Waste: a growing problem and opportunity
As the world’s population grows to 8.5 billion by 2030 and urban centers become denser, processing waste is going to be one of our largest environmental challenges. In particular, plastics threaten our ecosystems. Plastics only break down into microparticles that are often taken for food sources by wildlife, especially in the oceans. In addition, millions of barrels of oil are used to manufacture plastic products each year, contributing significantly to climate change.
Already, forward-looking cities and countries have begun to ban pervasive plastic products in an effort to jumpstart a more circular economy. Taiwan, Rwanda, France, and some US states have banned plastic bags, with France going a step farther by banning non-biodegradable plastic plates and cutlery by 2020. China has banned shipments of recyclables including plastics because they contain too many dirty and hazardous materials, sending US recycling companies into a frantic search for alternative destinations and solutions.
At the same time much of our food and organic waste winds up in landfills, taking up millions of cubic feet of space alongside non-biodegradables rather than being composted or used as animal feed. While several major cities in the US have begun composting, no such program or large-scale composting facilities exists for most towns.
Food waste to bioplastic: a circular solution
A young company in Israel has developed a solution that addresses both of these parts of the waste stream. 3PLW, founded in 2015 and located in Netanya, is an R&D biotech company that has developed a biochemical process for converting food waste to feedstock for biodegradable plastics. We caught up with them at Cleantech Forum 2018 in San Francisco.
3PLW’s proprietary process uses bacteria and water to break down raw organic waste. After the waste is shredded, the company uses fermentation to create a “broth” that is ready for a separation process and product recovery. The separation of solids and liquids yields the building blocks for polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable bioplastic. The company claims the technique generates five times more revenue for customers compared to conventional anaerobic digestion and that they have cut the cost of bioplastic production by 20 percent compared with existing technologies, enabling greater productivity and easier commercialization.
The two co-founders, CEO Amir Oranim and CTO Tal Shapira, say that finding the right solution has not been easy. They were initially spurred by what they saw as the high cost and environmental impact of diverting major crop-sourced feedstocks from the food market to create bioplastics. Their initial effort focused on creating bioplastics from cheaper wheat straw, which proved unsuccessful, and continued to look for a solution that could offer profitability.
They finally hit upon polylactic acid derived from food waste, which with their novel genetically modified bacteria could remove impurities to enable easier and cost-effective conversion to PLA bioplastic. They established a molecular biology lab and successfully perfected the technique. Oranim and Shapira humorously described efforts to procure food waste from restaurants, looking back on the “stinky” part of the company’s evolution where, as graduate degree holders, they ran around with shopping carts to the restaurant quarter to collect food waste. “The restaurants were happy to provide us with the waste,” they chuckled.
In 2017 they shifted the company focus to become a full end-to-end process company that can set up a full installation at the customer site. Food waste is now 100 percent of the feedstock, from residential, industrial and commercial sources. The benefit for their customers is transitioning away from food crops as a source, and the price reduction of bioplastic. They do require scale to be economical — the technology is not for small farms or supermarkets. An installation of a minimum of 350 tons per day would be profitable for them and achieve a respectable ROI for the customer. Their targets include such entities as a large supermarket chain logistics center where rejected food and produce from multiple stores are sent, as well as municipalities and major food processing companies.
3PLW’s goal for 2018 is to scale up to commercial pilot level now that they have proved themselves at the micro-pilot level. They have secured pilot partners in Belgium and as well as another EU company where they expect to produce up to 2000 tons of PLA bioplastic per year. They are able to tailor the process to a customer’s needs based on waste feedstock and other requirements. They also intend to create a process to recycle the polylactic acid after use.
Oranim and Shapira say it’s timely technology, driven by the confluence of bioplastics needs, engineering advances and the circular economy. They cite Brussels as an example of a target municipality, where sorting of household waste has been in effect since 2010 and residents face a hefty fine for failing to comply. Sorted waste is the most appropriate feedstock for 3PLW’s process.