Tune in to the latest episode of our new series Make it Count, where we explore the plastic replacement that already exists and is made with materials found in human bodies.
Since the 1970s, scientists have been searching for efficient ways to make products out of fast-degrading biomaterials instead of plastics.
It’s been a tough pursuit. Biomaterial alternatives for plastic need to be not only environmentally friendly, but also strong enough to perform the functions of traditional plastic: contain liquids, hold store-bought goods, and preserve food. And, maybe most importantly, the alternative has to be cheap to make. So far, the plastic alternatives of recent decades — from seaweed to oxo-degradable plastic — haven’t quite checked all the boxes.
Newlight Technologies aims to change that. The California-based biotech company has spent nearly 20 years developing a sustainable, ocean-degradable biomaterial made from a biopolymer that’s produced by bacteria in the ocean. Called AirCarbon, the plastic-like biomaterial is already being used to make products like bags, containers, phone cases, and drinking straws.
If AirCarbon can finally be the solution that helps phase out traditional plastics, it could greatly reduce global pollution — not only in oceans and land, but also in the atmosphere.
The environmental toll of plastics
Plastics have seeped into all corners of the environment. In addition to the larger wrappers, bags, and bottles that litter the land and oceans, microplastics pollute less obvious places, including Antarctic ice, Colorado rainwater, and our own bodies. A 2019 study estimated that Americans consume more than 39,000 microplastic particles every year; research suggests plastics can disrupt endocrine functioning in the human body.
Since the material entered commerce in the early 20th century, people have produced more than 9 billion metric tons of plastic. Of that, only 9% has been recycled. The majority of the plastic that doesn’t get burned or carried to landfills flows downstream into oceans, where it can kill marine life and take hundreds of years to degrade.
Each year, the world pumps an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic into oceans, disrupting habitats and enlarging giant garbage patches, swirling vortices of trash that can cover more than 600,000 square miles. If current pollution rates persist, some researchers predict ocean plastic will outweigh all ocean fish by 2050.
Bioplastic products could put the world on a more sustainable track. Bioplastics are biodegradable materials made from biological substances instead of fossil fuels, and in some cases they function as well as or better than conventional plastics. Biomaterials currently represent just 1% of the market. Newlight Technologies hopes to take up a much larger share over the next decade.
A biodegradable, carbon-negative plastic alternative
Newlight Technologies’ biomaterial is made from one of the two main materials used to make plastic alternatives: polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). The other type is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from fermented plant starches. Although PLA is more sustainable than fossil fuel-based plastics — breaking down in roughly 12 weeks under certain conditions — it doesn’t degrade well in cold environments, like the ocean.
PHAs don’t have that problem. AirCarbon — Newlight Technologies’ main product — is made from a PHA derivative called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). It’s a nontoxic polymer that’s found in almost all living things and biosynthesized by many types of bacteria, which produce it by consuming air and greenhouse gases that get dissolved in saltwater.
Newlight Technologies recreates this process to produce bioplastics.
“It just so happens that if you extract PHB you can turn it into a fine white powder, and because it’s meltable, you can use it to replace plastic,” Mark Herrema, co-founder and CEO of Newlight Technologies, told Freethink.
The process involves putting microorganisms (also called biological catalysts) in saltwater tanks and exposing them to minerals, air, and methane. This causes the organisms to excrete PHB. Newlight Technologies wasn’t the first organization to use this method, but the company did make the process far more cost-effective by boosting the productivity of the biological catalysts.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which awarded the company a Green Chemistry Challenge prize in 2016, described on its website:
“Newlight developed a biocatalyst that does not ‘turn itself off’ based on the amount of polymer being produced. To do this, Newlight developed a process to disable the negative feedback receptors on polyhydroxyalkanoate polymerase, the central polymer production enzyme in the biocatalyst. As a result, the biocatalyst is able to continue to polymerize significantly beyond previous maximum limits and generate a yield of nine kilograms of polymer for every one kilogram of biocatalyst (9:1) — nine times more material compared to previous technologies.”
After the biocatalyst produces the PHB, the polymer is dried into a powder and formed into pellets, which can be melted into different shapes to form biodegradable products. The products function comparably to traditional plastic-based goods and they don’t get soggy when exposed to water. And if they end up in the landfill or the ocean, bacteria will decompose them far more quickly than traditional plastics.
“[PHB] is made in nature, so nature sees it like a food source and will eat it and degrade it like a banana peel,” Herrema told Freethink.
PHB is environmentally sustainable not only because it’s biodegradable, but also because its production is carbon negative. After all, the production of PHB uses carbon-capture technology to convert greenhouse gases into biomaterial, removing carbon from the atmosphere. In contrast, producing traditional plastics uses fossil fuels, while making other forms of biomaterials often requires taking up a lot of land to grow crops.
“The nice thing about using greenhouse gas is it allows you to avoid the use of food crops or other things that would generate environmental damage,” Herrema told Freethink. “If you think about it, greenhouse gas is really the feedstock of choice for nature.”
Phasing out traditional plastics
Over the short term, Newlight Technologies is focused on bringing AirCarbon products to the food and fashion industries through its two main brands: Restore and Covalent. Restore sells biodegradable drinking straws and cutlery to companies like Target and Shake Shack, while Covalent sells handbags, wallets, and phone cases.
The company’s long-term goal is to disrupt the global plastics industry with biomaterials that don’t accumulate in the environment. For now, the key hurdle is scale: It’s hard for biomaterials companies to be as cost-effective as established names in the plastics industry, both because the technology is newer and because they haven’t yet established the production infrastructure.
Herrema thinks Newlight Technologies has cracked the code for producing functional plastic-like biomaterials. Now it’s just a matter of building more facilities.
“We have a very clear path to being able to provide real volume, so scale is the name of the game right now,” he told Freethink.