Our Plastics Glut Is An Environmental Nightmare — And An $80 Billion Opportunity

By Mike Montgomery

It’s no secret that plastic waste poses a huge threat to our environment, from overflowing landfills to the ever-growing ocean gyres. Designed to last, plastic can take thousands of years to break down. In the meantime, it’s damaging fragile ecosystems and affecting the food chain from the ocean floor right onto the dinner table.

Timothy Hoellein, a biologist at Loyola University Chicago, tracks plastic waste in the Great Lakes and its tributaries. He’s found plastic in the water, sediment and wildlife in and around the lakes. One of his more disturbing recent discoveries: Lethal human gut bacteria is somehow surviving the wastewater treatment process and reemerging in freshwater by attaching itself to plastic waste. “It should be (killed) in the treatment process,” Hoellein said. “But something about the plastic allows it to survive. We don’t know why that is. It’s worrying.”

Problems around plastic are getting worse because we have an innovation gap between the amount of plastic we use and an economical way to dispose of it. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s “The New Plastics Economy” report estimates the innovation gap translates to an untapped $80 billion to $120 billion annual market where entrepreneurs are needed to come up with new ways to design, dispose of and recycle plastic. As our use of plastics expands exponentially, this market is only going to get bigger.

Geoffrey Coates from Cornell University and his team of scientists are innovating in this sector. Along with a group from the University of Minnesota, the team has developed a plastic additive that will make recycling plastic easier and cheaper, and may even help create a plastic “alloy” that is lighter and stronger than its components.

Coates comes to the project with one success already under his belt. Ford Motor Co. announced last year that by 2021 it would make most of its car seats using a carbon dioxide-based plastic produced by Coates’ startup, Novomer. The easily recycled polymer is created by capturing and converting factory emissions. But, even if every car seat worldwide were made with the CO2 polymer, that would account for only a small fraction of the plastic used every year. So Coates went back to the drawing board to develop something that would make recycling all the other plastic easier.

“Basically, we’re taking what could be gasoline, making a plastic instead, and then you’re actually paying to get rid of it,” says Coates. “If you’re going to make sustainability work, it has to be economically viable.”

The main problem is that during recycling, the polymers used to make different kinds of plastic must be melted separately. A gallon milk jug created using a mixture of melted plastics — say, grocery bags (polyethylene) and take-out containers (polypropylene) — will be extremely brittle. “Pick it up and the handle is going to fall off,” says Coates.

So plastics have to be sorted by machine and by hand at the nation’s 500 or so recycling centers. But, sorting plastic waste streams isn’t easy or profitable. The result: Only a tiny fraction of recycled plastic polymers is remade into a product that has a similar value to that of the original.

Coates and his entire team looked at the problem and saw an opportunity. Using a grant from the National Science Foundation, they developed a “special sauce” that can be added to melted plastic blends. The additive, in small amounts, forces the different polymers to hang onto each other, creating an end product with good mechanical properties.

Another group building a new business in this space is BioCellection in California. Co-founders Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao are working to change mixed and unrecyclable plastic polymers into useful — and pricey — biological products, using specially cultured bacteria.

Wang and her partner want to make used plastic too costly to throw away. “Plastics are made from fossil fuels,” Wang said. “We change the chemistry and turn it into useful things. We don’t recycle, we upcycle.” She estimates the proprietary process used by BioCellection generates 104 times more value than recycling.

The first step is using a novel chemical process, which the team is developing in partnership with Arizona State University, to turn mixed plastic waste into organic salts. Then, engineered BioCellection bacteria go to work, consuming the carbon from the salts and producing valuable lipids.

The lipids produced by the bacteria can be used in a multitude of ways, including replacing harmful chemicals now used to make textiles. That makes the end product more valuable than the original plastic polymer. Mixed or contaminated plastics aren’t a problem for the BioCellection bacteria either.

One of the best things about BioCellection is how fast it works — 12 times faster than food turns into compost. It’s also relatively cheap. Wang estimates it will cost less than half what recycling centers spend sending unrecyclable plastic to the landfill each year.

Next year, Wang’s team plans to build a desktop version of a machine that eventually will be the size of your average bedroom. The machines will be placed at recycling centers or anywhere there’s a large accumulation of plastic trash. They hope to have a pilot project running by 2019, with a full launch in 2020.

“Today, recycling centers are producing up to 200 tons of material a day that isn’t recoverable — and that’s just stuff that goes into the ‘recycle’ bin,” says Wang. “We’re reinventing that material so plastic pollution turns into valuable raw materials.”

This piece was originally published on Forbes.