A University College Dublin research team recently patented a process to produce biodegradable plastic from plastic bottles, and that patent has led to the formation of a company, Bioplastech Ltd., to develop, process and market the technology.
Dr. Kevin O’Connor, founder and CEO of Bioplastech, led the team and the biodegradable plastic they produce is called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA).
The Ireland-based Bioplastech converts waste, agricultural byproducts and petrochemical products into PHA, a linear polyester produced by bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids that can store carbon and energy.
The company, which was formed last year and employs 10 people, is also looking at waste food oils and biodiesel.
But the main driver behind Bioplastech is its waste plastic process and O’Connor told the Cleantech Group this month that the company intends to test the technology on a larger level.
“There’s a growing need to deal with plastic wastes,” he told Cleantech, describing how when oil prices dropped, the plastics recycling industry collapsed. “Waste plastic is something people are willing to pay to get rid of. That has a certain business advantage,” he added.
After screening 400 types of microorganisms, the UCD scientists identified three types of bacteria that have the potential to reduce plastic waste and ensure the new plastic produced can eventually be disposed of without causing any environmental damage. The bacteria that are used in the process are common in Irish soil and can be grown quickly under laboratory conditions.
Most plastics that are manufactured from petroleum products end up as waste in landfills where they will never decay. In the US alone, the petrochemical plastics market is worth $300 billion (€215 billion) a year and it is expected that bioplastics could eventually reach 20-25 percent of the EU and US petrochemical markets, according to the university. Some 70 million plastic bottles are managed in Ireland every year, but the vast majority of that plastic ends up in landfills.
Enterprise Ireland is supporting Bioplastech in commercializing O’Connor’s research by providing Proof of Concept funding to look at the conversion of polystyrene to bioplastic and to examine fermentation modeling to investigate the scalability of the process.
An investment opportunity? Cleantech Group sure thinks so. Besides, it’s a big opportunity to get serious about turning waste into something useful, rather than burying it.