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“PlastBug” Technology to Digest and Convert Marine Plastic

A sea turtle found in the Pacific Ocean had this debris in its stomach, according to The Ocean Cleanup Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.

It doesn’t sound appetizing, but the name makes sense — VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is working on a project called PlastBug that aims to solve the global plastic waste problem in marine environments. The objective is to design a mobile container unit that uses microbes to remove, digest and convert plastic waste from ocean areas in order to create a safe living environment.

“Our idea is to design a mobile container where microbes degrade plastic waste to valuable products like fuels or chemicals,” says Kari Koivuranta, Principal Scientist at VTT.

The aim is to develop a small, container-based factory that can be placed in an area where centralized plastic waste collecting or recycling is not possible or feasible. The container can be located on a beach or ship. The factory unit would get most the energy needed for the process from solar energy and wind power.

This year researchers in the PlastBug project are qualifying microbes that are capable of degrading different kind of plastics (PE, PP, PS or PET) and are developing methods for the pre-treatment of plastics. Researchers are currently using a three-stage screening method to screen microbes from different sources.

“Some microbes have already passed through the first two stages of the screening. In the third stage, we will confirm are they capable to consume and digest plastic. In the next step, if plastic degrading microbes are found, we will improve the ability of the most effective microbes to digest plastic, and we will develop plastic pre-treatment methods further to ease the work of the microbes,” says Koivuranta.

A complete process is being engineered around the fermenting unit containing microbes – a small plant in which plastic is modified from waste to products. The aim is that the pilot unit will operate on the Baltic Sea in 2021, but funding still needs to be secured for the realisation of this plan.

If the process can be made to work effectively enough, the PlastBug units will progress to commercial production and operate in different locations around the world.

The Plastbug team took second place in the Meriroska (Marine Litter) Challenge arranged by the Finnish Environment Agency in August.

This annual project is part of VTT’s iBEX program, which aims to achieve rapid, bold solutions to problems.

About Tom Breunig (114 Articles)
Tom Breunig is principal at Cleantech Concepts, a market research firm tracking R&D projects in the cleantech sector. He is a technology industry veteran and former international marketing and communications executive who has worked with organizations in semiconductor design, water monitoring, energy efficiency and environmental sensing. He has spoken at numerous technology and energy conferences.
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