"We can do more to inform and support product designers as they evaluate the use of various materials, including insight into their ingredients, how they were made, how they may or may not degrade, and their lifecycle impact."
By Christophe Schilling, CEO, Genomatica.
Want to accelerate a transition to a more circular economy? Let’s consider biotech.
Biotechnology is poised to help accelerate this transition by invigorating five distinct points within in a typical product lifecycle. This is a more comprehensive and impactful view than focusing primarily on the use of renewable feedstocks to reduce greenhouse gases and reduce reliance on fossil-derived feedstocks. This article discusses and prioritizes these leverage points and offers strategy recommendations for chemical producers, product manufacturers and brands. I’ll use a simplified view of a circular economy, with annotations, as a reference point – the first half focuses on “beginning of life” or design, production and use; the second half on “end of life”, or reuse.
#1: Increased use of renewable inputs
Even in a perfect world where we could recycle 100%, we would still need to make more virgin materials to match economic growth. To the extent we need these “fresh” inputs to make materials and it’s better if they’re from renewable sources – e.g. sunlight and CO2, sugars or biomass rather than non-renewable crude oil or coal. Bio-based processes that use renewable feedstocks can deliver considerably better lifecycle analyses (LCAs) than conventional processes using fossil-derived feedstocks. For example, we see over 50% reductions in global warming potential for Genomatica’s first two commercial technologies, to produce bio-based 1,4-butanediol (BDO, used for plastics and fibers such as spandex) and bio-based butylene glycol (Brontide™ BG, used for cosmetics); you can see a summary of the Brontide LCA here.
The other benefit of using renewable feedstocks to make renewable versions of existing petro-based monomers is leverage. Some chemicals are widely-used, with markets of millions of tons per year. Developing competitive bio-based processes for these chemicals means they can be replaced “at source” – which allows all the products made from those renewable chemicals to inherit their improved sustainability profile. BDO is one example (over two million tons per year, to make engineering plastics, polyurethanes, spandex and more). Another is caprolactam, a polyamide intermediate chemical. Genomatica is developing a commercial process to make bio-caprolactam, with partners like Aquafil and Project EFFECTIVE. That bio-caprolactam can make 100% bio-nylon-6, which then enables more sustainable carpet and apparel.
#2: New, better materials
Our increasing ability to program biology affords the potential for new, designer materials with improved properties. For example, companies like DuPont and Avantium are working on making new materials to allow thinner, lighter packaging for beverages; that means less material used, and less wasted product. These material innovations are facilitated by new technologies for making certain chemicals or monomers from bio-based feedstocks, which form key constituents of novel polymers and materials. The result can be a bio-sourced material with improved functional properties suited to a range of applications.
Meanwhile, Bolt Threads (pictured left) and Modern Meadow are using biology to directly make materials that could become replacements for silk and leather, respectively. Not only can these new materials reduce energy use and/or waste – they may also be made using renewable feedstocks, further increasing their benefits.
New materials can deliver substantial benefits, but can also take many years to gain widespread use. Examples include DuPont with PTT, Natureworks with PLA and Novamont with their polymers. Kudos to the companies with the commitment to realize the commercialization and sustainability potential. The world needs more of these examples.
#3: Designing for better lifecycles
Products with good end-of-life outcomes start with great design. We can do more to inform and support product designers as they evaluate the use of various materials, including insight into their ingredients, how they were made, how they may or may not degrade, and their lifecycle impact. This can and should include information to guide end-of-life options, including how to choose materials that are compostable (where appropriate – there are many products you don’t want to just start decomposing).
Product makers benefit from exposure to these same types of information, as they can influence their suppliers (see Brands – a pragmatic approach to bio-based chemicals).
#4: Enabling compostability
Many products may be suitable candidates for composting at their end-of-life. An example is how Co-op, in the U.K., is replacing 180 million single-use shopping bags with a compostable alternative (made from Novamont’s Mater-Bi). Not surprisingly, some compostable materials are made using bio-based processes, perhaps because their producers are already “thinking sustainability”; they offer the additional benefit of using renewable feedstocks to reduce their footprint. Examples include PLA (such as Ingeo by NatureWorks); and Novamont’s Mater-Bi.
Additionally, biotechnology may be able to help with tough end-of-life issues through the development of new enzymes that can break down materials under specific environmental conditions. An example is the recent discovery of enzymes and microorganisms that could potentially break down polyesters including PET.
#5: Better re-use and upcycling at end-of-life
Returning waste materials back into our overall flow of materials is perhaps the most critical high-impact area where technology is needed. We’re seeing an increasing number of technologies to harness various waste streams and convert them into useful products or feedstocks for other conversion technologies. For example, Enerkem (pictured left) is converting municipal solid waste (MSW) into methanol and ethanol using chemical processes. The harnessing of waste as a low-cost feedstock to make other products rather than just sent to landfill is very appealing. Key questions to ask include what types of waste can be handled by an upcycling technologies; what products can be made; and the complexity and cost of the process. To date, most processes that handle waste have aimed to produce a fuel as their end-product, such as ethanol. While that’s a good start, it’s still a relatively low value use compared to the original value of the materials – after all, the least valuable thing you can do with a molecule is burn it.
We should be striving for ways to take MSW, including materials made from virgin polymers, and turn them back into virgin-quality monomers (or even directly into virgin-quality polymers), rather than settle for down-cycling of the material flows. Success doesn’t necessarily imply that waste needs to be turned back into the exact same material, but rather return to the broader material flows in a way that is not simply down-cycling.
Biology offers intriguing potential to make inroads against this challenge. Custom-designed organisms and processes may be able to directly consume various waste streams and convert them to high-value, widely-used chemicals. Such technologies could more fully “close the loop” and make new stuff out of old, as we advance toward a more circular economy. One such example is Lanzatech who are using waste off-gas and biological systems that consume synthesis gas as a source of carbon and energy to make ethanol today, with the aim of making chemicals in the future.
Chemical and polymer producers, downstream processors, product designers and manufacturers, as well as brands can all take specific action to accelerate this transition. Manufacturers can require increasing percentages of renewable content from their suppliers; investigate and plan for new bio-based materials; and move to compostable alternatives where appropriate. Product designers can learn how they can choose materials more holistically, inclusive of their beginning and end-of-life stories. Brands can educate and energize their customers, and differentiate themselves, while delivering more sustainable products. And municipalities, waste handlers and technology firms can combine to develop a next generation of solutions to close the loop. There’s lots to do, but also lots of practical steps we can each take to move forward.