Hong Kong project turns waste food into fabric

A government-sponsored research institute and the City University of Hong Kong have teamed up on an innovative solution to the problem of the mountains of waste food that pile up every day.

An ever-larger amount of food is thrown away during the course of its daily production, distribution and consumption. This includes not only leftovers but, for example, vegetables that are not within the standard range of size or shape.

Waste food also causes disposal problems. Because of its small land area, Hong Kong does not have sufficient landfills, and the city has been slow in making efforts to separate the 9,000 tons of garbage collected every day. Food waste is believed to account for a third of that.

The city needs an alternative to throwing away food, and this joint project presents a unique solution.

“This is made from kitchen garbage,” said Edwin Keh, chief executive of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, as he holds a piece of textile with a silky smooth texture.

The mechanism is quite simple. Using enzymes, food waste containing sugar is converted into polylactic acid, a type of bioplastic. The material is then melted into the form of a filament. The process can recycle 10 tons of food waste into one ton of fabric, and a patent is pending.

Keh said his team wants to create a recycling technology that has commercial uses.

The method itself is not extraordinary, including the process of fermentation, and is a low-cost solution that does not require a large amount of resources, such as electricity and water. The project has received financial support from a European apparel manufacturer. Work is progressing towards commercialization, which the team hopes can be done in three to five years.

Hurdles remain, though. The thread snaps easily, making it too delicate to be used for making clothes. One workaround is to blend the fiber with different materials to improve the quality.

“Food waste is a global issue,” Keh said, “and I believe this innovative material could help solve the problem.”

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