Valuable bioplastics from household waste. An interview with Mauro Majone
The organic fraction that ends up in the household dustbin and domestic wastewater could have a greater economic value than we can imagine. If properly treated, in fact, this biological “waste” can generate bioplastics, that is, key components of computers, smartphones and packaging. We talked about this with Mauro Majone, Professor at the Department of Chemistry of Sapienza University of Rome and coordinator of RES URBIS (Resources from Urban Bio-waSte), the European project funded with 3 million euro by the European Commission under Horizon 2020.
Professor Majone, how was the idea for this project developed?
Currently, the organic fraction of our household waste and the organic substances contained in urban wastewater generate waste that is treated in completely different ways. In the best cases, when recycling is done properly, organic waste produces compost or it is used to obtain biogas, while wastewater is treated in sewage treatment plants. In this framework, the European Commission issued a call for proposals for research projects, in the context of the Circular Economy package of the Horizon 2020 programme, which invited participants to develop technologies for the joint treatment of household waste to obtain high value added bio-based products.
What was your response to this request from Europe?
Our answer is the RES URBIS project that aims to verify the possibility of integrating the organic fraction from these two types of urban waste to produce biodegradable plastics. Through the action of bacteria under anaerobic conditions (in the absence of oxygen, Ed.), in fact, it is possible to separate a part of the organic substance generated in our homes to obtain simple organic compounds to be used for the production of a biodegradable polymer: polyhydroxyalkanoate. This polymer may form the basis for the production of a wide range of bioplastics and biocomposites, which can be used to produce packaging or to make more durable goods such as computers and smartphones.
Is this polymer already on the market?
A similar form of this polymer is already present on the market at about 5 euro per kg, but it is produced through a completely different chain that uses organic materials from agriculture: it is obtained using the glucose derived from plants grown for this purpose. Our aim is to obtain polyhydroxyalkanoate from organic waste which is already available and which today represents a “cost” in economic and environmental terms.
Your project has been awarded 3 million euro by the European Commission. How are you going to implement your objectives?
The RES URBIS project started in January 2017 and will involve 21 European partners for a period of three years, during which we will bring together completely different sectors, such as waste management and the plastics industry. In addition, we will directly involve public administrations and we will test the solutions proposed in some specific areas, specifically the cities of Barcelona and Lisbon and the provinces of Trento and South Wales, near Cardiff. We will adapt the innovative solutions that we are studying to each geographical area with the aim of verifying their feasibility not only from a technological point of view, but also from an economic, organizational, social and environmental point of view.