Agriculture an opportunity in the push against plastics

Agricultural residues are often critical pieces in bioplastics, including products now being developed as plastic alternatives for agriculture and agri-food

Agriculture has not escaped the pressure to cut back or find alternatives for plastics, including commonly used products like bale wrap.

The world according to bioplastic developers would look a lot more cyclical.

In an age of campaigns against single-use plastic, zero-waste social media influencers and increased public interest in sustainable packaging, bioplastics — which replace polymers from fossil fuels with biological sources — have been touted as a biodegradable and sustainable alternative.

But as much as developers hope many of those products could end up in the compost pile and back in the field, the ingredients going into their manufacture can start in the field as well.

The “bio” in bioplastic often includes materials from forestry or farming, residues that researchers say are critical to the marketability of the end product.

Why it matters: From the grocery aisle to the farm field and everywhere in between, the hunt is on for cost-effective alternatives to plastic.

National policy, such as the federal government’s goal of zero plastic waste by 2030, has lit a fire under the search for plastic alternatives.

Last October, the federal government announced six single-use plastic items are to be phased out by 2022. Of those — grocery bags, plastic cutlery, stir sticks, straws, six-pack rings and hard-to-recycle food containers — many are set to impact products often used by the food-service or agri-food sectors.

In 2018, the federal government opened applications for grants through Innovations Solutions Canada to improve the home and municipal compostability of bio-based plastics.

This March, the federal government announced another $4.5 million to both improve on-farm waste management and further bioplastic research.

Jamie Bakos, president of Titan Clean Energy Products in Craik, Sask., is among the people hoping to bring bioplastics into agri-food. The company was recently slated for up to $1 million to develop food-grade bioplastic, as might replace plastic fruit and vegetable containers.

“We use a variety of biomaterial inputs including cellulose derived from hemp and flax and wood waste. We also use starch derived from potato and wheat starch and also we use certain resins as well,” he said.

Containers made of the resulting material will be black, easily identifiable from other, non-biodegradable containers, and should be able to be thrown in with the rest of the materials for most existing municipal composting services, he said. Materials making up the container are designed to degrade by 90 per cent within 90 days in a compost row or commercial facility, according to the company.

In a parallel effort, the company also has a process in place to recover and recycle used products into the next generation of containers, he said.

Bioplastic in agriculture

In the agricultural sphere, bioplastics in the market have largely been targeted for horticulture and greenhouses so far.

TerraVerdae Bioworks, based in Edmonton and also slated for federal funds this March, has been developing its technology since 2009.

Left: TerraVerdae Bioworks, currently out of Edmonton’s Agri-Food Discovery Place, hopes to have its own plant by 2024 at the latest. Right: Outside of its work with mulch films and seedling trays, Alberta company TerraVerdae Bioworks creates bioplastics for use in moulded and 3D printed parts. photo: TerraVerdae Bioworks

The company’s process starts with a microbe that amasses a polymer called PHA, which is then drawn out and blended with additives to impact traits such as structural integrity, flexibility or UV protection. The resulting resins are then used in a range of products from thin and flexible films to rigid moulds.

“We feed (the microbes) fermentable sugars and then in a fermentation tank we grow them up and the plastic is kind of like fat for people,” founder and CEO William Bardosh said. “It’s a storage molecule and we extract that and we can make materials that are very similar to petroleum-based plastics in terms of their properties. But the big advantage is at the end of the life cycle it can degrade. It can get consumed by microbes in the soil.”

Agricultural films, such as mulch wraps and greenhouse plastics, are among the products TerraVerdae has helped develop using its resin, along with injection moulding resins, such as might be used to produce seedling containers.

When exposed to the moisture and soil microbes in the field, those films will degrade in a matter of months, according to Bardosh.

That trait lends it to forestry and horticultural plastics, where a gradual decay is both environmentally sound and dodges the labour requirement for later removing the product.

“It’ll keep the soil warmer,” Bardosh said. “It’ll keep moisture locked in. It’ll allow you to have longer growing seasons, but at the end of the day, you don’t have to pick it up and burn it.”

According to a 2019 ag waste report by Cleanfarms, greenhouse film accounts for about 15.3 tonnes of low-density polyethylene use in Manitoba a year, while plastic mulch accounts for about 0.4 tonne.

More in development

It is still early days for the sector, according to Amar Mohanty, director of the University of Guelph’s Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre. While a swath of products is in development, relatively few have been commercialized. Those that have — such as a compostable coffee machine pod and coffee stirrers, both developed with help from the centre — mostly serve a medium-size market.

Biodegradable mulch film, such as that produced through TerraVerdae’s resins, is not new and has been commercialized, Mohanty acknowledged, although he added that cost has limited the product’s traction so far.

“Having said that, other researchers are trying to find out the ways of how to reduce the cost of those types of mulch films,” he said.

Much of his team’s work orients around bringing costs down to something the market can stomach, largely by finding ways to integrate low-cost “fillers” into the manufacturing. In many cases, those fillers come from agricultural residue.

The centre’s second-highest ag-related priority is the development of bale wrap.

Bale wrap accounts for a “huge amount of polyethylene,” the centre’s lead scientist, Manjusri Misra, said.

Bale wrap was the third-most-popular use for low-density polyethylene behind grain bags and silage tarp, according to the same 2019 Cleanfarms report. The study reported about 129.6 tonnes of plastic going to bale wrap a year.

Like their research into mulch film, staff at the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre is looking at lowering cost.

“We are taking the combination of some of the biodegradable plastic and into that we are adding some agro-residues like corn stover, wheat straw, to make that film more cost competitive,” Mohanty said.

There is no commercialized compostable bale wrap yet, he added, although he expects to see it developed in the next few years.

The centre’s other ag-related projects include alternatives to greenhouse plastics.

Mulch films, seedling trays and other plastics are among the applications for bioplastic resins out of TerraVerdae Bioworks in Edmonton. photo: TerraVerdae Bioworks

Challenges

Bakos does not expect the road ahead to be all smooth sailing.

As food packaging, he noted, his product must meet or exceed the requirements for traditional plastic containers — and he needs the product verification and certification to back it up.

There has been active interest, Bakos said. Seven Canadian companies are in line as potential customers, and businesses like local restaurants have expressed anxious excitement, given the incoming regulations that might curtail their current food packaging.

Cost, however, will likely determine the burgeoning sector’s success, and it’s one of the biggest hurdles that bioplastic developers have yet to overcome.

“The end-users definitely want it now,” Bakos said. “They don’t necessarily want to pay a lot more for it.”

Bioplastics in general are still more expensive than the products they hope to replace. Resins from Titan Clean Energy Products are still 1-1/2 times more expensive than plastics already on the market, Bakos admitted. He argued, however, that his company’s price point closes the gap compared to some similar bioplastic producers.

The use of low-cost agricultural inputs are part of the efforts to bring price down, Bakos said, along with steps such as generating their own energy. The result is lower input costs than some similar manufacturers, he said.

“That’s the critical piece,” he said. “We have to be not only sustainable but we have to be cost competitive and effective.”

Mohanty concurs. In his mind, there is no doubt on whether we can make proper compostable and biodegradable plastics. “The science is there,” he says.

Bardosh, however, argues that comparing price points does not take into account the labour and time saved by being able to leave bioplastic mulch wrap on the field.

“Right out of the gate, we can be double the price of traditional plastic mulch and still be competitive,” he said.

A supply chain is a whole other problem.

Polypropylene is already a huge established market, Mohanty noted. Millions of tonnes are produced and it is easy to get, benefiting from a well-greased value chain. The fledgling bioplastics sector, meanwhile, produces a minuscule fraction of those volumes.

“As the demand increases, the biopolymer production will increase, then the cost will be down. It’s a matter of time,” Mohanty said.

The growing interest in plastic alternatives will also help speed development, he said, “but it all depends on the supply chain.”

Many bioplastics companies are at a similar nascent stage, Bardosh noted, “getting out of the lab” and testing prototypes.

More agricultural plastics, drawn from the bioplastics produced from his company, are in the late stages of development and will be tested in the field this summer.

Scaling up, however, takes resources, and Bardosh expects his biggest challenges will come from market transition as products like his chip away at traditional plastics.

“When you go from one status quo to another status quo, that transition is always going to have a lot of turbulence in it,” he said. “For us, really, the biggest challenge is getting the capital we need to build out the facilities, and not just for ourselves.

“We want all of our competitors to be successful, because the more the sustainable plastics industry is successful, the more each individual company will be successful. We need to have that capacity so we can convince people in the marketplace that there is a long-term supply availability for them of these materials.”

The Alberta company was awarded up to $1 million by the federal government in March to target agricultural plastics like mulch film and seed trays and has previously received financial support from both the provincial and federal levels.

Infrastructure is yet another consideration, Mohanty said. Biodegradable in the backyard compost pile is not the same as biodegradable in an industrial facility, he noted. The wrong moisture content or pH may leave “compostable” material not properly broken down, and some municipal services may not be equipped to handle the products.

New market for farmers?

Bioplastics companies may have yet another interest to farmers — as potential customers.

The use of ag materials as “filler” or additives creates potential demand, and therefore potential value, for what is usually low-value residues, Mohanty noted.

Misra, meanwhile, noted that proximity to ag materials will be key for bioplastics manufacturers, since the ag materials they need are often fluffy, lightweight, and unattractive to haul.

Based as his company is in south-central Sask­atchewan, however, Bakos has no shortage of ag material close at hand.

“Canada, especially Western Canada, can be a total leader in that, in supplying this fibre and the sugars,” he said.

Hemp and flax producers have already expressed “tremendous” interest in his process as a way to add value to their straw, he added.

There are, however, quality considerations. Moisture content should be low, Bakos said, since getting rid of extra moisture takes extra energy, while the process also requires specific particle or fibre sizes.

“If it’s just the hemp straw that we’re using directly, we may need to produce a very fine powder from it, or certain fibre length,” he said.

For his part, Bardosh has worked with a number of different materials.

“We do see an opportunity for certain natural fibres, but we need to have high-quality natural fibres,” he said. “That’s the tricky part, because oftentimes the problem with natural fibres is if the quality isn’t really high, you get weaknesses in the fibre and then all of a sudden it introduces break points.”

Currently, Bardosh sources his materials on the open market, although he expects to find dedicated suppliers as his company scales up.

Where to from here?

TerraVerdae Bioworks hopes to be in full commercial production, including a completed plant, by 2024.

The company can currently produce only limited resin and works with only a few dozen customers, according to Bardosh, although he fields a few dozen calls of interest a week.

“There’s quite a lot of activity. We just have a limited bandwidth in terms of our current production capacity and what we can offer the marketplace,” he said.

Bakos, likewise, hopes to be demonstrating his product within the next year to 18 months.

“It typically goes by technology readiness level,” he said, referencing a scale from zero to 10.

“A zero is basically, you just started out and you’ve barely an idea and a 10 is, you’re fully commercialized,” he said. “We’ve taken this project from three to around a five or six technology readiness level and we want to take it right through to basically eight or nine within the next 12 months.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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