their job in the lab and can no longer be used, they can be industrially composted and will take just 12 weeks to be ready to go back into the land and fertilise new plant growth, she adds. “This is really about being circular and putting the value back into the land. And by using waste products to make plastic, rather than using crops grown specifically for that purpose, we are also helping to protect the food supply.”

Sustainability is the name of the game, and Dr Keith Rochfort’s role in the project is to ensure that these bioplastics are safe for use in a lab setting, while sustainability expert Sam Fahy is working on ways to help labs run more environmentally friendly practices, including adopting the more sustainable PLA plastic. 

In March 2022, Grain-4-Lab won the SFI Plastics Future Innovator Award, and will use the €2 million in prize money to scale up the system.

“We want to build facilities close to the alcohol producers so we can take the waste and turn it into a valuable plastic,” says Dr Gaughran. “Ireland currently does not produce any plastic, so what better way than using local waste to make environmentally friendly plastic at a time when the entire world needs to move towards these kinds of materials.”

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