Sustainable Tech: Can plastics be replaced with biodegradable polymers made from waste?
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Exploring PHA bioplastic polymers and how they can be deployed commercially while helping to use waste from agricultural and industrial processes
When plastics were invented, it was a landmark achievement for humanity. It allowed for shaping and creating materials to a degree that had never been thought possible, leading to the production of countless pieces of machinery, clothing, housing – and almost everything else in the modern world.
Among these advancements was the invention of single-use plastics, which were particularly useful for food and beverage containers, cutlery, straws, and anything else that needed to withstand the corrosive nature of water and other liquids being contained within. While this started as an incredible advancement for how everyday lives would be lived, it has had a very problematic side effect: these plastics are ending up in ecosystems, particularly the ocean, where they break down into microplastics that are ingested by various (and abundant) organisms. Since these plastics are not biodegradable, they accumulate in primary consumers and also pass from them up the food chain to larger organisms. The resulting ecological impact is intensifying, but the world has become so reliant on these convenient plastics that production is actually increasing.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the current petroleum-based polymers that dominate the global value chain – though there are several variables that are hindering uptake on a massive scale.
This is the third entry in an ongoing collection of informal case studies looking at the current state of different sustainable tech solutions. Some are ready to use, some require more funding, and some have a complicated position, as we previously discussed with nuclear SMRs.
The goal of exploring these case studies is to highlight the importance of clear and informative communication with industries, governments, and the public to get the technologies with the best chance to make the world a more sustainable place to market – whether they involve carbon-free energy, plastics reductions, food production, or other ideas.
Here at Linq Consulting, we specialize in three things: helping sustainable tech projects obtain funding, helping these projects manage their operations, and providing effective communication to ensure successful projects can contribute to sustainable solutions in the real world.
We are exploring some of the most promising examples of emerging technologies that require help in one or more of these three areas in an effort to shed some light on the challenges and opportunities that exist – while highlighting any areas that can benefit from our expertise.
Below is our third informal case study and exploration of a technology that should command an outsized role in helping the world move away from traditional plastics on the global scale.
What are PHA bioplastic polymers?
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are naturally occurring biodegradable polymers that are accumulated intracellularly by many bacteria as a carbon and energy storage compound. PHAs are polyesters of high molecular weight and can be isolated by solvent extraction and precipitation in antisolvents. The material properties of PHAs are of great interest for sustainable applications due to the inherent biodegradability and excellent biocompatibility that these polymers offer. To date, more than 150 different PHA monomers have been described in literature.
While PHA application are currently limited due to high production cost, and limited functionalities, there is a great deal of interest in their potential for replacing traditional plastics, especially for uses such as food and beverage containers. Chemical modifications and blends with natural biopolymers or other biodegradable polymers can also be used to improve the properties of PHAs and make them more suitable as viable options for a more sustainable solution to the growing plastics problem the world is presently facing.
In addition to these promising developments, there is also the possibility of using industrial wastewater and agro-industrial waste streams to source the PHA monomers, effectively helping to treat waste while also producing a better alternative to single-use plastics.
As mentioned above, PHAs currently have high demand for food packaging, but other high-use disposable applications requiring structural integrity can also benefit from the use of 100% biodegradable material with physical properties that are similar to conventional petro-plastics – without the unsustainable effects on oceans and landfills, and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Current projects in operation
YPACK is a 3-year EU-funded project that utilizes a holistic approach and methodology involving different knowledge areas to produce a more sustainable packaging solution. The project is currently looking to scale up production and commercially validate two innovative food packaging solutions based on PHA bioplastics. The new packaging will make use of food industry by-products (cheese whey and almond shells), assure biodegradability, and reduce food waste, in the frame of the EU Circular Economy strategy. A rough estimate shows that an improvement of shelf life by 20% to 50%, has the potential to reduce food waste by 12.5% to 30%. Specifically, YPACK will develop a fully renewable flow pack film and a fully compostable tray.
The aim of the Deep Purple project is to recover valuable resources from mixed urban waste streams, namely wastewater, sewage sludge and the organic fraction of the municipal solid waste (OFMSW). The concept relies on a versatile, integrated, and flexible Multi-Platform Biorefinery, based on the metabolism of Purple Phototrophic Bacteria (PPB) to extract and recover high added-value compounds for the bio-based industry, including for the development of PHAs. Though Deep Purple does not manufacture any bioplastics, the project generates the organic raw materials needed for other companies to produce them with their innovative bio-based technology.
INGREEN is, among other topics, aiming to provide sustainable pilot-scale integrated biotechnological plants and protocols validated in industrial environments to produce safe biomasses enriched in PHA from papermill wastewater to be used as a promising alternative to conventional plastic for the packaging industry. As there is limited knowledge on the application of PHAs as polymer for packaging industry, INGREEN is exploring the sustainability of PHA-enriched biomasses as an alternative to conventional biodegradable plastic production. Additionally, for a safer environmental impact, INGREEN will aim to improve the downstream phase by reducing the use of toxic solvents to achieve a more economic and eco-friendly procedure to fully exploit the potential of papermill side streams for the sustainable production of well characterized PHA with a high purity grade.
The NEWPACK project provides different solutions for the food packaging industry based on sustainable and circular technology. These solutions include packaging film material based on biodegradable PHA materials with improved mechanical properties, owing to the addition of nanocellulose or nanochitin and the application of active coating. The cost of NEWPACK bioplastics is expected be able to compete with current fossil-based counterparts, mainly because of the reduced expenses of feedstock compared to constantly increasing oil prices. In addition, advanced chemical processes and reduced waste management charges will significantly contribute to a cheaper plastic material.
What kind of funding is available for PHA-based projects?
Adequate funding can not only accelerate the implementation of technologies such as PHA bioplastics, but it can be the difference between making them available to people in everyday life or not getting projects out of the lab.
Potential Horizon Europe Funding
As mentioned in our previous case study, Horizon Europe has succeeded Horizon 2020 as the next iteration of EU-backed funding targeted at developing sustainable tech ideas. While much of this funding is earmarked for technologies that help reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere, there is still a significant portion that is set aside for projects that help with sustainability in other ways. The Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking features calls for bioplastics and alternatives to traditional plastics. - For these calls, receiving funding is largely about showcasing the likelihood of producing a real-world, functional product that will help accelerate a move away from single-use plastics – a project that can demonstrate its ability to do this would at least be considered for funding.
National Government Funding
Several governments around the world, including a majority of European nations, are financing or looking to finance alternative plastic production, with national programs dedicated to helping these ideas grow out of the lab and into the real world. With such funding opportunities, it is important to examine national regulations for classifying plastics as “bio-based” or “biodegradable” as the criteria change between various countries, both within and outside of the EU.
What is needed to make PHA bioplastics more mainstream?
There are several actions and steps that can be taken to help PHA bioplastics become more mainstream. These include, but are not limited to:
Continuing to decrease costs for production and purchase of PHA bioplastics (fortunately, this already looks to be happening)
Buy-in from larger producers andcompanies
Scaled up and proven processes for production
Overcoming regulatory hurdles that still exist in nearly all jurisdictions, thanks in no small part to petrochemical lobbyists in many countries
PHA tech summary
Overall, the main takeaways from current PHA production are:
Great potential to become one of the most important sustainable technological advancements this decade;
High demand for this type of product; market is ready;
PHA products are already being created, but still lacking mainstream appeal;
Public perception is lacking; not as popular as it should be given PHA’s capabilities;
PHA uptake needs to occur soon to help the world move from the current trend of increasing single use plastic production, most of which is not able to be recycled and ends up in the ocean, where it is then detrimental to life at all levels of the food chain.
How to find out more about PHA bioplastic polymer technology
We at Linq Consulting hope that this informal case study on our third featured sustainable technology provided a valuable overview of a promising route to lessening the amount of single use plastics that are produced and end up in the environment. PHA products have the potential to play a large role in changing the current landscape of plastic generation – and increased uptake is not only possible, but urgently needed.
For further in-depth reading on PHA bioplastics, we recommend these resources:
PHA bioplastics a ‘tunable’ solution for convenience food packaging
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs): Biodegradable polymers for industrial applications
If you have any questions about PHA production technologies or any related subjects, contact us here. If you are currently developing a project that involves this or another type of sustainable technology and would like to discuss potential funding options, we can help you secure funding from a variety of sources.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org