The urgent plastic problem
We live in a time where our actions in the present largely determine our future. We have the potential to change, and we should hope it is not yet too late. It is one of the most exciting times to live in, but it also comes with a lot of responsibilities. We are facing various complex problems and pollution is just one of them. Are we able to reverse the tide?
Plastics are ubiquitous materials of our economy. In the past ten years, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s report, their use has increased twenty-fold and is also expected to double again in the next twenty years. The main obstacle we face in eliminating plastics from our industries is the non-stop fight for profit or, to be more precise: putting profit first. Unfortunately, manufacturers prioritize the unrivaled properties of plastics and the low cost of their production. However, we are soon about to cause irreversible changes in our ecosystems by polluting them and using our natural resources at an unacceptable speed.
The major problem is that 95% of plastic packaging value is actually lost after a short first-use cycle. Furthermore, 32% of our plastic actually escapes collection systems, ending up in our oceans and urban infrastructure. There has to be a drastic shift, especially regarding packaging plastics. Plastic packaging represents 26% of the total volume of plastics. As a result of the characteristics of plastics packaging, they are increasingly replacing other packaging materials. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of plastic packaging as a share of global packaging volumes has increased from 17% to 25% according to the previously mentioned report.
We must find a solution to implement the circular economy concept in the use of plastics, too. The circular economy of plastics should be based on six principles: rethink – refuse – reduce – reuse – recycle – replace. We need to use the human mind’s creativity to find ways that allow us to keep plastic materials but do not end up polluting our environment. Our plastic nanoparticles are now everywhere in the world surrounding and soon enough suffocating us: they can be found in groundwater, oceans, air, and the food we eat. Within the circularity framework, we need to find ways to reuse and recycle most of the plastic we use, hence, eliminating the restraint on our natural resources. Besides the importance of changing to a circular economy from our linear one, it is also imperative to do something about our existing plastics waste.
The drastic shift is necessary because the majority of plastics are actually never recovered. Worldwide, only about 9% of plastics are recycled; the rest ends up in a landfill or is incinerated. Many countries also lack the infrastructure for the proper collection and separation of plastics.
Polyethylene (PE) is the most commonly used plastic material, mass-produced for packaging our daily goods, as an example. However, only HDPE, which is a more durable and rigid material, can be easily recycled. Its counterpart, LDPE, which is a soft and flexible material, can hardly be recycled. Therefore, solutions for the recycling of all kinds of plastic would be a giant leap ahead.
Biotic eaters to save the world from plastic waste
Biotechnological methods are used in order to solve the plastic problem. Most of them are restricted to specific types of plastic only, namely polyesters. However, there is a notion of research addressing the need for strategies for a bio-based circular economy for plastics. One possible solution is to use enzymes or other biotechnological processes that use microorganisms to degrade plastics.
In the last years, researchers have identified 90 different organisms, microorganisms, and biomolecules that are here to help us break down long-chain polymers. The plastic-eaters are worms, fungi, and bacteria capable of degrading PE, which can then be reused for petrochemical products or other plastics. And here is where Beworm enters the picture.
The start-up Beworm was the idea of Eleonore Eisath, who is a highly ambitious industrial designer. The start-up had a solid base on several projects in university laboratories and grew into Eleonore’s dream about a solution to one of humanity’s biggest problems by eliminating plastic waste using a natural recycling system. Beworm uses bioagents to develop a biotic/biocatalytic recycling process in order to decompose the oil-based PE. Beworm started experimenting with waxworms and found that the key to decomposing plastic lies in the enzymes they produce in their systems. Beworm’s ambitious aim is to scale up the solution to provide efficient and resource-saving processes believing in a plastic waste-free future.
The technological process around plastic-eaters
Beworm describes the potential process to be one in which heterogeneous plastic waste is first shredded into smaller pieces and purified from non-plastic materials. Then, a non-biotic pretreatment is followed by the actual work of enzymes in a bioreactor. The products of the process are monomers that can be utilized further. The intermediates may be used as materials for producing bioplastics or even biofuels, waxes, and oils. Any plastic remaining during the process may be further processed. Relying on modern technologies can truly contribute to the end-of-use recycling of plastics. One of the best things regarding the idea is that these recycling systems will not require a lot of resources.
Beworm is not yet incorporated as it started its journey in 2020. The team achieved the Proof of Principle at the TUM Entrepreneurship Center. This year, they have obtained a second laboratory at the Innovation and Technology Center FACIT, where they identified some of the plastic-eaters. The four-person team’s goal is to raise research funding and hire full-time bioneers. They have already partnered with several institutions as well as the Technical University of Munich for their brilliant aims. The goal of the team is to emphasize the capabilities of biotic recycling systems. They may be slow, but they are one of the most efficient to save us from plastic pollution. Currently, they are partnered with Greentech Alliance.
Beworm’s biotechnological solution is in line with the concept of circularity in the plastic industry because it prevents plastic pollution and uses the outcome of the process as raw material for petrochemical products, which essentially also saves fossil fuels. Assuming that such technologies are successful and adequately scaled up, they can speed up the degradation of PE in polluted environments, and they can help us keep materials in the system.
The root-cause solution to plastic leakage should be a creative solution for an effective after-use plastic economy. The value of after-use plastic packaging needs to increase, hence, we can embark on a transition to fossil fuel-independent plastic production, which, alongside the promise of a plastic waste-free future, will contribute to a low-carbon manufacturing process.