At a company cafeteria that Sodexo Canada Ltd. runs for a Toronto-based corporate client, food waste that used to be hauled away to a municipal waste management facility is now sent to a lab that turns the waste into fully biodegradable and recyclable plastic pellets.
The plan is to mould these pellets into products such as food containers and disposable cutlery that Burlington, Ont.-based Sodexo can use in its cafeteria and other food service operations.
“It’s all about creating a circular economy,” says Luna Yu, CEO at Genecis Bioindustries Inc., the Toronto company that’s harnessing the principles of biology to turn food waste into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) – a class of bioplastics produced by microorganisms. “Sodexo’s vision is to use our technology to get rid of their food waste by turning it into sustainable bioplastic products that they can then use in their business.”
How would lunchtime leftovers end up us as environmentally friendly forks and food containers? Ms. Yu describes this biological alchemy as a two-stage process that involves two groups of bacteria. The first group eats all the organic waste and breaks them down into small carbons. The second group eats the carbon and makes PHAs out of their own cells.
PHAs have been around for years, says Ms. Yu. But because they’re made largely with sugars derived from sugar cane or corn, they’re expensive to produce and typically command prices that are about four times that of regular plastics.
By using food waste as carbon source, Genecis has reduced the cost of making PHAs by as much as 40 per cent, says Ms. Yu. Unlike other bioplastics, the PHAs produced at Genecis can go into any existing waste stream, she adds.
“If you put them in organic waste composting facilities, they will break down in a matter of weeks; and if they end up in landfill, they will biodegrade in a couple of months,” she explains. “In recycling facilities, our PHAs can be reblended and combined with petroleum plastics – something you can’t do with a lot of other bioplastics.”
After an initial pilot project that processed about 80 kilograms of food waste each week from Sodexo, Genecis is now advancing to the next stage with almost 500 kilograms of organic waste per week from its partner.
“We will be moving 300 kilograms of food waste from another client’s cafeteria to Genecis, in addition to the 80 kilograms a week that we have been diverting there for the past eight months,” says Meaghan Beck, manager of corporate responsibility at Sodexo Canada, part of Sodexo Group, a global company headquartered in Issy les Moulineaux, France. “We are also introducing Genecis to our suppliers so we can support their sale of PHAs as part of our search for a circular solution for our business.”
Such a solution has become critical given the amount of food that ends up in landfill. In Ontario alone, an estimated 2.3 million tonnes of food and organic waste was sent to disposal in 2015. When food waste breaks down, it creates a greenhouse gas called methane.
“One of the key reasons we started the company was because we saw most organic waste today going to landfills, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases,” says Ms. Yu. “What we’re doing is making something of high value from low-value organic waste.”
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