The biopolymer PHA has existed on Earth for millions of years when scientists first discovered polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB, in the PHA family) in 1925. Because fossil fuels were abundant, cheap and readily available in the 1920s, PHA’s material properties did not become commercially interesting until recently.
As we become more aware of the scarcity of fossil fuels and environmental drawbacks of fossil fuel reliance, the desire for a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based plastics has grown.
Who is Producing PHA Today?
Globally, 20 or so biotech companies today are producing the biomaterial in their labs. Giant vats of naturally occurring bacteria are gradually trained to produce PHA. Through a process of systematically starving bacteria and then feeding them a specialized diet, scientists coax bacteria into storing the food they are consuming into fat, otherwise known as PHA.
Once the bacteria are chock full of PHA, they are put through a process that strips the bacterial solids from the PHA. The remaining PHA is dried and processed so it can be transformed into various biopolymer packaging and containers.
In two years, the bioplastic & biopolymer market is expected to grow from $5B to $27B.
This regenerative material promises to be a frontrunner in these markets, tackling the plastic pollution crisis and helping to heal our planet.
These 20 or so biotech companies utilize different feedstocks—methane, cooking oil, seaweed— to feed their hungry bacteria. Full Cycle stands out with a globally recognized patent that utilizes organic waste like food, dirty cardboard, agricultural byproducts as feedstock, addressing our global food waste crisis and plastic pollution with one solution.
Curious what feedstocks our competitors use? Take a look:
|Danimer Scientific||Canola, soy, and palm-derived|
|RWDC Industries||Plant-based oils or sugar|
|Kaneka||Plant-based oils or sugar|
|Navigate Corporation||Waste cooking oil|
|Genecis||Mixed organic waste|
|TerraVerdae Bioworks||Woody biomass, MSW|
|Full Cycle||Mixed Organic waste|
Why PHA Is Unique from Other Biopolymers
So, what makes PHA different from other biopolymers? Why is this one so special?
As mentioned, PHA has been around for a long time. It was discovered in the 1920s, but it has been around for millions of years because it is a naturally occurring substance.
Other biopolymers can only be created through industrial processes that don’t occur naturally. As such, some of these finished products will not degrade without high temperatures and specialized equipment, meaning that if you dropped it into a home composting bucket, it wouldn’t break down.
Unlike other chemically modified biopolymers, PHA will break down naturally in any environment compatible with biodegradability, which is pretty much everywhere in nature except in water that is too cold for bacterial activity like the arctic. And, because it is made from organic food stocks, it will help alleviate our need for fossil fuels. This is a huge step forward.
There is a lot of debate about the amount of energy and resources needed to produce feedstocks for PHA production and whether or not they can be considered “sustainable.” Crops like corn require vast stretches of land and a significant water supply. This is why FCB utilizes food waste, a readily available food stock.
Food waste, when appropriately managed, can reduce the number of greenhouse gasses released into our precious atmosphere, helping to solve the food waste, fossil fuel reliance, and plastic pollution problems all in one go.
Anyone with hungry bacteria can produce PHA. But not everyone has the patent to commercialize the million-year-old process, so we license our patented waste-to-PHA technology to companies from many different industries.
Because our PHA can be combined with mixed food waste that is then processed and turned back into virgin PHA, it is particularly well suited for food packaging. One of the big problems with petroleum-based plastics as food packaging is that many films cannot be recycled, and many people throw recyclable containers into the bin without cleaning them properly. In those cases, recycling centers will move those containers to landfills, where they will remain for thousands of years.
When PHA is thrown away with mixed food waste, it will biodegrade at the same rate as the food waste, making it a significantly more sustainable solution than petroleum-based plastics or bioplastics that aren’t as readily degradable.
PHA Producers Can Solve a Growing Plastic Pollution and Food Waste Problem
Plastics are an essential material in contemporary life. As stated in a 2019 WIREs report, “Its design versatility, low cost, formability, lightweight, and bioinertness have made it the material of choice in a broad range of applications from smartphones to food packaging and 3D printing (Andrady, 2015).
It also contributes in different ways to the construction of a more sustainable society: plastics protect food and help reduce food waste, enable the design of lighter vehicles, and insulate electrical cables for maximum efficiency. But balancing all of plastic’s valuable uses are the problems it creates.”
The extraction of fossil fuels disrupts sensitive ecosystems, contaminate waterways, and contribute to climate change, putting the most vulnerable populations and environs in harm’s way.
Traditional petroleum-based plastics are immense contributors to greenhouse gas emissions throughout their lifecycle. In 2019 the plastic lifecycle contributed “more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants,” according to a May 2019 report called “Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet.“
A 2016 report by Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that “each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean — which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean every minute. If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050.”
Plastic packaging is one of the main contributors to this plastic leak. If we continue at the same trajectory, scientists estimate that by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean by weight than fish.
Food waste poses an equally staggering problem. The 2021 UNEP Food Waste Index Report states, “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The numbers are breathtaking and heartbreaking. Without enormous revolutionary change, our planet and all its inhabitants will continue to experience dire consequences, which is why Full Cycle is committed to creating circular solutions for a cleaner, more sustainable future.
Learn more about partnering with Full Cycle and using your company’s food waste to produce biodegradable PHA. Our biopolymers are cost-competitive and can replace many plastics in use today. By licensing our technology, you can become a part of the Full Cycle revolution and generate extra revenue simultaneously. Contact us here.
The Problem with Bioplastics & Why PHAs Are the Best AlternativeRead article
I’m typing “are bioplastics sustainable?” into my search engine, Ecosia. The top hits include a slurry of criticisms of bioplastics. As I read through the articles, it’s clear that bioplastic’s feedstocks are a huge problem.
Do the negative effects of deforestation and land use make these products worse for the environment than petroleum-based plastics? Is the bioplastic industry just a new form of greenwashing to make consumers feel better about their single-use plastics?
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Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) is our bread and butter, and we produce PHA through green engineering, using food waste like bread crust and oil.
As more Fortune 500 companies are committing to plastic reduction in the coming years, bioplastics, and especially PHA, are generating interest as an alternative to petroleum-based plastic.
But what is PHA? And why are people only talking about it now?