Carbios Clearing the Bottleneck – Enzymatic recycling tech hits 90% depolymerization in 10 hours

April 12, 2020 |

As many stay home doing their part to flatten the curve, people will be singing the annoyingly popular “99 bottles” song but with a new twist:

“99 bottles of pop on the wall, 99 bottles of pop…you take one down, you run it through Carbios’s tech, still 99 bottles of pop on the wall.”

News arrived from France that Carbios has made quite a leap forward on breaking down and recycling plastic bottles thanks to their enzymatic recycling technology leading the way to recycle plastic bottles not into clothing or carpet, but into, well, plastic bottles.

Carbios’s development of a novel enzyme, which can biologically depolymerize all polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic waste, followed by an extremely efficient recycling into new bottles is what it’s all about.

By leveraging many years of experience with a world-renowned team, Carbios and TBI are proud to have been able to increase the degradation yield of PET waste to 90% in 10 hours, a significant upswing from the initial degradation yield of 1% after several weeks. This paradigm shift in how effectively PET can be recycled, is leading toward a future circular economy technology applicable to all PET waste, which Carbios is proud to be spearheading.

The Digest first reported back in April 2013 that Carbios signed a €7 million strategic collaboration with INRA – the French National Institute for Agricultural Research at the Toulouse White Biotechnology research center – and now it seems that work has come full circle.

Why Is This So Important?

It’s evident that plastic bottles are a problem and have been for a long time, and with an estimated 359 million tons of plastics produced annually worldwide, 150–200 million tons accumulate in landfill or in the natural environment. That’s a lot of plastic floating around the ocean and waterways too.

Polyethylene terephthalate (otherwise known as PET) is the most abundant polyester plastic, with almost 70 million tons manufactured annually worldwide, according to Carbios. PET is the most common thermoplastic polymer and is used to manufacture bottles, polyester clothing fibers, food containers, and various thermoformed packaging and components.

Sure, but we can recycle that PET right?

Well, yes, but the “main recycling process for PET, via thermomechanical means, results in a loss of mechanical properties,” which means it often is recycled into other things like clothing or carpets, but not back into PET bottles. “Consequently, de novo synthesis is preferred and PET waste continues to accumulate. With a high ratio of aromatic terephthalate units—which reduce chain mobility—PET is a polyester that is extremely difficult to hydrolyse,” according to Carbios. “Several PET hydrolase enzymes have been reported, but show limited productivity.”

However, Carbios’ recycling process, the first of its kind, initiates a real transition to a circular economy and can better prevent plastic pollution from harming our oceans and planet. This innovative technology also paves the way for recycling PET fibers, another major challenge in guaranteeing a clean and protected environment for future generations.

Speaking of trying to change the world, their commitment to changing the lifecycle of plastic polymers is obvious. Carbios signed the European Plastics Pact back in March. This pact forms a European network of companies, states and nongovernmental organizations that want to join forces to create a true circular economy of plastics that enables all market players to meet, or even exceed, the plastic recycling targets set by the European Union. This public-private coalition will work, on all levels, to improve the recyclability and reusability of products by incorporating more recycled materials into new products and packaging.

The Science Behind the Carbios Way

Ok, so there isn’t really a great way to turn those plastic bottles into plastic bottles, but that’s where Carbios’s latest advance comes into play. Let’s get into the details like how their “improved PET hydrolase ultimately achieves, over 10 hours, a minimum of 90 per cent PET depolymerization into monomers, with a productivity of 16.7 grams of terephthalate per litre per hour (200 grams per kilogram of PET suspension, with an enzyme concentration of 3 milligrams per gram of PET).”

“This highly efficient, optimized enzyme outperforms all PET hydrolases reported so far, including an enzyme from the bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis strain 201-F6 (even assisted by a secondary enzyme) and related improved variants that have attracted recent interest. We also show that biologically recycled PET exhibiting the same properties as petrochemical PET can be produced from enzymatically depolymerized PET waste, before being processed into bottles, thereby contributing towards the concept of a circular PET economy.”

Alain Marty, Carbios’ Chief Scientific Officer, told The Digest in an exclusive interview, “In a nutshell, we have optimized a natural enzyme to make it extremely efficient to depolymerize PET (90% depolymerization in 10 hours from 200g/kg post-consumer PET waste in 1 cubic reactor). This is a 98 factor improvement compared to the best enzyme described so far in a scientific journal.”

You can find more details in the scientific journal Nature article here.

Reactions from the Stakeholders

Prof. Alain Marty, Carbios’ Chief Scientific Officer and co-author of the Nature article says: “I am very proud that Nature, one of the most highly respected scientific journals in the world, has validated the quality of the research led by Carbios and TBI laboratory scientists in developing a PET recycling enzyme and a revolutionary process. The results obtained confirm the industrial and commercial potential of the Company’s proprietary process, which will be tested in 2021 in our demonstration plant in the heart of the French Chemical Valley, near Lyon.”

Sophie Duquesne, INRAE Researcher: “For any researcher, seeing its work recognized by the prestigious journal Nature is a true achievement. I am very proud of the work accomplished by the researchers at TBI and Carbios, whose collaborative efforts have led to the development of a sustainable solution to the end of life of plastics.”

Dr. Saleh Jabarin, Distinguished Professor at The University of Toledo, Ohio and a member of Carbios’ Scientific Committee: “It’s a real breakthrough in the recycling and manufacturing of PET. Thanks to the innovative technology developed by Carbios, the PET industry will become truly circular, which is the goal for all players in this industry, especially brand-owners, PET producers and our civilization as a whole.”

Bertrand Piccard, Founder and President of the Solar Impulse Foundation: “I am very pleased that the scientific community recognizes one of the solutions labelled by the Solar Impulse Foundation as a financially profitable solution to protect the environment. The use of such technology is as logical as it is ecological!”

Carbios is the first company to successfully combine the two scientific worlds of enzymology and plastics”, as Dr. Philippe Pouletty, CEO of Truffle Capital and Co-founder of Carbios, comments.

What the Future Holds

While Carbios couldn’t give details on who or what PET producer they are working with to get this technology into the marketplace, Marty told The Digest in an exclusive interview, “We plan to license our technology in 2022-2023 so that our 1st licensee, very likely a PET producer, will start-up his plant by 2024-2025.”

The plan is to “license units where PET is produced and consumed, i.e. everywhere (Europe, Asia, Americas),” and the more long-term goal is “to have several million metric tons of capacity installed, compared to a current worldwide production of PET of 70 million tons annually,” according to Marty.

Bottom Line

All around great news coming from Carbios and even the current COVID-19 pandemic isn’t stopping them. When asked if the coronavirus is affecting their research, projects, future plans, if adjustments need to be made because of it, Marty told The Digest, “So far, not a big impact. Our employees are safe.” And that is what matters most right now.

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