Plastic Eating Super Enzymes for a Circular Economy

Photo by Catherine Sheila from Pexels

Invented in 1907, plastics have grown in popularity for their convenience and disposability. However, plastics are now becoming a cause for concern due to its poor degradability.

The scale of the problem is large. Researchers estimate that since the 1950s,  more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. Of this, much of the plastic ends up in oceans and it is estimated that plastic will outweigh all the fish in the ocean by ocean by 2050.

Only about 9% of all plastic waste is regenerated. So, what happens to the rest. A recent story piqued my interest. A handful of microbes have evolved with the ability to “eat” plastics. These microbes break down the component molecules of the plastic. You may ask, this is an old hat, so what’s new. While the first plastic-eating microbe was discovered in 1990s, there has been steady progress in the field. They’ve now evolved to the bacterium that uses plastic as their sole food and energy source. Researchers are, now, creating industrial-scale super enzymes that could eat PET  six times faster than earlier. Scientists are looking at microbial DNA from a range of habitats. In areas with high levels of plastic pollution, the researchers found that the microbes were more likely to have enzymes with plastic-degrading tendencies. One study has found a soil bacterium that feeds on some components of polyurethane.

Pilot projects have started utilising these technologies. For instance, the University of Portsmouth has set up Revolution Plastics, which aims to forge links between academics and industry. Carbios, a French biotechnology company, runs another project.

The main advantage of plastic-eating enzymes is that it makes it possible to recreate plastic to the highest quality. This is unlike recycling, where the quality of plastic degrades after every round of recycling. Thus, these advances are a boon to the circular economy.

The Value-Action Gap and Sustainability

Awareness of climate change, global warming and environmental risks among people is increasing by the day. Many surveys have shown that people prefer greener or sustainable alternatives to current products. However, these preferences or intentions often do not translate into consumption, lifestyles, or travel patterns. 

On the flip side, companies also do the same. According to a study published by Deloitte recently, 63% of C-suite executives worldwide recognise the need for businesses to take climate action. However, only a fifth of the companies are actually taking decisive steps on sustainability. 

This discrepancy between stated beliefs and behaviours is known as Value-Action Gap. First, let us examine how stated beliefs come about. There are three possible causes:

  1. The value system — a genuine desire to do something for the environment.
  2. Peer pressure makes you look good in front of your friends and colleagues.
  3. The role of the influencers – prominent people or role models who espouse sustainable causes.

So, what leads to the value-action gap

1. Information deficit: There is often an information deficit facing the customers. Which brands and products are truly “sustainable?” Which certifications are important? Which materials are superior? 

From a company’s perspective finding the right technology for emission reduction would be an information issue.

2. Costs: There is a search cost associated with finding sustainable products. Psychological costs (stressing about the purchase) and monetary costs (going to the right store) impact decision making.

Companies, when faced with ESG challenges, face similar costs.

Reducing the value-action gap requires a reduction of these costs.

The move to sustainability cannot be achieved without attention to the value-action gap. Three actions can help reduce the gap: increasing the customer’s/company’s capability or the company, motivating them towards intended behaviours, and providing opportunities to improve behaviours. Policymakers need to account for this while creating policies aimed at creating a sustainable or circular economy.

Budget 2022 and ESG

Here is my quick take on budget announcements related to ESG.

  1. Swappable batteries: The government proposes to bring a battery swapping policy. This will enable people in in urban areas who may not have charging facilities to utilise their electric vehicles. While this is late in coming, it is a welcome move.
  2. Sovereign green bonds:  In order to reduce the carbon intensity of the country the finance minister has proposed the issuance of sovereign green bonds as a part of the government’s borrowing programme. This will bring in much needed funding into the country for its public sector. Private capital will now have to increase their funding as well to meet the net zero challenge.
  3. An amount of Rs. 2,217 crores for 42 urban centres with a million-plus population has been set aside for tackling air pollution. The action on these allocation will need to be seen.
  4. It is proposed to launch a Hydrogen Energy Mission in 2021-22 for generating hydrogen from green power sources. This is really the need of the hour.
  5. To give a further boost to the non-conventional energy sector, it is propose to provide additional capital infusion of Rs 1,000 crores to Solar Energy Corporation of India and Rs 1,500 crores to Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency. These are welcome.
  6. The action plans for ten sectors such as electronic waste, end-of-life vehicles, used oil waste, and toxic & hazardous industrial waste are ready. This will be supported by active public policies covering regulations, extended producers’ responsibilities framework and innovation facilitation. Again, these are really needed to move forward on circular economy.
  7. Creation of Energy Service Company (ESCO) business model to facilitate capacity building and awareness for energy audits, performance contracts, and common measurement & verification protocol. This will be useful in urban centres.
  8. Promoting agroforestry and private forestry. This will help in increasing our green cover.
  9. Rs 19,500 cr allocation for PLI manufacture of solar PV modules. This will promote PV modules production in India and should promote solar expansion.
  10. An increase in the customs duties on wind and solar infrastructure import and the reverse bidding process requires companies to provide projects at lowest cost which is quite contradictory. 
  11. Promotion of greener public transport through special mobility zones with zero fossil fuel policy. This will give a fillip to sustainable transporatation.
  12. Thermal Power Plants are mandated to use 5-7% biomass pallets. Supports reduced GHG emissions.

To my mind, one of the misses of the budget has been the setting up of carbon budgets and carbon markets. These are the need of the hour.

Green Methanol and Shift to Net Zero

China, the United States and India are amongst the largest greenhouse gas emitters and their efforts to mitigate climate change come under great scrutiny. India, for instance, plans to become carbon neutral by 2070 and projects carbon emission reduction by one billion tonnes by 2030. China has somewhat similar goals. However, newer technologies are required to wean away these countries from their dependence on coal and tackle the pollution pervading towns and cities.

While solar and other renewable technologies are expanding, the pace is not fast enough to tackle the crisis. These technologies have two problems: intermittency and many places not being connected to the grid. Hydrogen is seen as a possible substitute energy source. However, hydrogen tends to leak and can be a fire hazard. Many scientists believe the solution lies may like in “green methanol.” Green or renewable methanol is an ultra-low carbon chemical produced from sustainable biomass or carbon dioxide and hydrogen produced from renewable electricity.

Methanol is a highly versatile product that finds itself in many ubiquitous household products, essential components for cars, and the production of other valuable chemicals.

Green methanol can be used as an energy carrier for storing electricity generated from renewable sources or as a transportation fuel. Besides LNG and ammonia, green methanol is also considered a substitute fuel for maritime fuel applications. Additionally, it can be added to conventional liquid fuels or used to fuel 100% methanol-based drive systems.

Currently, methanol is the largest produced organic chemical, with an annual production of about 100 million tons. It is believed that with green methanol the market could triple.

The shift to net-zero requires the development of many such fossil fuel substitutes.

The Expiry Date Challenge for Sustainability

One of the things that we often do is check the expiry date before purchasing something. We ask ourselves, “Can I consume it within time?” So, what happens to expired products.

Expired products occur at three points – unsold expired products in company warehouses; unsold products at retail stores; and unused or partially used products at consumer homes. Expired products are a waste and mostly end up in landfills, a problem in the entire value chain.

Better demand assessment and inventory management should manage unsold inventory in company warehouses. Retail stores often sell near-expiry products at a discount to overcome the problem. Some stores implement electronic systems that will discount a near-expiry product at the time of billing. At the consumer end, behavioural issues often lead to increased waste. There is often a misunderstanding of what the label means. There are many terminologies – use by, best before, sell-by, purchase before, etc. The consumer takes them to mean the same, resulting in wastage. This can also be minimised by consumers being prudent and using smell and taste to deduce whether the food item is edible. In some product categories like medicines, it has been shown that the efficacy of the medicine does not reduce due to expiration – yet consumer resistance can be very strong. Or, take cosmetics where expiration dates are short, and there may be a genuine fear of something happening to the body.

Another issue is the legal requirement to label products. Take the case of honey. Pure honey doesn’t really go bad even after many years. Unfortunately there is a legal labelling requirement to label honey.

There is a genuine need to attack waste due to expiry dates. This requires consumer education as well as improved demand and inventory management. Waste also has implications for carbon emissions because the carbon emissions could be lower if there were less waste.