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Scientists develop enzyme capable of breaking down plastic waste in record time

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Researchers from the University of Portsmouth recently published their work on an re-engineered, plastic-eating enzyme capable of digesting plastic six times faster than previous attempts.  The work, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, describes how they created an enzyme cocktail from waste-dwelling bacterium that derive their energy from digesting plastic bottles.

Previous Discovery

The cocktail consists of two separate enzymes from bacteria found in trash.  The first enzyme, PETase had already been discovered.  PETase breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment, but PETase can shorten this time to days.

The initial discovery set up the prospect of a revolution in plastic recycling, creating a potential low-energy solution to tackle plastic waste. The team engineered the natural PETase enzyme in the laboratory to be around 20 percent faster at breaking down PET.

Latest Discovery

Now, the same trans-Atlantic team have combined PETase and its ‘partner’, a second enzyme called MHETase, to generate much bigger improvements: simply mixing PETase with MHETase doubled the speed of PET breakdown, and engineering a connection between the two enzymes to create a ‘super-enzyme’, increased this activity by a further three times.

The team was co-led by the scientists who engineered PETase, Professor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth, and Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US.

PETase and the new combined MHETase-PETase both work by digesting PET plastic, returning it to its original building blocks. This allows for plastics to be made and reused endlessly, reducing our reliance on fossil resources such as oil and gas.

 

Start-up receives $2.75M from SDTC to commercialize the manufacture of bioplastics from agricultural byproducts

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Sustainable Canada Technology Canada (SDTC) recently announced that it had granted $2.75 million to EcoPackers, a Canadian cleantech company that converts agricultural byproducts into 100 percent plant-based and compostable alternatives to traditional plastic inputs.

EcoPackers Leadership Team

Conceived by CEO Nuha Siddiqui during her time as president of the University of Toronto chapter of the social entrepreneurship club Enactus, Ecopackers is on a mission to reduce the world’s reliance on single-use plastics.

The Toronto-based company, developed with support from the Creative Destruction Lab, got its start manufacturing biodegradable packing peanuts made from agricultural byproducts. It has since expanded into producing eco-resins that can be used by manufacturers in place of plastic.

Unlike many existing bioplastics, Ecopackers’ resin is designed to be compatible with existing manufacturing technologies and processes.

“We were one of the only eco-focused companies out there that wasn’t going against the plastic manufacturers – we were actually trying to work with them to develop products that worked with their technology,” Siddiqui, a Rotman Commerce graduate, told U of T News.

The all-woman leadership team behind Ecopackers – which also includes chief technology officer Chang Dong and chief operating officer Kritika Tyagi – is now working on pilot products with manufacturers around the world.

About SDTC

Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) is a foundation created by the Government of Canada to support Canadian companies with the potential to become world leaders in their efforts to develop and demonstrate new environmental technologies that address climate change, clean air, clean water and clean soil.

 

German Researchers Discover Plastic-Eating Bacteria

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Researchers in Germany recently published a research paper in Frontiers in Microbiology in which they describe the isolating a strain of bacteria that can degrade plastic.  The specific bacteria Pseudomonas sp. were able to biodegrade polyurethanes.  The plastic, specifically polyurethane, served as the sole source of carbon and energy for the bacteria.

Due to the variety in physical, chemical, thermal and mechanical properties, polyurethanes (PU)have a broad range of applications, Some of the main applications are detailed below:
• Flexible PUF: automobile seating, furniture, carpets.
• Rigid PUF: refrigerator, insulation board.
• Elastomers: footwear, adhesives, medical.
• RIM: automobiles (bumpers, side panels).
• Other: carpets, casting, sealants.

As PUs are used in so many every day applications and industrial uses, they enter the municipal solid waste stream, usually by way of discarded consumer and industrial products. These products frequently are durable goods with a long lifespan such as upholstered furniture, mattresses and automobile parts. By weight, approximately 1.3 million tons of waste PUs are generated each year in the USA alone. The largest market is for PUF (47% flexible and 28% rigid), followed by PU elastomers (8%).  North America represents around 30–35% of the world total consumption, with the remainder in Western Europe (around 40%), the Far East (around 15%) and the rest of the world (around 10–15%).

Polyurethanes, due to there diverse chemical composition, are very difficult to recycle.  Due to their high flammability, they are typically treated with flame retardants that may be carcinogenic.

“The bacteria can use these compounds as a sole source of carbon, nitrogen and energy,” says microbiologist Hermann Heipieper, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZ in Germany. “This finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle PU products.”

The discovery was made in the soil underneath a waste site containing an abundance of brittle plastics. Having spotted the strain, the scientists ran a genomic analysis and other experiments to work out the bacterium’s capabilities.  It will be some time before there is a commercial-scale bacteria-based solution to plastic waste challenge.

Canadian Research

In Canada, researchers from the University of British Columbia and industry partner Polymer Research Technologies are working together to develop technology that will allow polyurethane foam waste to be chemically recycled into polyols.  If successful, the research will lead to a commercial-scale process that can produce a reusable, recyclable, economical, and eco-friendly raw material alternative to petroleum-based virgin polyol.

 

Alberta Researchers develop method of accelerating anaerobic digestion up to 70%

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Researchers from the University of Alberta claim they have developed a method that accelerates the anaerobic digestion process by up to 70 percent. The key step to speed up the anaerobic degradation process is the addition of conductive materials to the feedstock such as granular activated carbon.

Environmental engineering master’s student Bappi Chowdhury (left) and supervisor Bipro Dhar in the lab with a “digester” they are developing that uses microbes to convert a mixture of food waste and fat, oil and grease into renewable biomethane. (Photo: Sean Townsend, Folio)

Environmental engineering master’s student Bappi Chowdhury and his colleagues at the University of Alberta found that the added activated carbon in the feedstock functions as a hub for microbes looking to dump or pick up electrons as part of biochemical processes. 

The results from the granular activated carbon to the organic feedstock of the anaerobic digester resulted in decomposition times being reduced from 20 to 25 days to just seven. The researchers also tested the degradation rate with the addition of the rock mineral magnetite and found similar, although not as effective, results.

Researchers also experiments with different levels of food waste with fats, oils, and grease (FOG). Based on there testing, they found that a mixture of 70 percent food waste and 30 percent FOG resulted in the fasted anaerobic digestion.

The supervisor of the research, Dr. Bipro Dhar, noted in an interview with Folio, the U of Alberta journal, “More work will first be needed. That means looking for even better and cheaper conductive materials, economic feasibility studies and scaled-up pilot projects.” 

Record Investments in Start-ups focused on waste packaging reduction

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According to an article in CrunchBase, there has been a record investment in cleantech start-ups focused on waste packaging reduction.

According to CrunchBase data, there are at least seven companies over the past three years that have raised over $20 million (U.S.) in capital that are in that are focused on sustainable packaging.

The eco-packaging start-up that has raised the most capital, Zume, originally started out as robot-enabled pizza prep and delivery business before pivoting to sustainable packaging after acquiring a company called Pivot Package. The company is focused on reducing the amount of food that is wasted by attempting to balance the supply and demand for food. Zume uses real-time food consumption data and predictive analytics to help food companies better predict demand, connect it with production and drive better resource decisions down the food supply chain.

One of the seven start-ups noted in the database is Ontario-based GreenMantra Technologies, a company that produces value-added synthetic waxes, polymer additives, and other chemicals from recycled plastic. GreenMantra claims that it is the first company in the world to up-cycle post-consumer and post-industrial recycled plastics into synthetic polymers and additives that meet specific performance requirements for industrial applications.

New Plastics Recycling Technology developed in Italy

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Saipem, an Italian company specializing in engineering, construction and drilling services and in the energy and infrastructure sectors, recently announced that it has signed a license agreement with ITEA S.p.A, another Italian company that has a patent for a plastics recycling technology. Under the agreement, Saipem will test the technology.

Originally designed for applications in the oil&gas sector, the technology is particularly suited to solid urban waste disposal, in particular unsorted plastic.

According to the two companies, plastic recycling from differentiated waste has been rather limited. Their review of recent studies leads to the conclusion that only 30% of material collected is recycled, leaving unsolved the problem of “Plasmix”, non-recyclable mixed plastics consisting of a group of heterogeneous plastics included in post-consumption wrappings which cannot be recovered as single polymers.

Mauro Piasere, COO of Saipem’s XSIGHT Division, stated in a news release, “Plastic recycling is an objective of great interest to Saipem, although further studies and technologies are required. The widespread application of the oxy-combustion process could facilitate recovery of the precious energy content of waste plastics while avoiding their dispersion. Use of this technology confirms our ability to adapt oil&gas technologies to new market demands and to support our clients by providing them with solutions targeted at achieving greater sustainability”.

ITEA technology involves a particular process of plastic decomposition called “flameless oxy-combustion”. This produces water, energy and pure CO2, which is not emitted into the atmosphere, but which is ideal for use as a product destined for the market.

ITEA claims that its process is very flexible, relatively simple and can be exploited even in small-sized facilities. If the testing is successful, it will demonstrate that it can recycle Plasmix in a sustainable way.

Inter Pipeline and Alberta NAIT Announce $10 Million Research Project on Plastic Waste Reduction

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Inter Pipeline Ltd., headquartered in Calgary, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (“NAIT“) recently announced a new partnership to research opportunities to reuse and recycle plastic in Canada. The ten-year agreement, known as Plastics Research in Action (“PRIA”), will be funded by a $10 million commitment from Inter Pipeline, which represents the largest applied research partnership in NAIT’s history.

The Calgary-based energy infrastructure company is expanding into the petrochemical business with the construction of its Heartland Petrochemical Complex, slated for completion in late 2021 in Strathcona County. The $3.5-billion complex will produce polypropylene pellets used to manufacture recyclable products including medical equipment and textiles.

The polypropylene manufacturing process at Inter Pipeline’s complex is estimated to generate 65% less greenhouse gas (“GHG”) than the global average, and 35% less GHG than the North American average.

The PRIA partnership will see NAIT researchers and students work with Inter Pipeline on projects to advance the reuse and recycling of plastic in Canada and around the world.

Potential research projects include examining opportunities for plastic to be reused, thus retaining the value of the product, and supporting the ideals of a circular economy. Innovations could potentially help Canadians reuse and re-manufacture materials, create new economic opportunities and benefit our environment. A portion of the applied research funding will also be dedicated to improving sustainable practices at Inter Pipeline’s Heartland Petrochemical Complex.

“Ultimately, I think everyone agrees the end game is preventing plastic waste. That’s why I consider today’s announcement to be a completely necessary and crucial step,” said Chris Bayle, president and CEO of Inter Pipeline at the announcement of the partnership Tuesday in NAIT’s state-of-the-art Productivity and Innovation Centre

Almost 80% of all post-consumer plastics in Canada currently end up in landfills, he added. “This is the right project being done in the right place at the right time,” said Bayle of the partnership with NAIT. “We recognize fully that sustainability is a critical component of our business.”

“This agreement showcases how NAIT plays a vital role in helping industry to find solutions to the problems they’re facing,” said Dr. Glenn Feltham, NAIT’s president and CEO.

About Inter Pipeline Ltd.
Inter Pipeline is a major petroleum transportation, natural gas liquids processing, and bulk liquid storage business based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Inter Pipeline owns and operates energy infrastructure assets in western Canada and Europe. Inter Pipeline is a member of the S&P/TSX 60 Index and its common shares trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol IPL.  www.interpipeline.com

About NAIT
The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) is a leading Canadian polytechnic, delivering education in science, technology and the environment; business; health and skilled trades.

Canadian company claims it can 100% recycle Lithium Batteries

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Li-Cycle, a three-year old company headquartered in Mississauga, Ontario recently announced that had developed a method that allows it to achieve a recycling rate of 80% to 100% of materials in lithium-ion batteries.

​It is estimated that 5% of lithium-ion batteries are collected for recycling (i.e. not reuse) globally, with some jurisdictions (e.g. some member states of the European Union) having much more efficient portable battery collection rates of >20%. Once lithium-ion batteries reach recycling facilities today, the existing best available recycling technology uses high-temperature processing (i.e. >1,000°C, also known as smelting, a pyrometallurgical method) to recycle lithium-ion batteries.

Smelting typically recovers 30-40% of the constituent materials in lithium-ion batteries. The residual 60-70% is either volatilized, cleaned and emitted to the atmosphere, or ends up in solid waste (i.e. slag). Smelting specifically targets the recovery of the base metals in lithium-ion batteries – cobalt, nickel and copper – with only proportions recovered thereof. Critical materials such as lithium are not economically recoverable via smelting. Low recoveries result in an impartially closed lithium-ion battery supply chain loop.

Li-Cycle Technology™ uses a combination of mechanical size reduction and hydrometallurgical resource recovery specifically designed for lithium-ion battery recycling. The technology can do so with an unparalleled recovery rate of 80 – 100% of all materials. The recycling process consists of two key stages: (1) Safe-size reduction of all lithium batteries from a charged state to an inert product and (2) recovery of the electrode materials to produce battery-grade end products.

In 2018, Li-Cycle received $2.7 million in funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to develop its novel process for the recovery and recycling of valuable materials from all types of lithium-ion batteries.

Earlier this year,  Li-Cycle was named as one of the top 100 international start-ups contributing to the energy transition through the 2019 Start-up Energy Transition (SET) Awards competition. This competition is run by the German Energy Agency (dena) and supported by the World Energy Council.

Li-Cycle has completed three research and development programs/physical validation work streams to date. The company is currently operating an integrated demonstration plant and is in the progressed stages of commercial plant development.  Li-Cycle’s physical validation work streams have been premised on a ‘scale-down’ focus, i.e. scaled down relative to commercial scale.  Each scale-down stage has been focused on the validation of specific key performance indicators.

Canadian Government funding for innovative plastic recycling technologies

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The government of Canada is partnering with Canadian businesses to develop innovative solutions to keep plastics in the economy and out of landfills and the environment.

The government recently announced six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, a part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program. Dealing with issues related to food packaging, construction waste, and the separation of plastics for recycling, these Challenges are an opportunity to invest in innovative ideas and technologies that could play a role in addressing plastic pollution and moving Canada toward a zero-plastic waste future.

Copol International Ltd., one of the funding recipients located in Sydney, Nova Scotia, is a local small business developing a food packaging solution that would incorporate biodegradable components extracted from marine waste into a cast polypropylene film.

The $150,000 in funding will be used on a research project, in partnership with Cape Breton University’s Verschuren Centre, to develop and test biopolymer formulations extracted from marine plants and marine waste products and replace the unrecyclable product that is currently being used to make polypropylene film. For example, shrimp shells could be utilized in the manufacture of polypropylene film.

The research project will last approximately six months. If it is successful, then a prototype film will be produced for commercial testing.

Polypropylene (CPP) film products from the Copoal International Ltd. facility (Source: Copol International Ltd. website)

Copol International Ltd. has 54 employees, operates 24/7 in a 90,000-square-foot building. The company began operations approximately 20 years ago. IT currently provides customized mono- and multi-layer films for food and textile packaging, industrial applications, and heath care products for customers across North America 

Copol International Ltd. joins other small businesses from across the country who will each receive up to $150,000 to develop their idea.

Phase 1 recipients, such as the six winners of the Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenge, who successfully develop a proof of concept will be invited to compete for a grant of up to $1 million in Phase 2 to develop a prototype. The Government of Canada then has the option to be the first buyer of any successful innovation.

Innovative Solutions Canada consists of over $100 million in dedicated funding to support the scale-up and growth of Canada’s innovators and entrepreneurs by having the federal government act as a first customer for innovation. Twenty participating federal departments and agencies have set aside a portion of funding to support the creation of innovative solutions by Canadian small businesses.

A total of seven Canadian Plastics Innovation Challenges were put forward as part of the Innovative Solutions Canada program, each encouraging innovative solutions to a different problem area in addressing plastic waste.

The seven plastics challenges are sponsored by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and Natural Resources Canada; who each oversee the selection of the winning projects for their respective Challenges.

Italian companies developing waste to fuel technology

Eni, a large energy company headquartered in Italy, recently signed an agreement with NextChem, Maire Tecnimont’s green chemistry subsidiary headquartered in Italy, to collaborate on the development of a technology that can turn waste into new energy, hydrogen, and methanol.

The two companies have signed a partnership agreement to develop and implement a conversion technology, which uses high-temperature gasification to produce hydrogen and methanol from municipal solid waste and non-recyclable plastic with minimal environmental impact.

Together, Eni and NextChem will assess the technical and financial impact of the new technology, which could be implemented at Eni’s industrial sites in Italy. Eni has already expressed interest in evaluating the “Waste to Hydrogen” project at its bio-refinery in Porto Marghera, Venice, and carried out a feasibility study in collaboration with NextChem.

The agreement will position Eni as co-developer of NextChem’s technology. This will contribute to environmental sustainability at Eni’s industrial sites, forming part of an increasingly integrated and efficient system designed to contain and reduce atmospheric emissions of CO².

“This partnership will see Eni acquire highly innovative technology. When this technology is combined with the rich technological assets that Eni has accumulated over decades of refining, it will help to establish a tangible circular economic process whereby fuel is produced from waste with low environmental impact”, said Giuseppe Ricci, Eni’s Chief Refining & Marketing Officer.

Maire Tecnimont Group’s CEO, Pierroberto Folgiero, stated: “This technological partnership with Eni, a leader in the sector, is an exceptionally important step for our green acceleration project. Energy transition requires the industrialisation of new transformation processes, and with NextChem we are ready to respond to the growing demand for change”.