Enzymatic solution could solve the plastic problem forever
5 July 2022 at 5:09 pm
“Our ultimate objective still is to be able to take a mixed bag of plastics and put it through our process and extract all of the building blocks out of those plastics, and make them available for re-use in a sustainable manner.”
Plastic is, quite literally, everywhere. Since its invention a little over 100 years ago, the material has become ubiquitous and can now be found in cars, pens, computers and more.
But while very useful, it comes with a very big problem attached – namely, how to recycle plastic when it reaches the end of its useful life.
Plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times – usually two or three – before it becomes too fragile to be turned into anything else.
And when that happens, the recycled plastic ends up – you guessed it – in landfill, where it can take hundreds of years to break down.
One Australian company is looking to resolve the problem.
The fourth ‘R’
Australia’s first infinite recycling company, Samsara, is focused on the “fourth R” – resolve (building on the widely known reduce, reuse, recycle adage that is drilled into us from an early age).
The company wants to find a solution to plastic waste that means that no virgin plastic is needed.
In other words, the plastic that already exists could be recycled infinitely, living numerous lives as whatever products are needed.
Co-founder and CEO of Samsara Paul Riley said only 9 per cent of plastic is currently being recycled.
Current recycling initiatives are being overwhelmed by the volume of plastic waste, which he believes is opening up opportunities for new ways of addressing the plastic pollution crisis.
For Samsara – which was formed of a partnership between Australian National University, Woolworths and Main Sequence, the CSIRO’s venture capital fund – that new approach is enzymatic recycling.
Samsara’s labs take polyester and run it through a depolymerisation process into its “original core building blocks”, or monomers, Riley explained.
The process takes around an hour and from there, the monomers can be repurposed into a new plastic product.
“Those monomers are then equivalent to virgin monomer. So we’re displacing fossil fuel monomers from the supply chain and those monomers produce virgin equivalent plastic for reuse infinitely,” Riley said.
The process is superior to traditional mechanical recycling, which can only be performed a certain number of times before the plastic degrades beyond use.
Mechanical recycling is also only appropriate for certain types of plastic – think clear, washed containers.
Riley said Samsara’s enzymatic recycling process has the potential to be used on anything from tomato punnets to old clothing. Nor does the condition of the plastic matter; the process works on degraded plastic, coloured plastic, and ocean waste.
“All of those hard to recycle plastics, the coloured, the multi-layered, all those plastics that have no home, they can now be recycled through our process. The enzyme does all the hard work,” he said.
More than just polyester
While the business currently breaks down polyester, Samsara has ambitions to be able to recycle the full mixed bale of plastic.
It has also developed a nylon enzyme and is close to developing an enzyme that can break down urethane.
“Put those three together and you’ve got fast fashion. If I can resolve polyester, nylon and polyurethane… I can take activewear clothing and put that through the process,” Riley said.
The process is identical for each of the plastics.
Being able to break these back down to monomers would go a long way towards solving the plastic problem posed by fast fashion, Riley said, which does heavy damage through plastic packaging and the fibres used in clothes themselves.
Samsara is also closing in on a solution for polycarbonate, which is what CDs are made from.
“Polycarbonate is also a very big market that needs a resolution because there is no recycling of polycarbonate available at the moment,” Riley explained.
“We’re more than just a polyester recycling company… we want to be a multi-enzymatic plastics business. And our ultimate objective still is to be able to take a mixed bag of plastics and put it through our process and extract all of the building blocks out of those plastics, and make them available for re-use in a sustainable manner.”
Enzymes alone are not the answer
Riley acknowledges that Samsara, on its own, is only part of the solution.
“If I never had to see another piece of single use plastic in my life, I would be ecstatic,” he said.
He believes there needs to be a cultural shift across consumers and businesses, with products redesigned to use less plastic in their construction and packaging, and all plastics reused as much as they possibly can be.
“And then, where we can’t do all those things, [Samsara] can then provide a solution to recycling that allows you to recycle the plastic forever,” he added.
The enzymatic process doesn’t release any carbon, and Riley said it could put a stop to the fossil fuel industry’s involvement in plastic -– because no virgin plastic would be needed.
But there needs to be a shift in mindset from throwing things away, to reusing and recycling them.
Riley said governments, corporates and consumers need a better understanding of plastics in order to know how to treat them at the end of their useful lives.
Ready to scale
Currently, Samsara is trialling its monomers commercially. The company hopes to have its first enzymatically recycled product on a Woolworths shelf later this year.
Samsara is building its first large-scale facility to process polyester in Victoria, and is actively working with partners to export the technology to the world.
“Our stated objective is to be able to process 1.5 million tonnes of plastic per annum by 2030,” Riley said.
“It’s incredibly exciting… but that’s 0.375 per cent of the world market. We need 50 of us to succeed to solve the plastics crisis.”
Riley wants to see a “substantial reduction” in the volume of plastic produced around the world.
Together with enzymatic recycling like that developed by Samsara, that would remove fossil fuels from the production chain.
“We’ve made enough plastic. There’s enough in the environment to last forever. We never have to make another piece of fossil fuel plastic ever. We’ve just got to find a way that recovers the value that’s out there – and we believe our technology can achieve that.”
Find out more about Samsara here.