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Genecis Bioindustries contributes to a greener economy by making PHAs a feasible alternative to conventional plastics

'We program bacteria to convert low-value waste into high-value materials,' says Luna Yu ,CEO and founder of Genecis Bioindustries Inc. in Toronto.University of Toronto

Soon your table scraps could turn from trash to plastic bottles, medical equipment or 3D-printing filament. One Canadian small business is using clean technology to turn carbon-packed food waste into biodegradable plastic.

Founded in 2016, Genecis Bioindustries Inc. is a biotechnology company that uses “recipes of bacteria” to turn food waste into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), a high-quality bioplastic.

Manufacturers can use bioplastic – which includes bio-based and biodegradable plastic – to create everything from sustainable single-use foodware and packaging to 3D-printing filaments, the moldable plastic needed for the printing process.

“We program bacteria to convert low-value waste into high-value materials,” said CEO and founder Luna Yu, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Scarborough in the Master of Environmental Science program.

Genecis hopes to cash in on emerging markets and a global shift toward a greener economy. Two years ago, Ms. Yu and her team collected micro-organisms from around the world, including Guatemala and Costa Rica, to isolate 200 new bacteria species that don’t exist in other databases.

The bacteria create PHA through a two-step process. First, bacteria break down food waste into small carbon building blocks. Afterward, PHA-assembling bacteria eat the carbon and store bioplastic granules in their cells before it’s chemically extracted.

“Our business model is to work directly with waste-management companies,” Ms. Yu said. “From Day One, we had to have super robust bacteria.”

Genecis is one of few PHA-bioplastic companies using pre- and post-consumer food waste. In Canada, other PHA manufacturers, such as TerraVerdae BioWorks and PolyFerm Canada, use feedstocks like methanol, sugar and oil. By using food waste, Genecis can reduce the production cost of its PHA pellets by 40 per cent compared with other manufacturers.

Bacteria create PHA through a two-step process. First, bacteria break down food waste into small carbon building blocks. Afterward, PHA-assembling bacteria eat the carbon and store bioplastic granules in their cells before it’s chemically extracted.University of Toronto

And investors are interested. To date, Genecis has raised approximately $870,000 – $280,000 during its first round of seed funding and $590,000 from grants and pitch competitions. The company plans to scale up its production line at the University of Toronto’s Banting and Best Centre by December to process 300 kilograms of food waste per week, up from 80.

From there, the company will also raise a second round of seed funding to fund the construction of a demonstration plant next year, upping its capacity. The goal is to prove Genecis’s technology on an industrial scale, Ms. Yu said.

“We’re definitely going after the higher-end markets like thermo-resistant packaging and 3D-printing filaments,” she said. To help Genecis grow, the company is looking to expand its full-time employees from eight to 11, hiring two candidates with experience in genetic engineering and molecular biology and another in artificial intelligence.

But it can be a long, hard road to bring a new polymer, such as PHA, to the market, according to Marifaith Hackett, director, specialty chemicals research at IHS Markit, who works in Northern California.

“When you look at the history of NatureWorks and PLA, another biodegradable polymer, it took at least 20 years to build a good commercial volume,” Ms. Hackett said.

NatureWorks in Minnesota is the world’s largest manufacturer of polylactic acid (PLA), one of the most common bioplastics. It’s clear in colour made from corn or dextrose while PHA is made by micro-organisms and biodegrades more easily. In the past, manufacturing cost limited commercial interest in both materials but especially PHA. Close to a decade ago, PLA cost manufacturers about 20 per cent more to use than petroleum-based plastic and PHA was more than double the price.

Now advancements in both cost and performance are making bioplastics an increasingly feasible alternative to conventional plastics, and demand is expected to grow worldwide. While the current market value of biodegradable plastics exceeds $1.1- billion in 2018, it could reach $1.7-billion by 2023, according to a report by IHS Markit, a London-based consulting firm.

Internationally, demand is being driven by both changing regulations and consumer expectations about sustainability, especially in the foodware and compostable bag industries.

The team at Genecis Bioindustries Inc. The company is looking to expand its full-time employees from eight to 11, hiring two candidates with experience in genetic engineering and molecular biology and another in artificial intelligence.University of Toronto

“Regulations are really an important driver, but it is very dependent on the wording of those regulations,” Ms. Hackett said. She pointed to countries such as France and Italy, where plastic-bag bans that specifically exempted biodegradable bags led to a significant increase in the consumption of bioplastic polymers.

Western Europe, with the world’s most strict use regulations for single-use plastics, holds 55 per cent of the global market value in 2018 for biodegradable polymers, and it’s likely growing. Last week, a European Parliament committee approved draft plans to ban a number of single-use plastic products in the EU from 2021.

Genecis believes PHAs have the greatest market potential due to the bioplastic’s biodegradability, biocompatibility and versatility. One of their advantages is that they can be disposed of in any waste stream without causing problems, unlike PLAs, which can contaminate recycling.

“There have been some big investments in looking at PHAs as a solution to the microbead problem,” said Catherine Joce, sustainability and circular economy lead at Cambridge Consultants, a British firm. “PHA is one of the only bioplastics that will degrade quickly in the marine environment.”

Ms. Joce also points to PHAs’ adaptability. The medical industry is looking at PHA bioplastics to develop devices and tools, such as internal sutures, because the plastic breaks down naturally in the body.

“What is particularly exciting about PHA is that it has this very, very wide range of properties,” Ms. Joce said. “By changing the bacteria or feedstock, you can produce quite different materials with quite different properties, so that means you’ve got the ability to tailor the properties to the application.”

Carving out a larger piece of the global plastics market won’t be easy. Bioplastics currently account for 1 per cent of the about 320 million tonnes of plastic produced annually, and manufacturers have to compete with conventional plastic production, a remarkably inexpensive process scaled over the past 60 years by the oil industry.

But the company has advantages, Ms. Yu said. In addition to competitive prices for its PHA pellets, Genecis plans to open an office in China and explore licensing its technology to countries around the world after its demonstration plant is complete.

In the future, Ms. Yu also wants to move Genecis into other markets beyond bioplastics. Using synthetic biology, she plans to convert food waste into other high-value chemicals that are traditionally difficult to make, such as ambroxide, a rare chemical found in the stomach of sperm whales. The powder is valued at approximately $200 per kilogram.

“In the scientific world, you will find an astonishing array of things people are suggesting that you could do with PHAs, from denitrification in water treatment plants to oil spill remediation to making adhesives and more,” Ms. Joce said.

How it works

Genecis transforms food waste into bioplastic using two different “recipes” of bacteria collected from around the world.

First, Genecis pre-treats the food waste with heat and acid and runs it through a mechanical grinder to break it down. Next, it’s moved to large vats called bioreactors where thousands of bacteria species work together to turn kitchen scraps and other mixed organic waste into small carbon building blocks.

During a second phase, the carbon is fed to PHA-producing bacteria, which eat it and store reserves of bioplastic granules within their cells. The bacteria store PHA like fat to use later as a natural energy reserve, but once the bacteria is full of bioplastic, Genecis harvests the granules by freeze-drying the bacteria in large batches. This breaks the cells open, allowing the company to extract the granules and manufacture them into bioplastic pellets. Plastic manufacturers can purchase the pellets to make everything from biodegradable bags and packaging to durable products, such as dashboard components in a car.

Right now, Genecis’s conversion rate is 2 per cent – roughly 45 tonnes of food waste produces one tonne of PHA plastic. While Genecis is focused on PHAs, in 2019 the company will explore using synthetic biology to create new bacteria and produce other high-value materials beyond bioplastic.

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