Upcycling kimchi cabbage waste into biodegradable plastic

Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

Upcycling kimchi cabbage waste into biodegradable plastic

The Korean delicacy kimchi, with its main ingredient of cabbage, has been growing in popularity across the globe due to its potential health benefits.

Around a third of brassica crops are estimated to be discarded during the manufacturing and distribution processes so Hae Choon Chang, President of the World Institute of Kimchi (WiKim), a government-funded research institute under the Ministry of Science and ICT, set about finding a solution for the cabbage by-products of the kimchi manufacturing process.

WiKim has now developed a ‘bio-refactoring-based upcycling technology’ that can convert cabbage by-products discarded as waste during the food manufacturing process into biodegradable plastics that can be completely degraded by natural microbial activity under certain conditions. 

The research team led by Dr Jung Eun Yang, a senior researcher of the Fermentation Regulation Technology Research Group at the WiKim, developed microbial strains for the production of biodegradable bioplastics by using bio-refactoring technology (bio-refactoring refers to a technology for redesigning microorganisms to give new functions other than their existing characteristics) and identified conditions for achieving a sugar conversion rate of up to 90.4% by optimising the concentrations of enzymes and the substrate used in the saccharification process.

In particular, the research team found that malic acid, one of the bioactive materials in cabbage by-products, can contribute to the productivity improvement of PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate). PHA is a bio-based biodegradable material obtained through microbial fermentation, and is characterised by biodegradability in natural environments.

The technology can be applied to various agricultural and food by-products, such as waste from cabbage and onions used for kimchi production, and is expected to reduce the waste disposal costs for by-products from the kimchi manufacturing process, which are estimated to be 10 billion won (11 million AUD) per year.

Schematic diagram of cabbage waste upcycling technology. Image credit: The World Institute of Kimchi.

“The results of this research are significant in terms of having secured an environmentally friendly technology for converting agricultural and food waste into high value-added materials,” said Dr Hae Woong Park, Director of the Technology Innovation Research Division of the WiKim.

“We will continue to develop upcycling technology in the agricultural and food sectors so that the kimchi industry will contribute to the achievement of carbon neutrality.”

The research team analysed the components in cabbage by-products, and systematically categorised various components helpful for microbial growth. Based on these research results, the team plans to develop the core technology to convert agricultural and food waste into various high-value-added materials.

The full research findings have been published in the March 2024 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Image credit: iStock.com/4kodiak

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