By Phil Van Trump
The world’s plastic waste crisis continues to grow every year, with the rate of plastic production increasing from 3.9 billion pounds in 1950 to an eye-popping 800 billion pounds in 2018. According to The Atlantic magazine, nearly half of all plastic worldwide that has ever been manufactured was created after the year 2004.
While recycling efforts have potential and are worthy of support, the truth is they currently have limited effectiveness and can only chip away at the edges of this problem. More than 85 percent of U.S. plastic waste went to landfills in 2021, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Danimer Scientific envisions an alternative path to reducing our world’s use of petroleum-based plastic — and U.S. canola producers are a key partner in bringing our vision to reality. Nodax®, our signature polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), is created using a 100 percent renewable and sustainable process that starts with bacteria fed oils derived from canola and other plants. The process is similar to the natural fermentation method that’s used to create wine, mead and beer.
When certain types of bacteria ferment in canola oil inside our vessels, they create PHA within their cell membranes as energy reserves. After PHA is extracted from the bacteria, it is purified and dried into a powder form, then turned into pellets, injection-molded into specific shapes or extruded into films. Modern biotechnology allows us to use a process that happens in nature to create a fully biodegradable, food-safe material that has hundreds of practical applications.
PHA can be used as a replacement for many items we use today, such as single-use food and consumer goods packaging that often uses a thin layer of petroleum-based plastic, which is non-biodegradable. Unlike petroleum-based plastics, which break down into environment-polluting microplastics, PHA fully breaks down when in the presence of microorganisms, similar to cellulose or wood.
As we were developing Nodax®, we knew it was crucial to find a feedstock that wouldn’t restrict our business’s ability to grow along with the bioplastics industry.Among the factors we considered were the logistics of growing a feedstock, which led us to canola. This crop can be grown all across North America — as far north as Canada and all the way down to Georgia — which means it doesn’t have to cross an ocean to get to us. Also, winter canola, which is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, doesn’t compete for available row space with traditional spring crops. Growing canola during the winter could provide additional income for some farmers, helping to further grow the bio-based economy.
While today, Danimer Scientific only makes up a small portion of the customer base for canola producers, we expect our need for canola to ramp up significantly in the coming years. We already have enough capacity to utilize 32.5 million pounds of canola annually! As the bioplastics industry continues to develop, we’ll look to the U.S. canola industry to help produce the feedstock that allows our products to be made. We look forward to expanding and strengthening our existing partnerships with this industry.
The growth of bioplastics represents an important turning point in the battle against plastic waste. With the help of U.S. canola producers, we can create a more sustainable, natural alternative to petroleum-based plastics to help preserve our environment for generations to come.
Phil Van Trump is Chief Technology Officer of Danimer Scientific based in Bainbridge, Ga., USA.