Skip to main content
Move the World.
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria

What goes in, must come out, right? For some bacteria, that means ingesting food scraps and transforming them into plastic. Scientists hope these single-celled organisms can help address our mounting plastic pollution and food waste problems.

The World Economic Forum even claims that, by 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. To add to that, about one-third, or 1.3 billion tons, of the food produced each year globally is wasted or lost, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Canadian innovator Luna Yu hopes to transform these problems by "turning waste into value." 

By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish.

Despite earning a master's degree in environmental science at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, Yu considers herself more of an entrepreneur than a scientist. She was reading research papers on biogas (gas produced by breaking down organic waste) when she saw an opportunity for bioplastics: maybe there was an economical way to make biodegradable plastics from organic waste, too.

Yu saw an opportunity for bioplastics: maybe there was an economical way to make biodegradable plastics from organic waste.

Making Use of Food Waste to Reduce Plastic Pollution 

Unlike biogas, which takes a long time to produce and has a low profit margin, she saw more promise with bioplastics. Done right, they could have a higher profit margin and opportunity to scale up. 

Yu reached out to the Sri Lankan-born biochemist Hasitha de Alwis, who was immediately drawn to the idea because it touched on two issues that are important to him: reducing plastic pollution and reducing food waste. 

When de Alwis first came to Canada, he was taken aback by the abundance of food waste. 

"Where I come from, not everyone has enough food. People buy portions of food to feed themselves and their families. Food waste was minimal compared to North America," he says. 

De Alwis believes plastic has gotten so practical, useful, and abundant that "it is hard for people to live without." Together, Yu and de Alwis launched Genecis Bioindustries in 2016 to make use of food waste and simultaneously reduce plastic pollution — the ideal twofer for de Alwis. 

Most plastic waste in the ocean never completely degrades and is laden with plasticizers that can be bad for the environment and human health.

The team's first challenge was to find the right mixture of bacteria. They scoured the Toronto region and found 200 new, undocumented bacteria. After some trial and error, they settled on a mixture of bacteria that could convert organic food waste into biodegradable plastic pellets, which could be used for packaging, coffee pods, and 3D printing. 

The process uses a proprietary combination of bacteria to break down the organic waste into fatty acids. Then, a second bacteria pieces them together into PHA, a kind of biodegradable plastic. In the final step, the scientists use a chemical process to open the bacterial cells and extract the plastic particles. The entire procedure takes only seven days in the large bioreactors at the University of Toronto. 

Most plastic waste that is piling up in the oceans never completely degrades and is laden with plasticizers that can be bad for the environment and human health. But PHA plastic is recognized as the most biodegradable, non-toxic plastic available. It breaks down in less than a year in nature and ten years in water.

By mitigating food waste and creating a biodegradable product, the process shows promise for the "circular economy," a system that reduces waste and the excessive use of resources.

By the year 2050 there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish.  Genecis Bioindustries is helping to reduce plastic waste by manufacturing high-quality biodegradable plastic.   Photo by Rich Carey/Shutterstock.

By the year 2050 there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. Genecis Bioindustries is helping to reduce plastic waste by manufacturing high-quality biodegradable plastic. Photo by Rich Carey/Shutterstock.

PHA plastic is recognized as the most biodegradable, non-toxic plastic available. It breaks down in less than a year in nature and ten years in water.

PHA Bioplastic Could Be the Next Big Thing

PHA-producing bacteria have been around for many years, but due to the high cost and the challenge of extracting the plastic, commercializing it is still an emerging field.

Other PHA producers rely on costly sources like vegetable oil or sugar to feed their bacteria. De Alwis estimates that, for those companies, 40% of production costs come from growing the feedstock, which also must compete with farmland for growing food. By contrast, Genecis sources its feedstock from discarded organic food waste, repurposing a largely useless material and eliminating the need for new resources.

"We get paid to take away food waste. It reduces the cost for the consumer and increases appeal to people who care about the environment," de Alwis says. 

"Why do we toss our waste into landfills when we can get more out of it?" he asks, adding that he thinks PHA bioplastic could be "the next big thing."

“Why do we toss our waste into landfills when we can get more out of it?”

Hasitha de AlwisBiochemist

At the end of the day, Genecis makes you wonder why a plastic pollution problem even exists — and whether it will soon be a thing of the past.

Up Next

Sustainable Solutions
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
Sustainable Solutions
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
A step further than recycling, a circular economy would eliminate the idea of garbage completely. But will consumers hop on board? We gave it a try, and here's our honest review.

A step further than recycling, a circular economy would eliminate the idea of garbage completely. But will consumers hop on board? We gave it a try, and here's our honest review.

Future of Cities
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
Future of Cities
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads
The world is facing a massive build up of waste. But this solution of recycled roads may pave the way for a cleaner future.

A recycled road has been paved with asphalt that contains the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, along with thousands of glass bottles and printer cartridges’ worth of waste toner. In addition to the sheer amount of recycled materials the process will divert away from landfills, these longer-lasting roads also help to reduce the carbon footprint of construction.

Move the World
Giving Homeless People Something Most of Us Take for Granted
Giving Homeless People Something Most of Us Take for Granted
Watch Now
Move the World
Giving Homeless People Something Most of Us Take for Granted
This one small thing can mean the difference between a spot in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, a job or no job, a place to eat or going without food.
Watch Now

“Welcome to the land of broken dreams” Just a few years ago, there were only 16 public showers available for 7,500-12,000 homeless people across the city of San Francisco. This left most of them with no place to shower, use the restroom, or a place to get privacy. A hot shower means a fresh, clean, and renewed start. Cleanliness can be the difference between a spot in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, a job or no job, a...

Building Community
How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
Watch Now
Building Community
How San Francisco Residents Saved Local Businesses
An indie book store went from struggling to thriving with a new business model. Is it the future of retail?
Watch Now

Borderlands Books is the largest English-language sci-fi, mystery, and horror book store in the world. Mission: Comics and Art is a combination comic book shop and art gallery. Both were preparing to close up shop in a tough retail environment as costs rose. Alan Beatts called a community meeting of his customers. A new idea came out of it - selling store memberships. After an outpouring of support, he sold hundreds of...

Funding Health Care with Coffee
Funding Health Care with Coffee
Watch Now
Funding Health Care with Coffee
What if your daily coffee helped save a life?
Watch Now

Pheo Coffee isn’t your everyday coffee company — it’s paying for critical medical treatments in developing countries. Founder and physician Larry Istrail saw that millions of people worldwide were suffering because they couldn’t pay for basic medical care — while in America we're drinking millions of cups of coffee a day. He decided to make a difference by starting a coffee company whose proceeds would go toward creating a...

An Address for Everywhere on Earth
An Address for Everywhere on Earth
Watch Now
An Address for Everywhere on Earth
Can three simple words change how we find each other?
Watch Now

We take addresses for granted - but billions of people and places don’t have them, and it’s a big problem. Whether it’s voting, disaster relief, or pinpointing a spot on festival grounds, not having an address makes things that should be simple difficult. Enter Chris Sheldrick, who coordinated events in the music industry where he was frustrated by address-related problems. He created What3Words, a method of dividing the...

Challengers
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
Challengers
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
Luke Kenworthy put everything he had into making his business work. But it didn't pan out. Now he's sharing what he...
By Mike Riggs

Luke Kenworthy put everything he had into making his business work. But it didn't pan out. Now he's sharing what he learned through it all.

Challengers
How VR Could Change Your Life
How VR Could Change Your Life
Watch Now
Challengers
How VR Could Change Your Life
Virtual reality could alter the human experience forever.
Watch Now

Imagine if you could climb Mount Everest and go on stage at a Beyonce concert with your friends...before breakfast. Linc Gasking and his team of visual effects experts at 8i thinks they can make holograms of humans so real, that VR will go mainstream and they’ll alter the human experience forever.