Could face cream hold a sustainable solution to potato crop waste?

Could face cream hold a sustainable solution to potato crop waste?
Research into converting waste potatoes into gels that could be used in pharmaceutical and beauty products could have the potential to turn the huge amounts of vegetables wasted each year into a manufacturing resource.

In an innovative approach to reducing food waste, scientists at the University of East Anglia are working with the John Innes Centre (JIC) at the University of Bath, as well as project leaders at the University of Exeter, in a research project that explores the potential of using starchy feedstocks, including potatoes, to generate new types of gel.

Millions of tonnes of vegetables are thrown away each year due to surplus supply, processing waste and because of the strict aesthetic requirements that many supermarkets impose on their suppliers.

The research has been backed by a £2.8-million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Innovate UK IB (Industrial Biotechnology) Catalyst Programme. The researchers at UEA will receive around £800,000 for the project that is expected to last four years.

Professor Yaroslav Khimyak from UEA’s School of Pharmacy says that as well as helping reduce waste, the project will also reduce production costs and CO2 emissions currently associated with the manufacturing of conventional gels.

The project’s team has also suggested that through finding a new use for wasted crops, farmers would be able to source an income from their waste.

For his Hugh’s War On Waste programme last year, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall investigated the stringent aesthetic restrictions which vegetable farms had to adhere to when supplying supermarkets.

During the programme Fearnley-Whittingstall spoke with Tristram Stuart, creator of food waste campaign Feedback who said: “Potato standards are far too strict and they need to be relaxed. To cause waste on this scale is criminal, it’s unspeakable in fact.”

Studying ‘very complex materials at molecular level’

The project will investigate how the enzymes found in potatoes can be used to make starch-based gels using nanoscale fibres. At UEA the team will be investigating the properties of starches at a molecular level.

Professor Khimyak provided details of the science behind the research, saying the team will use UEA’s unique Nuclear Magnetic Resonance research infrastructure to study these very complex materials at molecular level.

“Our aim is to uncover the origins of the diverse properties of the gels, where the control of interactions between solid and liquid parts is crucial.’

‘Direct societal impacts’

Dr Jesus Angulo, also from UEA’s School of Pharmacy, said: “This is a very good example of scientific research that has a direct societal impact as the forefront of its horizon.

Angulo states that producing functional hydrogels from cheap materials such as cellulose and starch “will produce high added value from waste.”

He added: “Cellulose is a truly sustainable, renewable and multifunctional natural material, and starch is a highly abundant natural polymer – found for example in potatoes and rice.”

Professor Rob Field, from JIC, concluded: “Finding environmentally benign ways to convert waste streams from agriculture into value-added products presents many challenges and opportunities. It needs a multi-disciplinary team to devise practical solutions that map to industry needs. It is great to have the opportunity to work as part of this team, which brings together science and engineering in a targeted manner.”

More information can be found on the UEA website.