As the world seeks new and innovative ways to deal with the plastic problem, a “biorecycling” factory in France has created a process that lets any plastic be recycled into any other plastic. This could change the market for recycling and help increase the volume of plastic that’s recycled.
The France-based startup Carbios developed a process through which PET plastic waste is mixed with water and enzymes, heated up, and churned. The enzymes decompose the plastic into the material’s basic building blocks, which can then be separated, purified, and used to make new plastic.
Unlike traditional recycling, which degrades materials each time you do it, this type of “biorecycling” can happen repeatedly without a loss in quality. “Our process can use any kind of PET waste to manufacture any kind of PET object,” said Martin Stephan, the company’s deputy CEO.
By working with different types of waste, the company believes that it can help increase the volume of plastic that’s recycled. That’s critical for keeping plastic out of the environment, and it’s also key at a time when manufacturers have new goals to ramp up their use of recycled packaging.
For example, Nestlé plans to use 50% recycled plastic in its packaging in the U.S. by 2025. Earlier this year, Nestlé, along with PepsiCo and Suntory Food and Beverages, joined a consortium with L’Oreal and Carbios to help the recycling technology get to market more quickly.
“They need more recycled materials . . . and they know that reaching those goals is impossible with the existing technologies,” Stephan told Fast Company. “It’s not enough. You don’t have enough volume, and you don’t have enough quality. We will bring volumes by recycling material waste, which today is not recycled because they have low or no value.”
According to Stephan, around one million metric tons of PET food containers go on the market in Europe each year. But the recycling rate is close to zero, both because the trays are contaminated with food and because the structure of the plastic means that it can’t easily be recycled into the form used to make plastic bottles.
But the new process would make it economically viable for recyclers to work with that waste. There’s still a challenge of getting consumers to recycle in the first place. If they better understand that there’s value in the material, recycling rates might increase, Stephan argued.
Carbios developed the technology by starting at a landfill. It put pieces of plastic near the landfill, then studied the biology of the soil in places where the plastic had partially degraded over time. In the soil, some microorganisms were evolving to use enzymes to break down plastic.
Several startups are also working on a new generation of recycling technology, but Carbios says that there are some advantages to using biology rather than chemical recycling. The process uses lower temperatures than another new tech, saving energy. It doesn’t use solvents. And it can accept a wider range of waste.
Earlier this year, the company demonstrated that it could make a 100% recycled plastic bottle using the new process. The ground will break on the company’s first demonstration plant this year, which is expects to open in 2021. It plans to license the tech to PET producers, which can plug it into their existing plants that make plastic from oil.