In recent years, the issue of plastic pollution has become an overwhelming global crisis. Only 5% of all plastics are retrieved and the rest ends up in landfills or oceans.1 Although most plastics can be recycled, most plastics do not experience a circular life cycle, but instead are single-use and end up landfilled. When looking for a solution to this problem, the Design Thinking methodology learned at the Berkeley Program was applied. In our outreach with recycling stakeholders, the OLS SynBio team discovered from this public engagement that the issue is not the recycling of plastic, but instead the inefficient sorting of these plastics. Mis-sorted plastics cannot be recycled - only plastics correctly separated into their specific types can be properly recycled into raw materials for re-use. This led to a major pivot of our project focus: away from improving the breakdown of plastics, and instead re-focusing on how we could bio-tag plastics for more efficient sorting, thereby reducing the amount of global plastic ending up in landfills and oceans.
To further understand this issue, the team participated in many community outreach events. OLS Synbio consulted with Simon Robbins, the corporate manager of a local recycling plant, who provided guidance and insight into how the recycling cycle works. OLS SynBio also met with Peter Duck, the zero waste manager for the town of Canmore. The team participated in the Alberta Recycling Conference to learn more about how plastics are recycled in the community, and how big the team’s contribution would be. Stakeholder feedback helped to further refine the project.
Before incorporating it into the recycling facility, this bio-tag protein would be isolated and purified, and the team will run numerous proof-of-concept assays. The next step in the project is prototyping. The team has explored a prototype which would use a streamlined linear process that involves both existing technology and new robotics to effectively sort plastics. Early business modeling suggests that this project is desirable by people, feasible with technology and viable as a business.
|Snapshot of our constructs|
In summary, the OLS SynBio team is creating a novel protein bio-tag that will adhere selectively to PET plastics, making PET visible to both the naked eye and UV cameras for easy sorting from other non-PET plastics. This product has the potential to revolutionize the recycling industry, and reduce the current practice of landfilling poorly sorted plastics. This will create a truly circular life cycle for plastic products.
1. Nicole D'Alessandro, April 7 2014. 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It). Retrieved from https://www.ecowatch.com/22-facts-about-plastic-pollution-and-10-things-we-can-do-about-it-1881885971.html