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Turning Trash Into Treasure

Have you ever thrown away a moldy peach, your morning coffee grounds, leftovers from who-knows-when, and wondered what marvelous shape they could take in the after-life? Would you believe your leftover noodles could be molded into perfectly sustainable plastic packaging for your next order of takeout? Well, dream big because according to Full Cycle Bioplastics, the future is one continuous polymer feedback loop of sustainability. Twin brothers Jeff and Dane Anderson grew up surfing San Diego beaches, dodging an ever-growing sea of plastic trash with every wave. Fed up, they decided to do something about it, enrolling in courses on wastewater management. Surfer’s intuition quickly turned to science and the two found themselves riding the crest of the cleantech wave, with a mission to free the world of both food waste and toxic oil-based plastic. Their pointbreak was in developing eco-friendly technology that converts a full range of organic waste materials (last night’s leftovers, paper, cardboard) into compostable, marine-degradable bioplastic (PHA).

With organic waste and plastic pollution as two of the largest contributors to climate change and the deterioration of our oceans, the Anderson brothers were on to a very important discovery. In 2014, they launched Full Cycle Bioplastics with cleantech based on a free and overly abundant resource — organic waste, and a known practice  — composting, which they tweaked with modified bacteria to create biodegradable plastic. It goes something like this: they put the waste into a modified digestion unit and let it all break down, accelerating the process so the wastewater intermediate is concentrated. That liquid form, full of fatty acids, gets fed to bacteria which converts it into PHA, a micro-fat that can be sculpted into whatever your heart desires. Full Cycle would suggest something useful, like packaging or utensils. This is done with no petroleum, no chemicals, the process is entirely carbon-negative and no different than your garden variety compost pile with a few new bacteria introduced. 

The icing on the cake is you can have your cake and eat it too. Products can be returned to the company to go through the process all over again, or, if they end up in the ocean like too many of the one million water bottles we buy every minute, the biodegradable products simply turn into fish food. Full Cycle Bioplastics has won numerous innovation awards, including the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Award in 2016 for its safe, simple, and environmentally friendly bioplastic. Still, their goal is not to entirely eliminate conventional plastic, which can last hundreds of years. That durability serves its purpose in medical equipment or computer hardware, but do we need it in everyday items discarded after a single use? 

Scientists project there will be more plastic in the ocean than there are fish by the year 2050. Every year we produce over 250 million tons of petroleum plastic worldwide, filling up our oceans, landfills, and even our bodies. Big business is discovering a large market for companies looking to do the right thing, as consumers become increasingly concerned with how products affect the environment and their health. Until recently, bioplastics were not viewed as an affordable option, but turning trash into usable biodegradable plastic is actually cost-effective. Corporations like Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo and Unilever are now exploring their own versions of PHA packaging. Ross Polk, Full Cycle Bioplastics’ manager of business and product development, says: “It’s still early days for the industry but we’re entering a sort of Renaissance. There are a number of different players globally that are still commercializing PHA resins…but it takes a long time and a lot of intellectual capital, a lot of real capital, to commercialize a new material.” From surfer startups to global giants, cleantech is already stimulating a circular economy that will make dollars and sense for generations to come. 

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