A southern pine in the southeastern United States grows quickly, practically like a weed. This tree will inevitably be cut down. That’s because this timber may hold one key to staving off a plastics-induced garbage apocalypse. It is raised to be harvested and chopped into wood chips to live out its fate — not as pulp to make paper, but as feedstock to make a new type of plastic.
“Wood chips are damn good,” says entrepreneur John Bissell, who views the material as representing the plastic of the future.
Bissell is banking his West Sacramento-based company, Origin Materials, on the concept that plastic made from biomass — as in, derived from renewable sources, rather than fossil fuels — makes economic and environmental sense. His chemical company has impressed two major multinational corporations, Nestle and Danone, and has accrued roughly $90 million in investor financing.
Origin Materials is part of a small but growing bioplastics market, which currently composes only about 1 percent of all plastic. The company produces a material that allows for the fossil fuels typically used to make plastic bottles to be swapped out with wood chips. While this type of production still emits greenhouse gases, Bissell contends it pollutes far less than typical plastic production (the data is still under peer review). In test samples, about 80 percent of each end-user product enabled by Origin’s technology is made from biomass; the rest is plastic from fossil fuels. Though Bissell says Origin is on its way to producing a 100-percent biomass bottle in the near future.
Plastics dominate the products of our daily lives. The material is found in all sorts of things — our cell phones, clothing, medical equipment, airplanes and much more. It’s durable, low-cost and global production has skyrocketed nearly 2,000 percent over the past 50 years, according to “The New Plastics Economy,” a recent study from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. A Science Advances analysis estimates that nearly 80 percent of the world’s plastic ends up as trash.
“I see the advancement and development of materials as the main thing that human beings can do to improve the human condition.” John Bissell, CEO, Origin Materials
Origin Materials wants society to innovate its way out of this mess. Bissell believes a key solution lies in the bottles themselves. Regulation, recycling and a reliance on changing consumer behavior have proven ineffective in curbing the environmental impacts of plastic, and plastic production is projected to double over the next 20 years. In the U.S., plastics still represent a formidable lobby (though they have suffered legislative losses in recent years, especially in California), and increasing regulation rattles industry groups. Recycling infrastructure can’t currently process every variety of commonly-used plastic. And human behavior is notoriously unpredictable.
“I see materials as one of the fundamental drivers of human society,” says Bissell, Origin’s CEO. “Materials — people often overlook them, but they’re so fundamental to everything we do … In that sense, I see the advancement and development of materials as the main thing that human beings can do to improve the human condition.”
ORIGIN’S NEW ‘PLASTIC’
Originally from Carmichael, Bissell graduated from Rio Americano High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at UC Davis. In 2008, Bissell and fellow Davis grads Ryan Smith, a chemical engineer, and Casey McGrath, a microbiologist, co-founded a biodegradable plastics startup called Micromidas. They would eventually pivot to biosourced plastics and rename the company Origin Materials. “We realized pretty quickly it might be more interesting,” Bissell says.
PET bottles, which get their name from the polyethylene terephthalate used to make them, are what you get when purchasing a disposable bottle of water or soda. Traditionally, most of them have been petroleum-based, which means they break down into small pieces but don’t biodegrade and leave the food chain. While current biodegradable plastics have the potential to break down, they do so only under specific conditions in a composting facility. You can’t just toss a biodegradable cup on the ground and expect it to decompose naturally; and in landfills, they emit greenhouse gases. With biosourced products, like those made with Origin’s wood chips, consumers are more likely to view them as regular plastic and recycle them, Bissell says.
Bissell is obsessed with packaging, which is the largest application of plastic at 26 percent of total volume used, according to “The New Plastics Economy.” To get a sense of its scale, consider that after a short first-use cycle, 95 percent of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy, notes the report. That represents $80 billion to $120 billion annually.
Companies need packaging, and they spend a lot of money on it, Bissell explains. They do so to prevent leakage, safeguard against public health risks, prevent their products from breakage, reduce food waste by extending shelf life and to bring packaging weight down (thereby reducing fuel consumption for transportation), according to the Ellen MacArthur report. Plastic does the job of packaging remarkably well. For Bissell, bioplastics provide an opportunity to improve packaging — both the greenhouse gases used to make it, and the cost to companies.
There’s plenty of interest from major companies looking to move in a green direction. Coca-Cola, for instance, developed its 30 percent plant-based PlantBottle in 2009. According to a recent press release, the company has since distributed more than 35 billion of these biosourced bottles in nearly 40 countries, saving an estimated 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In 2015, Coca-Cola unveiled the world’s first 100-percent plant-based PET bottle at a world expo in Milan. The next — and much more impactful step — is for the company to make more than a few bottles. Bissell says Origin is the closest to making biosourced PET bottles commercially-available.
Back in Origin’s early years, the company had a small team; now they have more than 50 employees — scientists, engineers, commercial and startup folks — with about half based at the West Sacramento headquarters, and the rest spread around the country, Bissell says. Origin has recruited people from Dow, DuPont and other major companies to build, as Bissell calls it, a “new chemical company.”
THE AGE OF RECYCLING
In the 2014 book Plastic Purge, scientist Mike SanClements traces the skyrocketing use of plastic back to savvy companies that “pulled off one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all times.” The Society of Plastics Engineers aimed to convince consumers of the value of plastic, which the U.S. had in abundance following World War II. They did so, according to the book, by leveraging the first National Plastics Exposition in New York City in 1946 for 87,000 attendees that painted plastics as “futuristic and marvelous.” A decade later, the biotech company Monsanto constructed “The Home of the Future” in Anaheim, Calif., which was made entirely of plastic.
By the 1950s, the mass production of plastic had commenced, created from fossil fuels and produced by some of the world’s largest chemical companies, including Dow, ExxonMobil and DuPont.
“There’s been a long theme in human history of searching for more efficient materials,” SanClements says. “We organize our societies around this — the Stone Age, the Bronze Age. Now we’re most definitely in the Plastic Age.”
Globally, a mere 9 percent of plastic has been recycled.
Only a few decades after its wide-scale introduction, the shift to plastic presented a dilemma: How should society deal with all this new waste? In the 1980s, the public became aware of plastic littering the ocean and threatening wildlife. Barges of plastic trash floated around the ocean with no place to go, and compelling images of dead marine life with stomachs full of plastic debris gained media attention.
As public awareness grew, so did the demand for recycling programs. In 1986, the California Legislature created the California Beverage Container Recycling Program, with the goal of an 80 percent recycling rate. The program launched the development of the state’s recycling infrastructure, and incentivized consumers to recycle their glass, aluminum and plastic bottles. But according to the bottle program’s most-recent quarterly report, declines in scrap markets, convenient recycling (about 300 recycling centers across the state had closed over the previous year) and recycling rates have contributed to a structural deficit — projected to be $9.2 million for fiscal year 2017-18. Some lawmakers and interest groups have called for the program to be reformed.
Recycling plastic isn’t so simple. SanClements’ book notes that only two of the seven most common types of plastic are accepted at most recycling plants: PET containers, and thicker plastics like those used in milk or laundry jugs. Other types of plastic often used, but not commonly recycled, include the stuff found in shower curtains and piping, furniture, takeout containers and disposable utensils.
Globally, a mere 9 percent of plastic has been recycled, according to the Science Advances report. The U.S. hovers around that same rate, despite the best intentions of consumers who dutifully sort and toss what they perceive as recyclable into their blue curbside bins. In California, most of that plastic — almost everything beyond the two most commonly accepted types — ends up as garbage, says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit organization based in Sacramento. It’s hard to pin down just how much plastic that gets sorted actually gets recycled, due in large part to disparate systems across the state.
Compounding the problem: The U.S. can no longer export bales of mixed plastics to China, which had been recycling about half of the world’s plastics and paper products until instituting a ban this past Jan. 1. Nations are left scrambling to figure out how to deal with a stockpiling of plastic waste.
Murray points to California’s PET bottle recycling as proof that the practice can work. “If we’re going to continue to consume these materials, it has to be recycled. We know it can be done because [California has] got a plastic recycling success story.”
That success story involves PET beverage containers. In 2016, Californians successfully recycled 75 percent of the PET bottles they purchased, for a total of 8.6 billion bottles, according to data from CalRecycle, the department that oversees recycling facilities and landfills. The cost of recycling these PET bottles is less than 1 cent per container, Murray says.
But Murray also acknowledges the immense amount of time and effort that success took. “It has been literally three decades in the making to get to that recycling rate, to get the costs of recycling down, to develop the end-use markets, to close the loop.”
For Bissell, recycling potentially works very well, but it’s only part of the solution and one that could inhibit innovation — if the sorting equipment is poorly designed, or if consumers don’t know how to modify their behavior to put different materials in the right spot, the system breaks downs. And he acknowledges the fragile relationship between materials and recycling.
“As a result, there’s a general resistance to developing new materials in the plastics world,” Bissell says. “It’s not because they don’t want them. It’s because they’re afraid of how it might impact the recycling stream.”
With this in mind, Origin turned to biobased PET, which doesn’t endanger current recycling streams. Origin’s technology allows bottles produced with its materials to be recycled in the current system. However, looking toward the future, further innovations to make the material more environmentally friendly may require the creation of products not as easily handled. “I think a lot of us look at that as a second act,” Bissell says.
CAPITALIZING ON THE CYCLE
In April, the Plastics Industry Association and 11 partner associations delivered a letter to Capitol Hill calling on legislators to develop an infrastructure investment package to improve recycling efforts and push for innovation. “Recycled materials are a national resource that are under-utilized in our economy,” according to the letter. “The facilities that are needed to process recycled materials require modernization. Our letter to lawmakers invites the start of a national dialogue on improving our recycling infrastructure, and jumpstarting the nation’s ability to collect, process and recycle more of these valuable commodities.”
Recycling keeps these materials in the economy and available as feedstock for American manufacturing, according to the group. Their call-to-action outlines priorities for improving recycling, including retrofitting materials recovery facilities — plants that separate and prepare recyclable materials for end-user manufacturers — with advanced equipment to sort and handle a wider range of materials. They also advocate for incentive grants for state and local governments to expand curbside recycling, stating that less than half of Americans currently have the same level of access to curbside recycling as they do trash collection.
Recycling also supports American jobs. The group’s letter notes how the Environmental Protection Agency’s “2016 Recycling Economic Information Report” found that in one year, recycling and reuse in the U.S. accounted for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenue.
“I have come to think of plastic like an invasive species — there is nothing inherently wrong with it, but when there is too much in the wrong place it becomes a problem.” Mike SanClements, author, Plastic Purge
SanClements views the plastic problem as solvable through a diverse portfolio of approaches: improving recycling, passing new laws, eliminating packaging when possible, rethinking the grocery store (creating plastic-free aisles) and innovating around bioplastics. “It’s about finding ways to steer away from plastic that’s convenient,” he says. “If it’s a total pain … people are not going to do it.”
Ultimately, though, society will not be able to truly move away from plastic, at least not in the foreseeable future. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“Plastic is no doubt a massive problem at the moment, but it is important that we remember how beneficial it is too,” SanClements says. “It’s a critical component of many modern products, and I see this as good. I have come to think of plastic like an invasive species — there is nothing inherently wrong with it, but when there is too much in the wrong place it becomes a problem.”
THE DAWN OF NEW MATERIALS
Bioplastics offer one solution that industry groups, environmentalists and innovators all support — with reservation, because bioplastics get complicated quickly. The materials the term can refer to, the cost of procurement and production, and the environmental impact throughout the supply chain, can all vary drastically.
“Conversations about bioplastics become so tricky because you really need an accurate accounting of the birth-to-death of the product,” SanClements says, referring to a life-cycle analysis.
The technology developed by Origin Materials can be applied to various biosourced materials, including forestry products such as wood chips, cardboard and sawdust, and agricultural residue such as rice straw or corn stover. Bioplastics made from a waste material such as rice straw or corn stover could potentially do more to reduce the carbon footprint, but the economics may not pencil out. Same goes with the environmental benefits. It takes a lot more work to gather up tons of rice straw spread out on farms throughout a state, for instance, than to get wood chips from a single lumber mill. It’s this economic benefit of wood chips that has led Bissell down that path — for now.
“What people don’t consider with wastes is that there usually isn’t enough of it in one place to be economic to process, so you have to go collect it,” Bissell says. “That collection both costs money and it uses fuel. So while waste might arguably be more environmentally beneficial — and I do mean arguably, I don’t think that it’s a given that it is for a variety of reasons — you’d have to ignore logistics and distribution to make that argument right now.”
Until recently, Origin has been fine-tuning its technology at its pilot plant in West Sacramento, but that will soon change when it launches a pioneer plant in Ontario, Canada. Nestle Waters and Danone — the world’s two largest bottled-water companies — are partnering with Origin on this pioneer plant, offering their expertise and financial support to launch a biosourced PET bottle at the commercial scale.
The plant will produce 15,000 metric tons per year of product, with a few thousand tons per year of material alloted to PET, which will likely be made into a few hundred million bottles. The initial bottles will be at least 60 percent biobased, with the goal of getting to 100 percent after a few years. The pioneer plant is expected to be operational in 2019. Bissell hopes to build a world-scale plant before 2025.
“This process will help us all to do tests in the real-case scenario with sizable quantities of biobased material,” says Nestle Waters’ head of R&D Massimo Casella, allowing the company space to learn how to scale its industrialization.
“The answer is not one big solution,” Bissell says. “It never is, with anything. It’s how do we take these possible solutions that are sitting on the table and figure out how to apply them to the right problems, at the right time, in the right way.”
The plastic market is so huge, he says, it’s worth it to solve the material’s many associated issues that exist worldwide. “There are few problems on the planet of this scale that one has the opportunity to solve. That’s what we’re going after.”