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Profs Help Frito-Lay Be More Green

Researchers to Develop Biodegradable Plastic Packaging

Some of Frito-Lay’s brands.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Frito-Lay North America Inc., maker of some of America’s favorite potato and corn-chip snacks; Lay’s, Doritos, Tostitos, Cheetos, Fritos, Ruffles and SunChips; prides itself in applying green technology to help reduce solid waste and protect the environment through the use of renewable, plant-based materials in its chip bags.

Now the company wants to take the program a step further by enlisting the expertise of two Chemical Engineering faculty. Assoc. Prof. Sanjeev Manohar, director of UMass Lowell’s Green Technology Laboratory, and Assoc. Prof. Carl Lawton, director of the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center, recently received a two-year, $180,000 grant from Frito-Lay to develop new methods for converting the cardboard used to ship its products into biodegradable plastic. Manohar is the principal investigator for the project while Lawton is the co-principal investigator.

Each year, Frito-Lay generates tens of thousands of tons of cardboard waste that are difficult to store and recycle, and many of them end up in landfills, explains Manohar. “The company wants to convert that packaging waste into bio-friendly and biodegradable plastic that can be used as chip bags,” he says.

Manohar says one way to achieve this is through biosynthesis; using bacteria or fungi to first convert the waste cardboard to glucose. The glucose is then fed to special organisms that will directly convert it to a plastic that the organisms will store inside their cell walls.

“All we have to do is to break open the cell wall and extract the plastic,” says Manohar. “There’s no synthetic chemical laboratory needed!”

By changing what the researchers feed the organisms (in addition to glucose), they can vary the properties of the plastic, he says.

“We will test the performance of these plastics in-house,” says Manohar, adding that the initial grant will be used to demonstrate proof of concept.

Sanjeev Manohar
Carl Lawton