VTT — the Technical Research Centre of Finland — is helping to solve the global plastic waste problem with a project called PlastBug, a mobile container unit that removes plastic waste from ocean areas and converts it into material for other uses.
"Our idea is to design a mobile container where microbes degrade plastic waste to valuable products like fuels or chemicals," says Kari Koivuranta, Principal Scientist at VTT.
The aim is to develop a small, container-based factory that can be placed in an area where centralised plastic waste collecting or recycling is not possible or feasible, such as beaches or ships. The factory unit would be powered mostly with solar and wind power. This annual project is part of VTT’s iBEX programme, which aims to achieve rapid, bold solutions to global problems.
Researchers around the world have mobilized in recent years in attempts to eliminate the global scourge of plastic waste. In 2014, a team of scientists at Beihang University in China discovered that bacteria from the guts of a common plastic-eating moth larva (which happily already enjoys snacking on food packaging) can degrade polyethylene (PE), the type of plastic most commonly used in bags, bottles and other types of packaging — a finding they felt could lead to new ways to help get rid of the ubiquitous waste. In 2016, two University of British Columbia students developed a process called BioCellection, by which genetically engineered bacteria break down plastic pollution into carbon dioxide and water, at a rate 80 times faster than a naturally occurring bacteria, in what they said was a world-first method for breaking down plastics at a scalable, industrial level. And fellow Finns at renewable diesel producer Neste are exploring ways to introduce liquefied waste plastic as a future raw material for fossil fuel refining. The company aims to launch an industrial scale trial in 2019 and annually process more than 1 million tons of waste plastic by 2030. This year, the PlastBug researchers have continued the hunt for microbes capable of degrading PE, along with other common types of plastics (PP, PS, PET) and developed methods for the pretreatment of plastics. They are currently using a three-stage screening method to screen microbes from different sources.
"Some microbes have already passed through the first two stages of the screening. In the third stage, we will confirm are they capable to consume and digest plastic," Koivuranta says. “In the next step, if plastic-degrading microbes will be found, we will improve the ability of the most effective microbes to digest plastic, and we will develop plastic pre-treatment methods further to ease the work of the microbes.”
A complete process is being engineered around the fermenting unit containing microbes — a small plant in which plastic is modified from waste to products. The aim is that the pilot unit will operate on the Baltic Sea in 2021, but funding still needs to be secured for the realisation of this plan.
If the process can be made to work effectively enough, the PlastBug units can progress to commercial production and operate in different locations around the world. Earlier this week, the Plastbug team took second place in the Meriroska (Marine Litter) Challenge posed by the Finnish Environment Agency.
VTT is developing a number of technologies that could amount to industrial-scale circular solutions for a number of waste problems: In 2016, as part of a collaborative initiative called Relooping Fashion, VTT created a carbamate cellulose dissolution technique for textiles, to chemically recycle post-consumer cotton for future use.