PTT breaks new ground
How Thailand’s largest oil and gas company turned coffee bean waste into a new patented biodegradable product
FOR some people, like Vivan Thammongkol, vice president of petroleum and petrochemical process technology research at PTT’s Research and Technology Institute, finding new and innovative ways to turn society’s waste into useful products is part of their daily grind.
“We had an idea that maybe we could turn this waste into worth,” says Thammongkol. Her team’s idea was successful, and they invented a bioplastic compound from a coffee waste product that won them the Best Initiative in Innovation at The Asset Corporate Awards last year.
PTT, Thailand’s largest oil and gas company, has operated a coffee business at their petrol service stations under the brand of Café Amazon since 2002. Initially they started by buying roasted coffee for their cafés. However, as consumer demand rose, the company built its own coffee roasting plant in Ayutthaya province in 2013. Sourcing the coffee directly from the farmers was a win-win, as the farmers got a higher price for their coffee beans and the company benefitted from reduced costs.
The only problem was the organic waste generated from the coffee pulp in the form of silver skin – a tiny film that wraps around the coffee bean that is extracted during the roasting process. “They had about 17 tonnes of silver skin each year and they dumped it into a big container waiting for the district municipality to collect and dispose,” Thammongkol explained. The waste, aside from costing the company close to US$3,500 per year to dispose, also produced a bad smell and posed an environmental hazard to the nearby community.
In late 2015, Thammongkol’s team from the institute’s polymer division had a chance to visit the plant, which was where the idea for the bioplastic compound was born. “It was not by plan or intention. Our researchers had a chance to visit the coffee roasting plant because it was very close to our institute. When we got there, we found out that they had this bi-product,” Thammongkol says.
The researchers had experience compounding conventional polymers such as polyethylene and polypropylene as well as bioplastics. When they saw the problem and they began brainstorming on how to solve it. Over the next year and eight months they developed and commercialized a bioplastic compound using the silver skin.
“I think the difficulty was finding the right composition of the compound. We wanted to get a 100% biodegradable product. Also, we wanted to have a very high loading of the silver skin. In the master batch we used 40% of the silver skin and 60% of the bioplastic compound and we added some additives to help the processability,” explains Thammongkol.
PTT is the first to come up with a product like this and the company filed a Thai patent for the bioplastic compound, Bio SSCMB, in mid-2016. The product was introduced to exhibitors at the opening ceremony of the Amazon Business Learning Center in the form of a coffee serving tray.
“The appearance or the texture looks pretty much like wood. You also get a certain amount of the coffee aroma in that as well,” says Thammongkol. By mid-2017, Café Amazon had already produced 10,000 pieces of the tray as pilot products that were stocked in the coffee shops nationwide.
On the basis of current expansion plans, in three years’ time the Bio SSCMB project could reduce the organic waste produced by the coffee roasting plant by up to 68 tonnes per year and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 880 tonnes per year. The cumulative projected income of the project for 2017 to 2020 is estimated at 108 million baht (US$3.4 million).
Aside from winning the Best Initiative in Innovation at The Asset’s premier and longest-running ESG awards, the Bio SSCMB project was honoured with a gold medal at the 45th International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva in March 2017.
When asked about her plans for Bio SSCMB in the future, Thammongkol is optimistic. “We are trying to find new applications such as the disposable packaging of coffee capsules or semi-permanent applications,” she explains. “Right now, we’re looking to produce products that will work as souvenirs in our coffee shops - maybe a coffee coaster with the Amazon logo or Amazon bird on that.”