Californian twins Jeff and Dane Anderson love nothing more than surfing. When the surf’s up, you often find them rushing to the beach at sunrise. “After graduation we spent our entire time bodysurfing,” Jeff Anderson says. The only thing they hated about their passion was constantly getting hit by plastic trash in the ocean. One day at a beach in San Diego they commiserated that the pollution was only getting worse and they needed to find a solution — and they did.
The brothers enrolled in classes and studied waste water management together. “We set out to solve two problems at once,” says Jeff: “the mountains of food waste and the mountains of plastic waste.” They ultimately developed a new technology that uses a free resource — organic waste — and tweaked the traditional process of composting with modified bacteria to turn it into truly biodegradable plastic. They founded Full Cycle Bioplastics in 2014 to further the concept.
Scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. As humans, we’re producing more than 250 million tons of petroleum plastic worldwide per year, which ends up in our oceans, landfills and, ultimately, our bodies. We buy about 1 million plastic bottles a minute. With China refusing to recycle our trash any longer, and countries from India to Kenya experimenting with banning single-use plastics, the need to find alternative ways to produce and use plastics is overwhelmingly urgent.
Increasingly, innovators are searching for solutions to replace petroleum plastic. Harvard's Wyss Institute is experimenting with plastic made from shrimp shells, a Mexican company uses avocado pits, and one company is trying to convert algae into compostable polymers, but most of these efforts are far from being ready for the market. And more often than not, the term “bioplastics” equals greenwashing. Many of the so-called bioplastics require precious resources, chemicals, GMO-bacteria, or vast amounts of energy, and often they are actually not biodegradable.
The Andersons, however, use a free resource, organic waste, and mimic the ordinary process of composting to turn it into biodegradable and marine degradable plastic that’s safe for fish and bacteria to eat. Jeff tries to explain the complicated procedure in simple terms:
“Full Cycle Bioplastics manufactures polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) bioplastic by using organic and cellulosic waste as the feedstock. We take the waste, put it into a modified digestion unit, let everything break down and accelerate it, so we get a very strong wastewater intermediate. We take that liquid form, feed the fatty acids to bacteria, which convert them into PHA, which is basically micro-fat that can be sculpted into various shapes such as packaging or forks. No petroleum, no chemicals involved. It's an organic process.”
Their manufacturing process is carbon-negative and fundamentally no different than the old composting heap many gardeners are familiar with, with the addition of some unusual bacteria.
The products can be returned to the company and they can feed it back into the same composting process, thus the name Full Cycle Bioplastics. But even if it ends up in the ocean or at the side of the road, it will simply degrade like compost or turn into fish food. Their product already won half a dozen innovation awards, including the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Award 2016.
The brothers’ goal is not to eliminate conventional plastic altogether. For some items that are meant to last long, let's say medical equipment, or the hard shell of a laptop, you probably don't want to experiment with compost. But it's especially absurd to use a material that does not disintegrate for hundreds of years for things we discard quickly, such as packaging, plastic bags, and single-use cutlery. Roughly half of our plastic production is for single-use items – and less than a quarter of them get recycled.
The Andersons know that bioplastics only have a future if they are cheap. “This is always the first question we get asked by the companies: How expensive is it?” says Jeff. Because their source material is available in abundance, they hope they will eventually be able to match the price of conventional plastic, while also pointing out, “The true cost of a plastic cup is infinitely higher than what a customer pays for it,” he says.
Full Cycle Bioplastics is currently in the upscaling stage and about to finish their factory. Currently, bioplastics only replace two percent of the plastics worldwide. The Andersons hope their technology will change that.