Tick-tick-tick…This Plastic Will Self-Destruct

September 25, 2016 |

bd-ts-092616-plastic-smThey called it Mission Impossible. Create a means to biodegrade any plastic out there that needs to decompose in the environment after use. Find little microbes that can break the material into something that ordinary microbes found widely in the environment can use.

After all, soil microbes would love to eat plastic if they could. Any source of carbon and the energy in all those lovely carbon-hydrogen bonds. For you, plastic is a nuisance. For our microbial friends in the soil, it is like salt water — present everywhere and yet you can’t ingest it.

But, looks like we have the critical breakthrough that takes this idea out of the realm of dreams and into everyday industrial production.

In France, word arrives that CARBIOS, Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients (LCI) and BpiFrance (SPI) have launched their JV, known as CARBIOLICE, which will produce a new generation of plastics with enzymes embedded in them to catalyze safe biodegradation in the environment after use.

After use, enzymes degrade the plastic into base-molecules that can be assimilated by the micro-organisms of the environment. Biodegradation is complete within a few months (compared to 200 to 400 years for an ordinary plastic).

According to the partners, during the product life there’s no change in the performance of the material during its life. It simply gets chewed up by the environment later on.

It’s a drop-in material. No change required, that is, at plastic-production facilities.

The background on biodegradability

To date, only a handful of plastics have been biodegradable. Take for example, PHA. But no one plastic fits all performance requirements. Some plastics are hard, some soft, for example. Some more brittle than others. Some do better under conditions of high or low temperatures.

So, the pursuit of biodegradability has been tough.

Along comes the idea of embedding enzymes

Embedding has been a powerful technological technique in recent years.

Elsewhere in agriculture, we’ve seen the success of Syngenta’s Enogen corn. This has enzymes embedded in the corn to accelerate the bioconversion to ethanol, corn oil and distillers grains: enzymes are embedded in the seed and they grow up with the plant itself, and come in to conversion facility with the corn. Remarkable idea, which has proven to be a big success in the US Midwest.

In this one, the enzymes are embedded in an inorganic material — plastiic — so they won’t be growing up with the bag, but rather are inserted during production. When the plastic is disposed of, they begin their magic. Their mission, to break up plastic into degrade polymers in materials that can be assimilated by microorganisms found in nature

And, to be able to trigger and control the process.

What it replaces

As CARBIOS notes, “the “natural” process of degradation for fossil hard plastic matter takes between 200 and 400 years. At best, plastic waste is incinerated, even buried in landfills in certain countries with all the environmental consequences that it implies.”

Target markets and market size

The markets are obvious, large and could be relatively immediate. First: flexible films — think mulch films, bags and sacks, and industrial films. Then, rigid plastics used in agriculture and for disposable tableware. To give you a sense of what’s out there, consider plastic bags and soft packaging. Global consumption represented 15 to 20 million tons in 2012.

The financial arrangements

First, CARBIOS is licensing its technology to CARBOLICE, unsuprisingly. The deal includes an €8M upfront payment to CARBIOS, receivables converted into shares of the joint venture, and royalties on sales. CARBIOS will also support the JV with fee-based R&D support over a five-year period.

In addition to the transfer of assets from LCI and the licensing from CARBIOS, the three partners of the project will invest 18 million euros to be released in three phases over four years and upon completion of technical and commercial objectives. The first round of financing, to the order of four million euros, will be distributed at the start of operations. CARBIOLICE will operate CARBIOS’ patented enzymatic biodegradation technology by producing enzymated pellets to be used for the production of a new generation of bio-sourced and biodegradable plastics.

Reaction from CARBIOS

Well, CARBIOS say they’re pleased. That’s PR-speak for “over the moon” Jean-Claude Lumaret, CEO of CARBIOS, added, “This operation confirms CARBIOS’ capacity to bring a 100% French innovation to an industrial stage in less than five years and offer a concrete solution to a major environmental and regulatory issue: create zero-waste plastics.”

The CARBIOS backstory

The company started up in 2011, and first registered on the dealmaking Richter scale three years ago this past spring when they signed a €7M strategic collaboration with INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, for the development of innovative bioprocesses for recovering plastic waste and producing biopolymers. The five-year agreement aimed to develop effective biobased industrial processes that add value to plastic waste.

More to come?

Over the summer, we noted that they announced a lab-scale, pre-pilot breakthrough in creating a one-step production process for PLA (polylactic acid). As they note “On an industrial scale, current processes for the production of PLA require an expensive intermediary step, consisting of the condensation of lactic acid into a lactid. This intermediary component must then be purified and chemically polymerized to obtain PLA.”

The market there? They add, “Among bio-sourced polymers, PLA is currently one of the most promising on the market due to its remarkable properties, which satisfies a large range of applications. Global demand is 190,000 tons per year and expected to rise to 400,000 tons per year by 2020.

That same tech could lead to a new process for  PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). That’s a small market today but expected to grow at a 28% rate annually.


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