Manufacturers are putting more pressure on their supply chains to clear their materials of carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. In a new wrinkle, some manufacturers are not waiting around for their suppliers to act. They are investing in new research that can have a positive impact far beyond their own needs.
The latest demonstration of this willingness to invest in change comes from L’Oreal.
In the context of public awareness regarding the ocean plastic pollution crisis, in 2017 L’Oreal formed a research consortium with another France-based company, the bioindustry research firm Carbios. The collaboration aimed at fast-tracking Carbios’s experimental recycling process and pushing it up to industrial scale.
The Carbios method involves using enzymes to break PET plastic molecules down into their component monomers (as in molecules that can be bonded to other identical molecules). Once separated out, the monomers can be purified and recombined. The result is a recycled plastic that has the same properties as virgin PET.
This enzyme-based approach has the potential to make a significant impact on PET recycling. With conventional recycling, the end product loses some of the properties of PET, and that limits the range of potential uses. For example, the ability for recycled PET bottles to be churned once again into new bottles has its limits. And in any event, the entire recycling process is complex, in part because it is quite energy- and resource-intensive.
Furthermore, the bio-based process saves energy compared to conventional PET recycling, which is based on the application of heat. The new process could lead to reduced costs, a smaller carbon footprint and far more sustainable supply chains worldwide.
“Potential” is the key word here. For all of its potential advantages over conventional PET recycling, in 2017 the bio-based process was still in research phase.
For that matter, the entire field of bio-based plastic recycling (or biodepolymerization, in technical jargon) is still in a pre-commercial phase. Scientists have been experimenting with a range of biological processes including microbes, mealworms, and grubs in addition to enzymes.
Nevertheless, by April 2019, the Carbios-L’Oreal bio-recycling collaboration attracted the interest of Nestlé Waters, PepsiCo and Suntory Beverage & Food Europe, which all joined in support of the effort.
Last summer L’Oreal also upped its commitment by investing in the new bio-recycling technology through its “BOLD Business Opportunities for L'Oréal Development” venture capital fund, which the company launched in 2018.
It seems that L’Oreal’s bet may pay off. Last week, Carbios announced that a formal study of its PET recycling technology was published in the science journal Nature.
The research, conducted with the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute, indicates that Carbios’s new tailor-made enzyme can perform far more efficiently than others.
Previously, researchers found that it takes several weeks for enzymes to break down plastic, without achieving any substantial amount of degradation.
In contrast, the Carbios study describes a degradation yield of 90 percent in just 10 hours.
The next challenge is to translate the laboratory achievement into a real-world process that in the long run can benefit supply chains. Plans are in the works to test the process at a demonstration facility near Lyon.
If the demonstration project mirrors the findings of the research, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Suntory are all lined up with L’Oréal to claim the first recycled bottles to roll off the assembly line.
If successful, the new bio-based technology could increase the value of PET waste, helping to motivate an increase in the recovery rate.
As it stands, there is plenty of room for improvement. In the U.S., for example, the recycling rate for PET bottles and jars was 29.1 percent in 2017.
The success of the Carbios process could also help stimulate investor interest in developing bio-based recycling for other types of plastic. That’s important because the recovery rate for other plastics is dismal compared to PET.
In 2017, the U.S. generated a total of 35.4 million tons of plastic waste and recovered just 3 million, for a recycling rate of 8.4 percent.
Increasing the plastic recovery rate should help make a dent in the ocean plastic pollution crisis, but it is important to note that recycling alone cannot solve the problem.
Curbing the use of single-use plastics, reducing the amount of plastic used in product packaging, and using bio-based materials instead of petrochemicals are all part of the toolkit necessary to stop plastic to flowing into the globe's oceans.
Image credit: Willfried Wende/Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.