29 MAY 2024: Recycling cellulose from undigested cattle feed kept some of Australia’s brightest meat-science brains busy in a recent industry pitch-fest.

Several project ideas presented by UNE students focussed on recycling paunch contents, a meat processing byproduct that costs the industry millions in annual disposal costs.

Making their presentations at Australian Country Choice’s (ACC) Brisbane facility, the third and fourth-year rural science and agriculture students shared their visions for ways to generate increased revenue for processors by reducing costs, generating novel products or converting cost centres to income streams.

Three groups focused on generating value from rumen contents by using the waste for energy generation, to make make biodegradable firelighters and creating polymer sheets.

Recent research has shown that methane extracted from biodigesters could be increased by treating the waste with sodium hydroxide, leading to a chemical reaction that would double rates of anaerobic digestion, said one of the student groups. The group proposed that adding sodium hydroxide also reduced the sludge by 50%.

The students presented figures suggesting a payback period of between three and four years for a set up cost of $500,000 and an eventual total cost – incorporating an aerobic digester – of $4m.

The second group called ‘Ignite Right’ suggested the use of paunch contents as biodegradable firelighters. The product would be dried, mixed with fragrant essential oils and flammable solutions and bound with wax to hold their shape. Price comparisons suggest the product would retail at between 8c and 10c a unit, the student team said.

Meanwhile, microbal fermentation of paunch contents, coupled with poly 3-hydroxybutyrate-co-3-hydroxyvalerate (PHBV) treatment, could create a biodegradable, non-toxic plastic, according to another group.  The resulting polymer wrap could be used for many applications, even possibly as a lining for boxes, offering 14 days of waterproof protection before dissolving.

Waterproof film was also the aim of another group looking at the potential use of collagen derived from low-value hides and other sources. Their project sought to extract the collagen using enzymatic hydrolysis and then drying and macerating the product into particles small enough to be spray-applied onto carton interiors. The cartons were proposed to be used for frozen meat and trim, reducing the risk of plastic entrapment during further processing and negating the need to have extended waterproof properties. 

An engineering solution for blood collection was another concept detailed by the students. Sanitary blood collection for medical products such as plasma, iron and nutraceuticals could offer meat processors a valuable income stream, the students suggested.  Set-up costs for the circulating pump pipework would be around $250,000, with additional costs for pumps and sanitation.

Other ideas presented at the pitch fest included offal-based pet food and an ear-tag retrieval and recycling system that could see 562,000 kg of plastic diverted from landfill into recycled plastic. ‘Tag Cycle Solutions’ suggested that tags could be collected, cleaned and reused or recoated or melted down and made into new products.

Dr Peter McGilchrist, Associate Professor of Meat Science at UNE said: “I teach students a lot about processing and production and this activity is a novel way for them to learn about all the other areas of beef processing like water and energy use, waste management, automation, by-products and co-products.

“The students also have to engage design-led thinking to generate novel, economic solutions for complex problems faced by the red meat processing sector, along with developing a pitch that clearly states the problem, solution, cost of implementation and return on investment.

“If students can solve all problems using this framework, they make great employees.”  

ACC’s R&D Manager Paul Gibson said: “We have participated in this initiative with UNE over a long period of time and each year we review, update and improve the program to be more relevant as a learning experience for the industry professionals of the future.  

“The inclusion of the student project pitch segment focusing on meat processing challenges and potential solutions delivers value for the student, UNE, ACC, MLA, AMPC and the broader industry.

“All credit to Dr. McGilchrist for developing and delivering positive interactive education between industry and the university.”