Don’t be too quick to toss out that paper coffee cup you’re left with after breezing through a Tim Hortons — or any other drive-through. That cup you’re holding could be recycled into biofuel.
Two professors at the University of Manitoba, Drs. Richard Sparling and David Levin, have found those cups can be used as a base stock for ethanol fuel production. The two are co-leading research into improving the efficiency of micro-organisms that convert various cellulosic feed stocks, such as agricultural waste products (straw, wood chips, etc.), into fuel. The project is being funded by several organizations, including Genome Canada which has contributed $4.93 million in funding.
So how did disposable coffee cups end up in the mix? “I pass in front of a Tim Hortons, which is about five paces from David Levin’s office on campus,” chuckles Richard Sparling. “People have to chew on them to roll up the rim, so they can’t be toxic. David said, ‘Let’s see what our bugs will do to them.’”
After collecting enough used cups, researchers put them to the test, and the results were good. “Our bugs loved the stuff,” says Sparling. But unlike the debate among coffee connoisseurs, the microbes didn’t have a brand preference. “We tried cups from the Starbucks on campus and they also work,” he says.
While the media has picked up on the Tim Hortons angle, Sparling thinks they’re missing the main message that the public needs to change its perception about many of the products in common use today, particularly disposable items. “It’s not just trash. It’s a commodity that could be used longer term,” he says.
The research efforts are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to finding new uses for cellulose-based products like disposable cups. That has helped develop new potential value-added processes, such as producing biodegradable plastics. Developing multiple products from a single source is likely to be a key component in the economic viability of commercial recycling enterprises in the future, believes Sparling. “Trash isn’t just trash anymore,” he says.