SugarCane waste innovation
Work to turn Australia’s significant volume of sugarcane waste into useable products continues. With more than 30 million tonnes of sugarcane produced annually, predominately in Queensland, over 10 million tonnes of fibrous waste – bagasse – is also produced. Typically the bagasse is used as biofuel for the cane processing plants or turned into pulp-based products. Two companies are working on food products.
In September the University of Queensland Professor of Food Microbiology, Mark Turner, announced the production of a precision fermented sugarcane milk, containing a protein bioidentical to dairy milk. The ’milk’s’ fermentation feedstock is a combination of bagasse, molasses, and other ‘by-product inputs’. The Future Foods BioHub, in collaboration with Asia-Pacific fermentation company Cauldron, are set to manufacture the protein, with AU$528,000 funding from Queensland Government. The end-product could be developed and marketed as a plant-based milk alternative, with other ingredients included to improve the nutritional content, or as a protein boost ingredient in food manufacture.
In May 2022, US-Australian Change Foods received an AU$1 million government grant to create a platform for upcycling bagasse as a low-cost feedstock for their precision fermented casein (milk protein). The company is expected to launch its animal-free dairy products in 2024.
Can New Zealand leverage food and fibre sector waste streams into other systems or products?
UN Plastics zero draft
In preparation for the United Nations (UN) Environment Programmes’ plastics pollution negotiating session later this year, a preliminary draft of the proposed legislation has been released. The ‘Zero Draft’ has a focus on the marine environment. It offers a range of options for governments worldwide to address escalating waste plastic issues:
- Committing to halt the increase of their plastic pollution beyond a specified level, or
- Embracing a global target to collectively reduce plastic pollution, or
- Pledging to take necessary actions to reduce plastic production without committing to a specific target.
While the draft avoids setting time-bound, numerical targets, it emphasises the rapid phasing out of harmful chemicals and the most challenging-to-recycle plastics. The UN advocates national plans and phase-out strategies, human health protection, updated product designs and a focus on reuse/refill models. Plans should also encompass recycling initiatives, including extended producer responsibility measures and the management of plastic fishing gear.
The international plastic industry is advocating for a focus on recycling and waste management rather than limiting production, a stance that has drawn criticism from environmental groups. These groups applaud the call for a ‘progressive reduction’ in plastics manufacturing but caution against relying solely on voluntary national efforts, emphasising the need for comprehensive global measures.
New Zealand is already making strides in reducing plastic use, through the 2021 National Plastics Action Plan, the next phasing-out process for hard-to-recycle plastics and single-use items is set for mid-2025. The Ministry for the Environment have shown support for Scion’s New Plastics Economy Roadmap.
No ban will apply on plastic labels used on produce intended for export, but further food and beverage packaging materials will be phased out by mid-2025. As we approach the cut-off for these plastics, what alternatives can we develop here in New Zealand for the food sector?
Bio CLIPs reduce Vineyard plastic
Vine clips and netting, essential for pest management and fruit preservation in the horticultural and viticultural industries, make an unwanted contribution to microplastic pollution. The New Zealand wine industry alone uses 30 million plastic clips annually.
A New Zealand research partnership between Scion and PolyNatural, has developed an eco-friendly vine clip from biodegradable polymers and wood processing waste, and have successfully trialled them at Cloudy Bay Vineyards in both Central Otago and Marlborough. Now commercially available as PolyDegrade™ Vine Clips, PolyNatural is filling orders from South Australia and is eyeing markets in Canada and France, with the support of New Zealand Trade & Enterprise.
The company is looking at other applications for their proprietary material, potentially bread bag clips and eco-friendly ties for the kiwifruit industry which currently relies on 100 million plastic ties annually.
PolyNatural is not the first creator of plant clips, wooden vine clip alternatives and bio-plastic stem clips are already available. The PolyNatural vine clip advantage lies in their operational similarity to non-horticulture-related items, including clips used in the food industry, allowing for a straight swap and an immediate plastic reduction benefit.
Can New Zealand leverage innovation and expertise to become a world leader in new agri-horticultural materials?