In commemoration of Sustainable Gastronomy Day 2021, AZoCleantech takes a closer look at a biodegradable plastic developed from food waste as a promising alternative to single-use options already on the market.
Genecis's biodegradable plastic helps combat rising issues with single-use plastic and food waste at the same time. Image Credit: Boonchuay1970/Shutterstock.com
A rising Canadian technology company, Genecis, is creating high-performance bioplastics out of previously valueless food waste. The company makes biodegradable plastic solutions for a range of food, medical, and commercial packaging applications. Its technology can also be used to manufacture other high-quality plastic products with recycled organic material.
Biodegradable Plastic: Solutions to Two Problems at Once
Genecis’s high-performance bioplastics present solutions for two environmental problems: food waste and plastic pollution. They achieve this by creating value for the tons of food that is wasted every year and creating a plastic product that can easily and quickly biodegrade.
Plastic pollution is a significant problem facing the world today. More than 270 million tons of single-use plastic is wasted each year. This is plastic for packaging and disposable items which often ends up sitting idle in landfills, potentially for thousands of years.
A lot of this plastic waste also ends up in the oceans, which see more than 8 million tons of plastic pollution annually. Some analysts have warned that many likely scenarios would lead to there being more plastic by mass than fish in the sea by 2050.
At the same time, the tonnage of food waste produced annually poses another significant risk for the environment. According to the UN, 1.2 billion tons of food is wasted or lost every year. This is a staggering third of all the food produced around the world.
Food waste has many causes, some of which are unavoidable. However, the increasing globalization of food supply chains, just-in-time logistics, and the rapid expansion of large retailers in recent decades has exacerbated the food waste problem.
Food waste is caused primarily by wasted resources spent on growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing it. Food waste pollution contributes to the wider problem of solid waste management, especially in poorer countries.
It is also, of course, concerning that one-third of all the food produced in the world is wasted, when global inequalities have led to two billion people facing food insecurity and 820 million experiencing severe hunger every day.
Genecis’s Biodegradable Plastic Solutions
Genecis co-founder Luna Yu saw a potential business opportunity for bioplastics made from organic waste while reading research on biogas. The company was founded out of the University of Toronto in 2016 and has been developing technology commercially since 2017.
The company’s aim is to lead in the drive towards a circular economy by recycling food waste into high-performance bioplastics, which can quickly degrade. It has already formed partnerships with leading brands such as the international food services firm, Sodexo.
This student start-up turns your food waste into high quality bio-plastic
Video Credit: University of Toronto Scarborough/YouTube.com
High-Performance Bioplastics Technology
Genecis’s process creates a type of organic PHA plastic referred to as PHBV. This has equivalent properties to traditional oil-based plastics but without the high environmental costs of using fossil fuels to make materials for disposable products. PHBV also only takes one month to break down in compost, and just one year to fully degrade in seawater.
Advanced bacteria technology converts the food waste into high-performance bioplastics. Bacteria that can produce PHA have been known for a long time now, however, it has been a prohibitively expensive technology due to the costs of oils and sugars used to feed bacteria.
Genecis believes it has solved this problem by bioengineering bacteria that can produce the PHA from food waste. After extensive sampling from municipal waste facilities, the team identified bacteria that were effective at decomposing organic waste matter.
These bacteria break organic matter down into fatty acids, which a second bacteria converts into PHA. The exact type and combination of bacteria that Genecis uses is proprietary information.
Finally, Genecis opens the cells of bacteria to extract plastic particles, using a chemical process. It takes Genecis only seven days to complete the procedure in the University of Toronto’s large-scale bioreactors.
The technique was developed using computational biology and has only been possible now due to the contributions of computer processing. New programmable biology tools enabled Genecis to create bacteria with optimal behaviors to eliminate mechanical processes and allow biological processes to do more of the heavy lifting in manufacture.
The Genecis bioplastic process is a model example of clean technology creating closed loops in the circular economy. The circular economy is an economic and environmental model for reducing waste at the same time as using fewer raw resources.
Genecis show that circular economy approaches can make sound business sense. The company states that 40% of production costs for other PHA manufacturers come from vegetable or sugar feedstocks for plastic-producing bacteria. Meanwhile, Genecis is paid to take food waste away from its suppliers.
Next Steps for Genecis
Genecis has already won multiple awards and received one US patent. The company has also been selected for numerous high-profile technology accelerators, including YC.
Now, Genecis is building the next phase of its manufacturing plant and adding scale to its operation, in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada. The Canadian government has funded the company with a €1.6 million grant.
The next stage of production will see Genecis producing between 50 and 70 kilograms of high-performance bioplastics each week. The facility will also process 1.8 tons of organic waste each week.
References and Further Reading
Carey, Teresa (2019) These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria. Freethink. [Online] https://www.freethink.com/articles/these-scientists-extract-plastic-from-bacteria
Shieber, Jonathan (2020) YC Graduate Genecis Bioindustries Turns Food Waste Into Compostable Plastics. TechCrunch. [Online] https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/16/yc-graduate-genecis-bioindustries-turns-food-waste-into-compostable-plastics