UGent researchers create bacteria that turns organic waste into plastic

Summary

Researchers from Ghent University have teamed up with MIT to breed bacteria that can digest organic waste and turn it into useful molecules for producing plastics

Greener, cleaner, more efficient

Researchers from Ghent University (UGent) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have bred bacteria that can digest organic waste and turn it into useful molecules for producing plastics. Although there is a long way to go before it could be used in industrial applications, the new method can act as a more ecological alternative to fossil-fuel plastics.

The search to replace fossil resources with more sustainable materials has already produced significant results. Still, plant-based plastics remain a niche product, and the shift from a fossil-fuel industry to a commercial production based on biological material has yet to take place.

One of the biggest questions is how the increasing industrial demands for natural resources like corn will balance with the need to feed humans and livestock. The research by UGent, in collaboration with MIT, has come up with a new method of producing bio-plastics that rely on the help of bacteria.

“We’ve modified the E coli bacteria to make it capable of transforming certain types of sugar into ethylene glycol, a molecule used to make the common plastic called PET,” explains professor Marjan De Mey of the Biochemical and Microbial Technology department at UGent. “The sugars are found in organic waste but are not digestible by humans.”

From the lab to the factory

PETs are found everywhere – that’s what plastic bottles are made of, for example – so finding an organic alternative is crucial. “Bottles are just one of the many applications of PET,” says De Mey. “The molecule resulting from our process is exactly the same as the one derived from oil, so bottles made with it are the same as regular ones.”

There are already many organic bottles on the market, she continues, like Coca Cola’s green bottle, but their production is based on ethanol, a resource made of sugars suitable for human consumption. “Our method offers a simpler way to derive the basic component of PET from non-consumable sugars. It’s more sustainable than fuel-based production because it relies on natural resources, and the production process requires fewer chemicals.”

It’s more sustainable than fuel-based production because it relies on natural resources, and the process requires fewer chemicals

- Marjan De Mey of UGent

This makes it also more advantageous from an economic point of view, says De Mey. “The plastics industry is focused on mass production. If you want to develop an economically sound production method, then you need to start with resources that are less expensive. That’s why we chose to work with organic waste; it’s cheaper than sugars suitable for human consumption.”

Still, there is a long way to go before bacteria can compete with fossil fuels as a basic resource for plastics. “It is a good starting point, but the challenge is to apply this lab-based method in an industrial setting.”

Luckily, she adds, the chemical industry has already expressed some interest. “Consumers are demanding more sustainable products, so producers are looking beyond fossil fuels.”

Photo: Ingimage