Road to bioplastic

 By Michelle Leslie

There is so much plastic in our oceans, that experts predict within the next 35 years the world’s waterways will be home to more plastic than fish. But a company in California is hoping to change that. They are making their sustainability mark by turning poop and other biomass into fully biodegradable plastic…

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Our oceans. They cover over two-thirds of our planet and are home to millions of species. And they are drowning in plastic.

Approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic junk ends up in our oceans every year where most of it will sit for a lifetime, waiting to slowly decompose.

This is information backed by a California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery report. “Petroleum-based plastics can cause environmental concern because of the length of time for the floating plastics to disintegrate in ocean water. Polyethylene plastics, typically, will float in ocean water and can take 100 years to disintegrate completely.”

The volume of plastic waste wading into our oceans has surged with plastics global popularity; the world produced over 300 million tons in 2014. There is so much plastic in our oceans that experts predict that within the next 35 years the world’s waterways will be home to more plastic than fish.

Our reliance on plastic use is forecast to double within the next 20 years, and this surge of plastic consumption is also raising climate concerns. Most plastic production releases greenhouse gases thanks to their reliance on fossil fuels.

However, a company in California is hoping to chart a new course for plastics. Full Cycle Bioplastics is making its sustainability mark by turning waste and other biomass into fully biodegradable bioplastic. “Think of food waste and even bigger industrial waste. Factory farming, livestock manure, forestry wood products like sawdust, cardboard even brewery waste. There are all of these industries around us with these biomass problems where they have nothing to use it for,” stated Andrew Ference, Partner at Fifth Season Ventures, a venture capital firm with interests in waste diversion, water purity and reclamation that invested in Full Cycle back in 2014.

Most of the ocean plastic is coming from heavily populated countries with poor waste management practices. Image credit: National Geographic

These diverse types of organic waste can be used to produce this polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) based plastic. PHAs are created by bacteria through the process of fermenting organic waste. This “fat for bacteria” is a natural part of the process by which organic waste breaks down in order to store carbon and energy. As the bacteria eat the organic waste it produces PHA as an energy source.

The idea to create plastic from PHA was born out of wastewater treatment technology. Organic waste is mixed in a large tank where it starts to bacterially ferment and dissolve in water. The resulting fatty-acid rich liquid is transferred and mixed with more bacteria in a production tank where the creation of PHA is optimized through environmental controls such as temperature and food. As the bacteria are tricked into moving into hibernation mode, you can maximize the amount of PHA produced.

Another added bonus of this natural plastic is its ability to biodegrade. As a United Nations news release points out, not all plastics are created equal. Some biodegradable plastics can only degrade in conditions replicating that of a composter, which includes temperatures at 122oF (50oC), far warmer than any ocean.

Plastics made from PHA however were able to biodegrade significantly in cooler marine environments. “After 12 months, the biodegradation results show that 52 percent and 82 percent of two PHA samples biodegraded into carbon dioxide.”

“Our plastic fully degrades unlike petro-based plastics which may have micro beads,” reported Andrew Falcon, CEO of Full Cycle Bioplastics. “This plastic is a natural energy, bacterial fat. Because it’s a natural component, it totally goes away and there is nothing residual left over.”

The type of plastic produced made from PHA will determine the decomposition time. The recipe can be adjusted to customize the type of plastic depending on how long it’s required to last. Some of Full Cycle’s bioplastics can biodegrade in a matter of weeks.

The array of plastic possibilities, as Falcon points out, are endless. Almost any single use product you find on store shelves, from compostable bags for food waste, grocery bags to shampoo bottles can be made using PHA. This naturally occurring polymer can also be used for films and injection molding, providing huge application potential for a new stream of plastics.

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A challenge that faced PHA plastic production in the past was cost. Full Cycle has addressed this issue by using waste and genetically modified organism (GMO) free bacteria. Traditional green plastic relies on farmland to plant and harvest crops to create their plastic, whereas Full Cycle relies on recycling waste. A closed loop system, PHA consumer products can be recycled into new products once they are no longer needed.

“It is awesome to think that PHA products can be reintroduced to a FCB system to be broken down and rebuilt into new PHA time and time again,” according to Falcon. “(We are) creating not only a closed loop opportunity for plastics users, but a meaningful circular economy solution where value of the material is recaptured.”

Using waste and GMO free bacteria has made PHA plastics a cost-competitive option to their fossil fuel based counterparts. Bins can be set up directly at waste sites thus they don’t require a sterile environment to grow PHA for plastic.

This new approach to plastic is also cutting methane emissions. Through the fermentation process, the production of methane is halted. It’s another important step in sustainability.

A step recently highlighted by leaders at the Three Amigos Summit in Canada. Leaders from the United States, Canada and Mexico committed to reducing methane emissions by 40 percent within the next 9 years. Full Cycle Bioplastics was recently awarded the 2016 Think Beyond Plastic award for Most Innovative Business for “converting difficult to recycle organic waste streams into high performance biodegradable plastics.”

Cleaning oceans, reducing methane emissions and keeping valuable farmlands for growing food creates a full cycle of environmental stewardship.


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about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.