In an effort to reach zero plastic waste in Canada by 2030, the Open Plastic research program will focus on the development of novel microbiological technology to support breakdown of plastic waste into marketable recycled products. This work will support diversion of plastics away from landfills, which will save Canada over $500 million/year and create 40,000 jobs in the clean technology industry. The major impact of this work will be in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Plastic is cheap to produce and has many important uses and benefits. However, its popularity has made it a pervasive environmental contaminant, given that 40% of it is used as single-use products. The oceans contain 1 kg of plastic for every 5 kg of fish. In Canada, 29,000 tons/year of plastic leak into the environment, including oceans, while 2.8 million tons go to landfills. Only 9% of plastic worldwide is recycled. Most plastic is made from non-renewable fossil fuels (~4% of the world’s petroleum). Nonetheless, production is increasing in Canada, with 4.8 million tons/year of virgin plastic produced.
The Canadian government will ban single-use plastics nationwide by the end of 2021 as part of a larger effort to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, while a major retail chain, Walmart, is aiming for 100% recyclable, reusable or industrially-compostable packaging for its private-brand packaging by 2025. These examples demonstrate the opportunity for plastics to pivot from a linear use to a circular use model, which will require re-design of plastics and the development of novel recycling technologies
This focus requires major innovations in biochemical recycling technologies that depolymerize plastics for reuse in making new plastics or for diversion into other valuable chemicals. To this end, we will use culture-dependent and culture-independent metagenomics and functional genomics approaches to identify enzymes and microbes that degrade PET, PA, PE and PS. Building upon our achievements in isolating novel polyesterases and our preliminary results in isolating microbes that degrade PET, PE and PS, we will expand the scope of plastic degrading biocatalysts by pursuing four complementary and highly-integrated activities.