Bac­te­ria turn ta­ble waste into bio­plas­tics

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - SCIENCE AT WORK - AMY O’KRUK

Clean­tech startup Genecis Bioin­dus­tries aids a greener econ­omy by mak­ing PHAs a fea­si­ble al­ter­na­tive to con­ven­tional plas­tics

Soon your ta­ble scraps could turn from trash to plas­tic bot­tles, med­i­cal equip­ment or 3D-print­ing fil­a­ment. One Cana­dian small busi­ness is us­ing clean tech­nol­ogy to turn car­bon­packed food waste into biodegrad­able plas­tic.

Founded in 2016, Genecis Bioin­dus­tries Inc. is a biotech­nol­ogy com­pany that uses “recipes of bac­te­ria” to turn food waste into poly­hy­drox­yalka­noates (PHAs), a high-quality bio­plas­tic.

Man­u­fac­tur­ers can use bio­plas­tic – which in­cludes biobased and biodegrad­able plas­tic – to cre­ate ev­ery­thing from sustainable sin­gle-use food­ware and pack­ag­ing to 3D-print­ing fil­a­ments, the mold­able plas­tic needed for the print­ing process.

“We pro­gram bac­te­ria to con­vert low-value waste into high­value ma­te­ri­als,” said CEO and founder Luna Yu, a re­cent grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Toronto Scar­bor­ough in the Master of En­vi­ron­men­tal Sci­ence pro­gram.

Genecis hopes to cash in on emerg­ing mar­kets and a global shift to­ward a greener econ­omy. Two years ago, Ms. Yu and her team col­lected mi­cro-or­gan­isms from around the world, in­clud­ing Gu­atemala and Costa Rica, to iso­late 200 new bac­te­ria species that don’t ex­ist in other data­bases.

The bac­te­ria cre­ate PHA through a two-step process. First, bac­te­ria break down food waste into small car­bon build­ing blocks. Af­ter­ward, PHA-as­sem­bling bac­te­ria eat the car­bon and store bio­plas­tic gran­ules in their cells be­fore it’s chem­i­cally extracted.

“Our busi­ness model is to work di­rectly with waste-man­age­ment com­pa­nies,” Ms. Yu said. “From Day One, we had to have su­per ro­bust bac­te­ria.”

Genecis is one of few PHA-bio­plas­tic com­pa­nies us­ing pre- and post-con­sumer food waste. In Canada, other PHA man­u­fac­tur­ers, such as Ter­raVer­dae BioWorks and PolyFerm Canada, use feed­stocks like methanol, sugar and oil.

By us­ing food waste, Genecis can re­duce the pro­duc­tion cost of its PHA pel­lets by 40 per cent com­pared with other man­u­fac­tur­ers.

And in­vestors are in­ter­ested. To date, Genecis has raised ap­prox­i­mately $870,000 – $280,000 dur­ing its first round of seed fund­ing and $590,000 from grants and pitch com­pe­ti­tions.

The com­pany plans to scale up its pro­duc­tion line at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Bant­ing and Best Cen­tre by December to process 300 kilo­grams of food waste per week, up from 80.

From there, the com­pany will also raise a sec­ond round of seed fund­ing to fund the con­struc­tion of a demon­stra­tion plant next year, up­ping its ca­pac­ity. The goal is to prove Genecis’s tech­nol­ogy on an in­dus­trial scale, Ms. Yu said.

“We’re def­i­nitely go­ing af­ter the higher-end mar­kets like thermo-re­sis­tant pack­ag­ing and 3Dprint­ing fil­a­ments,” she said. To help Genecis grow, the com­pany is look­ing to ex­pand its full-time em­ploy­ees from eight to 11, hir­ing two can­di­dates with ex­pe­ri­ence in ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy and an­other in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

But it can be a long, hard road to bring a new poly­mer, such as PHA, to the mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Mar­i­faith Hack­ett, di­rec­tor, spe­cialty chem­i­cals re­search at IHS Markit, who works in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“When you look at the his­tory of Na­tureWorks and PLA, an­other biodegrad­able poly­mer, it took at least 20 years to build a good com­mer­cial vol­ume,” Ms. Hack­ett said.

Na­tureWorks in Min­nesota is the world’s largest man­u­fac­turer of poly­lac­tic acid (PLA), one of the most com­mon bio­plas­tics. It’s clear in colour made from corn or dex­trose while PHA is made by mi­cro-or­gan­isms and biode­grades more eas­ily.

In the past, man­u­fac­tur­ing cost lim­ited com­mer­cial in­ter­est in both ma­te­ri­als but es­pe­cially PHA. Close to a decade ago, PLA cost man­u­fac­tur­ers about 20 per cent more to use than petroleum-based plas­tic and PHA was more than dou­ble the price.

Now ad­vance­ments in both cost and per­for­mance are mak­ing bio­plas­tics an in­creas­ingly fea­si­ble al­ter­na­tive to con­ven­tional plas­tics, and de­mand is ex­pected to grow world­wide. While the cur­rent mar­ket value of biodegrad­able plas­tics ex­ceeds $1.1- bil­lion in 2018, it could reach $1.7-bil­lion by 2023, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by IHS Markit, a Lon­don-based con­sult­ing firm.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, de­mand is be­ing driven by both chang­ing reg­u­la­tions and con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions about sus­tain­abil­ity, es­pe­cially in the food­ware and com­postable bag in­dus­tries.

“Reg­u­la­tions are re­ally an im­por­tant driver, but it is very de­pen­dent on the word­ing of those reg­u­la­tions,” Ms. Hack­ett said. She pointed to coun­tries such as France and Italy, where plas­ticbag bans that specif­i­cally ex­empted biodegrad­able bags led to a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the con­sump­tion of bio­plas­tic poly­mers.

Western Europe, with the world’s most strict use reg­u­la­tions for sin­gle-use plas­tics, holds 55 per cent of the global mar­ket value in 2018 for biodegrad­able poly­mers, and it’s likely grow­ing. Last week, a Euro­pean Par­lia­ment com­mit­tee ap­proved draft plans to ban a num­ber of sin­gle-use plas­tic prod­ucts in the EU from 2021.

Genecis be­lieves PHAs have the great­est mar­ket po­ten­tial due to the bio­plas­tic’s biodegrad­abil­ity, bio­com­pat­i­bil­ity and ver­sa­til­ity.

One of their ad­van­tages is that they can be dis­posed of in any waste stream with­out caus­ing prob­lems, un­like PLAs, which can con­tam­i­nate re­cy­cling.

“There have been some big in­vest­ments in look­ing at PHAs as a so­lu­tion to the mi­crobead prob­lem,” said Cather­ine Joce, sus­tain­abil­ity and circular econ­omy lead at Cam­bridge Con­sul­tants, a Bri­tish firm.

“PHA is one of the only bio­plas­tics that will de­grade quickly in the marine en­vi­ron­ment.”

Ms. Joce also points to PHAs’ adapt­abil­ity. The med­i­cal in­dus­try is look­ing at PHA bio­plas­tics to de­velop de­vices and tools, such as in­ter­nal su­tures, be­cause the plas­tic breaks down nat­u­rally in the body.

“What is par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing about PHA is that it has this very, very wide range of prop­er­ties,” Ms. Joce said. “By chang­ing the bac­te­ria or feed­stock, you can pro­duce quite dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als with quite dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties, so that means you’ve got the abil­ity to tailor the prop­er­ties to the ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Carv­ing out a larger piece of the global plas­tics mar­ket won’t be easy. Bio­plas­tics cur­rently ac­count for 1 per cent of the about 320 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic pro­duced an­nu­ally, and man­u­fac­tur­ers have to com­pete with con­ven­tional plas­tic pro­duc­tion, a re­mark­ably in­ex­pen­sive process scaled over the past 60 years by the oil in­dus­try.

But the com­pany has ad­van­tages, Ms. Yu said. In ad­di­tion to com­pet­i­tive prices for its PHA pel­lets, Genecis plans to open an of­fice in China and ex­plore li­cens­ing its tech­nol­ogy to coun­tries around the world af­ter its demon­stra­tion plant is com­plete.

In the fu­ture, Ms. Yu also wants to move Genecis into other mar­kets beyond bio­plas­tics. Us­ing syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy, she plans to con­vert food waste into other high-value chem­i­cals that are tra­di­tion­ally dif­fi­cult to make, such as am­brox­ide, a rare chem­i­cal found in the stom­ach of sperm whales. The pow­der is val­ued at ap­prox­i­mately $200 per kilo­gram.

“In the sci­en­tific world, you will find an as­ton­ish­ing ar­ray of things peo­ple are sug­gest­ing that you could do with PHAs, from den­i­tri­fi­ca­tion in wa­ter treat­ment plants to oil spill re­me­di­a­tion to mak­ing ad­he­sives and more,” Ms. Joce said.


’Our busi­ness model is to work di­rectly with waste-man­age­ment com­pa­nies,’ says Luna Yu, CEO and founder of Genecis Bioin­dus­tries Inc. in Toronto.

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