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Circular PET: Carbios takes the lead

Christel Trinquier

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Circular PET: Carbios takes the lead

French company Carbios might well be the new jewel in green chemistry’s crown, with its process of enzymatic depolymerization that is creating a buzz. Luxe Packaging Insight talks to Carbios deputy CEO Martin Stephan.

Carbios made the front page of science journal Nature on April 8th*. In the days that followed, your share price skyrocketed.

Yes, the share price went from €7 to nearly €17 in one week, and we recorded €3.5m of capital traded on April 9 and €10m when the stock market reopened after the Easter weekend. But beyond the figures, an article in Nature is a consecration that validates seven years of research conducted jointly with researchers from the Toulouse Biotechnology Institute.

The research was based on the premise that it’s not plastic that poses a problem, but its end of life?

We are convinced that the problems we are facing will not be solved by slowing down consumption, but rather by technology. It is neither possible nor reasonable to imagine a world without plastic: it is a fantastic material that every day—and at this moment probably especially—does great service to humanity. Our solution paves the way for a virtuous management of plastic waste by providing a sustainable solution at the end of its life. Enzymatic depolymerization, which makes the infinite recycling of PET possible, will revolutionize frameworks by inscribing PET channels in a 100% circular logic.

Your process allows for PET from any source to produce recycled PET with identical properties to the virgin material. How does it work?

We break the molecular chain of PET to recover its original monomers. There is no loss of physical or technical integrity. The process itself purifies the material to obtain monomers free of any colorant or resin other than PET. We have succeeded in recombining the monomers to produce plastic bottles that meet all the technical and sanitary requirements of food grade, regardless of the source material used: bottles (virgin, printed or mass-dyed), thermoformed, synthetic textile fibers… and without calling for sophisticated sorting devices.

With 70 million tons of PET consumed each year, the potential market is huge. Will recycling channels follow?

Ensuring supply will be a challenge that we’ll have to take on collectively; to set up this circular economy all plastics stakeholders will have to get their hands dirty. A significant effort will have to be made regarding collection. This will require a change in the way we look at waste: it is time to realize that these are raw materials with real potential.

The Carbios’ demonstration unit will start being built this year at the Saint-Fons site an should be operational in the second quarter of 2021. Its vocation is to offer investors interested in a Carbios license all the necessary guarantees of industrial viability.

The performance achieved in the test phase has confirmed the processes’ industrial and commercial potential. To date, we are able to depolymerize up to 90% of a given PET product in 10 hours. This allows us to envisage the transition to industrial scale production with confidence.

It seems you are not the only one who believes in the potential.

The demonstration plant was financed by a €14.5m capital increase in which our historical shareholder Truffle Capital along with Michelin, Copernicus AM and L'Oréal participated. L'Oréal is also behind the creation of a support consortium for our project bringing together PepsiCo, Nestlé Waters and Suntory. If all goes according to plan, the industrial roll-out of our technology could take place late 2024/early 2025. We have already entered into an exclusive co-development partnership with Novozymes, a leader in the enzyme segment, for the large-scale production of our proprietary enzyme.

Will you extend enzyme depolymerization to other plastics?

Of course. We are being asked a lot about PP, which could be an excellent candidate given the volumes produced (Editor’s note: PlasticsEurope estimates that PP accounted for 19% of world plastics consumption in 2018 compared to 6% for PET, which continues to gain market share every year.)

Chemical recycling processes such as pyrolysis are criticized for being more energy intensive than mechanical recycling: what about enzyme recycling?

The enzymatic hydrolysis process developed by Carbios is carried out at low temperature ("biological" temperature), in water (without solvent) and at atmospheric pressure, which gives it an advantage over processes that consume more energy and other resources.

What will be the cost of circular PET compared to PET from mechanical recycling?

It will be more expensive at first. We estimate it to be less than twice as expensive as virgin PET, but we believe that the technology has the potential to eventually produce PET at the same cost as petrochemical PET. Through Carbiolice¬, a joint venture uniting seed companies Limagrain and Bpifrance, Carbios is also working on a new generation PLA. We have developed a composting technique by including enzymes in flexible and rigid PLAs for single-use and/or very short-life products (food packaging, polybags, etc.) that will enable their decomposition by industrial, but also domestic composting. These PLAs will decompose into monomers digested by soil micro-organisms. We expect to market our first enzyme granules for the manufacturing of PLAs as early as this year. 

*An Engineered PET-depolymerase to Break Down and Recycle Plastic Bottles

 

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