Solving the plastic problem

A Toronto-based startup, led by Luna Yu, turns food waste into biodegradable plastic

By Jana Manolakos

They say one person’s trash is another’s treasure. That’s certainly true for environmental scientist Luna Yu, founder and CEO of Toronto-based Genecis Bioindustries Inc., whose team of scientists and engineers has found a way to change organic waste into biodegradable plastic, a process that has piqued the interest of investors. Sodexo-Campbell recently partnered with Genecis in a pilot project at its Campbell Soup facility in Toronto, which saw over 1,430 kg of organic waste diverted from landfills, while offsetting 1,210 kg of CO2 emissions over six months. The bioplastic created from this food waste was enough to make 6,332 spoons.

According to a report released in 2017 by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, the average Canadian throws out an estimated 170 kg of food each year, and most of it goes to landfills. For Yu, that “trash” translates into gold.

The waste also releases methane into the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas emission that’s a prime suspect in global warming.

“More than $1 trillion worth of food is wasted globally every year. What we’re able to do is to take this waste and turn it into something of higher value,” says Yu. It’s a solution that converts organic waste into a type of bioplastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PHA degrades within one year in both terrestrial and marine environments – while synthetic plastics can take hundreds of years to degrade in similar environments.

“Our goal is to create the highest value from organic waste,” Yu explains, adding that the Genecis team has cultured hundreds of species of bacteria that currently don’t exist in databases. “Soon we will be able to synthesize speciality chemicals and other premium materials from organic waste, all at a lower cost than traditional production methods, using synthetic biology.”

Genecis uses a three-step process to create bacteria-forged polymers, or PHAs. First, a bacteria culture breaks down the food waste into platform molecules. These are then fed to a bacteria culture specialized at producing PHAs in their cells. Finally, a chemical extraction process breaks open the cells, then collects and purifies the plastic into granules. 

The company’s new 3,000-sq.ft. facility houses pilot-scale bioreactors that can complete the three-step process. Previously, Genecis had been supported by the University of Toronto–Scarborough to optimize the production process. When Genecis opens its demonstration plant with an industry partner next year, it will be able to convert three tonnes of organic waste into PHAs every week.

Genecis isn’t the only company trying to make PHAs from waste, with companies in California and Sweden, but all are racing to achieve commercial scale-up.

Biodegradable plastic is already on the market, especially in the healthcare industry, made with sugar cane, corn and canola oil. It’s a more expensive process, suggests Yu, who hopes to make bioplastics more affordable, reducing the cost of production by at least 40 percent through the use of food waste. The company website says, “We partner directly with waste companies, providing a destination for organic waste that is on par with landfill costs” – in effect, creating a revenue stream by using organic waste.

While PHAs can be used to make pretty much anything out of bioplastic, like packaging films, bags, containers and utensils, Yu says the types made by Genecis are best suited for higher-end, multi-use products like personal care products, flexible packaging, 3D-printing filament and medical applications, including surgical staples, sutures and stents.

Since launching in 2016, Genecis already has won more than $700,000 in prize money from startup competitions. Recent ones include the BASF’s first Innovation Pitch Series, a partnership with Toronto-based tech incubator MaRS. Genecis was also one of six finalists chosen by a panel of expert judges from across North American for the MaRS Women in Cleantech Challenge, sponsored by Natural Resources Canada. The winner of this competition will be announced by 2021.

In the meantime, Luna Yu is forging a path towards a better future. 

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