Three unexpected foods in alternatives to traditional plastics


Future alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics could be hiding in kitchen cabinets and waste bins. Researchers are looking to foodstuffs as starting ingredients for polymer-based materials, including coffee grounds, tomato peels and gluten. New products made from these sustainable resources are reported in three papers recently published in ACS journals.

  1. Coffee grounds to coffee tables. Researchers have created a material suitable for large-format 3D printing by mixing leftover grounds into biobased polylactic acid. As a proof of concept, the team used the plastic composite to 3D print a life-sized side table, as described in the open access journal ACS Omega
A coffee table with a wide and bulbous base.
This table is made from a material containing an unexpected foodstuff: coffee grounds.
Adapted from ACS Omega 2024, DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.3c05669
  1. Tomato peels to high-tech bioplastic. A study in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering details a tomato-based polyester plastic that remembers its previous shapes. A ring made of the yellow material was warped at a high temperature, then placed in a warm water bath set at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, where it snapped back to its original desired shape. This proof-of-concept shows how biobased polyesters could be made with an abundant agricultural and food waste.
A dark yellow circular piece of bioplastic identified as 10 millimeters wide.
This tomato-based polyester plastic can remember its previous shapes.
Adapted from ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering 2024, DOI: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.3c05713
  1. Gluten to a compostable composite. A team created the biobased composite by combining wheat gluten — sometimes added to bread dough for extra chewiness — and carbon fibers. The research reported in the open access journal ACS Omega illustrates how the gluten-based material had a similar strength to fossil fuel-based plastics, yet broke down within 30 days in soil and didn’t impact either the germination or growth of grass seeds. The team says the design could allow future items to be molded into any shape or size. 
A dark gray oblong rectangle of biocomposite plastic.
Combining wheat gluten and carbon fibers produced this strong composite that’s also compostable.
Adapted from ACS Omega 2024, DOI: 10.1021/acsomega.3c07711


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