The circular economy for plastics is the ideal consumption model, and biotechnology and upcycling are the keys to the success of a circular plastic economy. Accordingly, upcycling plastics whenever possible is much better than using biotechnological solutions which involve virgin materials. This article explores why upcycling is better than biotechnology and discusses their respective roles in a circular economy.
Before elaborating how upcycled products and biotechnological products are beneficial in a circular economy, it’s essential to understand what these terms mean, how they work, and in what ways they are already present in everyday life.
What Exactly Is Upcycling?
What is upcycling, and how does it differ from conventional recycling processes?
Industrial upcycling is, in short, the use of microorganisms as biocatalysts to upcycle post-consumer plastic waste rather than recycle it via traditional methods. This process retains the material’s value instead of destroying it or throwing it in a landfill.
Industrial upcycling also adds value by using post-consumer plastics as feedstock for microorganisms. These microorganisms essentially “eat” the plastics to create useful molecules, such as plastic products and various chemicals.
An EU Horizon 2020 project titled “From Plastic Waste to Plastic Value Using Pseudomonas Putida Synthetic Biology (P4SB)” discovered that enzymatically depolymerized PET plastics could be used as feedstock for a bacterium. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as feedstock circumvents the need to purify PET products before upcycling or recycling, which is typically a costly process.
Using microorganisms to upcycle plastic waste, rather than the typical cycle of take-make-dispose in single-use plastics, is a major component in the circular economy of plastics and a novel solution to the problem of what to do with all the accumulated plastics on the planet.
A great example of the industrial upcycling of plastics is their use within the creation of items like the adhesive on Post-It labels. This process keeps many of the original properties of PET but adds a chemical group that makes it stick to metal; something PET would otherwise do poorly. Additional examples include furniture, building modules, and other construction materials.
Everyday examples of upcycling at home are geared toward repurposing products for further use after their initial value has diminished or ended — for example, building outdoor furniture from wood pallets or making a leaky watering can into a planter.
Biotechnology has been utilized in various forms and methods for more than 6,000 years. It harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that improve people’s lives and the planet’s health.
Biotechnology is used in many industries for a wide range of applications. Alcohol production via fermentation is one common example of biotechnology. For instance, in beer production enzymes convert raw ingredients such as barley to sugars which are then fermented, creating alcohol.
Biotechnological products are in the food and drinks at supermarkets and restaurants. Bioplastics are often used as packaging. Biochemicals are present not only in flavoring, sweeteners, and souring agents but also in produce to ripen fruits and vegetables and prolong their shelf-lives.
Why Is Upcycling Better Than Biotech Solutions Using Virgin Materials?
Upcycling is the process of creating products from reclaimed materials that have a value similar to or higher than the original materials. In a circular economy — the most efficient manufacturing model — materials are either reused when possible or repurposed to minimize waste, conserve energy, and subsequently raise the associated value of produced products.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most produced plastic globally, with annual production exceeding 26 million tons. PET is commonly used in clothing, carpet, single-use beverage bottles, and other single-use containers, such as those used by restaurants for takeout and customers’ leftovers.
Recycling PET in the traditional methods results in a generally lower value product than the original. PET can only be recycled and repurposed into useful products via this method a finite number of times — sometimes only once.
As a result of new methods of upcycling PET, a better product can now be created with a higher value than the original or, at the very least, to consume some of the plastic waste plaguing natural ecosystems, the oceans, and freshwater sources.
In a study published in the scientific journal Joule, PET was successfully upcycled to create higher-value, long-lifetime fiber-reinforced plastics (RFP). PET can be combined with monomers (individual molecular building blocks) that can be renewably sourced. Utilizing this plastic upcycling strategy offers significant economic incentives for industrial implementation by reducing total manufacture energy.
The primary source of savings in this upcycling strategy is through the increased use of PETs as non-conventional feedstocks, reducing the need for petroleum-based feedstocks. Upcycling in this respect is good news for the environment, as this strategy results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than biotechnological products produced from virgin raw materials.
The potential benefit of upcycling to produce fiber-reinforced plastics (RFP) is a 57% decrease in the energy required for the production of these RFPs versus traditional recycling systems. Researchers also believe there would be an approximately 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by utilizing an upcycling model over traditional PET manufacturing from raw virgin materials.
Currently, the use of microorganisms for biotechnological upcycling of PET is not widespread in manufacturing and recycling plants due to profit margins being low in the recycling industry, with little incentive to research and develop new solutions.
“However, if they see a cost advantage, they are on board immediately,” says Lars Blank of RWTH Aachen University, manager of the joint research project “P4SB” (From Plastic waste to Plastic value using Pseudomonas putida Synthetic Biology), a project funded by the European Union.
What’s Next for PET Upcycling and the Transition to a Circular Economy?
Researchers worldwide have been studying PET upcycling and biotechnological solutions to the problem of accumulated plastic waste on the planet for years. They continue to make advancements and report findings that could revolutionize the current recycling (or lack thereof) methods used. The energy savings alone would be incredibly significant, with a nearly 60% reduction in the energy required for RFP production.
For a circular economic model of plastics to become widely adopted, the economic and environmental benefits need to become known to the public, discussed, and eventually implemented on a large-scale basis across global manufacturing and recycling practices.
Who Is Making Moves in Upcycling and Biotechnological Solutions for Plastics?
Approximately 800 million tons of plastics end up in the world’s oceans every year. If this trend continues and a solution isn’t widely implemented, it is predicted that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s oceans than fish.
Companies like Miniwiz are committed to capturing the value of plastics instead of dumping or destroying them. They transform industrial and household plastic, metal, and glass waste into sustainable building materials, building modules, specialty fabrics, and designer furniture and fixtures.
Innovative and creative engineering is at the heart of Miniwiz, where new applications are being continually discovered and developed so humans can make the most of the mess they’ve made of the planet’s diverse ecosystems with plastics and other cast-offs.