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    The CLIC® Chronicles: Meet Carbios – the French firm revolutionising recycling with plastic-munching proteins

    All living things contain enzymes. The human body is home to more than 20,000 varieties, each designed to carry out a single task. Sucrase, for instance, breaks down sucrose into glucose for use as energy. Protease breaks down protein into the amino acids needed for growth and repair. There are enzymes that help you see and hear. There are even enzymes that regulate your heartbeat.

    These powerful proteins have been exploited in many industrial processes. Enzymes catalyse the fermentation process for making alcoholic drinks, and cause the coagulation of milk to make cheese. They can be used to strip wax from fabric, added to detergents to remove stains, or deployed in the production of biodiesel. Now, thanks to French firm Carbios, enzymes may play a new role – in the increasingly urgent problem of plastic waste.

    After more than a decade of development, Carbios is on the verge of scaling up a novel solution – plastic-munching enzymes

    Since 1950, more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced1. No more than 10% of it has been recycled2. And each year, 400 million tonnes of new plastic are added to the pile3, much of it ending in landfill after a short first use. After more than a decade of development, Carbios is on the verge of scaling up a novel solution – plastic-munching enzymes.

    Recycling’s hard limit

    “When you buy a bottle of water in your supermarket, and it comes in a recycled bottle, the bottle has been recycled mechanically. This is the case 99% of the time,” Emmanuel Ladent, CEO of Carbios, explains. “The problem with mechanical recycling is that you can only recycle 20% of the waste that exists. 80% of all plastic waste, whether you are talking about multi-layer trays for food packaging, or the polyester fibres that are in clothing, they are not mechanically recyclable. We need a solution for the 80% of waste that is not recyclable.”

    The other problem, Ladent points out, is that even in the best conventional recycling systems, plastic is still destined for the dump. With each pass through the mechanical process, plastic becomes degraded, losing strength and flexibility. “Conventional recycling can only do three to five cycles,” he says. After this the originating material has become so degraded that it is good only for downcycling into poorer quality, less recyclable products.

    …after nine years of searching, Carbios found what they’d been looking for – cutinase, an enzyme that can break down PET…in just a few hours

    Read also: Cracking the plastic crisis?


    A natural solution

    In 2020, after nine years of searching, Carbios found what they’d been looking for – cutinase, an enzyme that can break down PET (polyethylene terephthalate), one of the most widely used plastics, in just a few hours.

    “Enzymes are everywhere in nature,” Emmanuel Ladent says. “They’re in every living thing, animal or vegetable. We just had to find the right enzyme to do the job we wanted, which is to deconstruct plastics. And to do that again and again.”

    “Our enzyme takes plastic back to its initial components, then we can make it into new virgin plastic. Today, we are able to recycle any kind of PET plastic: bottles, food packaging, t-shirts. The main difference is circularity. If you buy a recycled bottle made with mechanical processes it will be waste after a few re-uses. We can do 30 to 50 cycles.”

    While Carbios’ main focus is on PET, Ladent makes clear that the company is working hard to expand the recycling circle. “Today, we have solutions for PET and also for increasing the biodegradability of PLA plastic. PLA is made mostly from corn. It is biodegradable, but it only decomposes well at 60 or 70 degrees Celsius. It doesn’t biodegrade easily at 20 degrees. But our technology makes it easily biodegradable, so you can put it on your compost heap.”

    “We are also looking at other plastic polymers, like nylon, which is used in the textile industry and in fishing nets. We believe we will be able to deal with this in the next five years. Plastics which are more complex will take more time, but we believe we will have natural, biological enzymatic solutions for most plastics within ten years. Our dream is that we go from an industry that is 90% petrol-based and 10% recycling, to an industry that is 90% recycling and only 10% petrol-sourced.”

    By cutting the production of virgin plastic, Carbios promises an industry with a significantly smaller carbon footprint

    Read also: Can plastic-eating enzymes solve the recycling problem?


    Better for the environment, better for business

    By cutting the production of virgin plastic, Carbios promises an industry with a significantly smaller carbon footprint. “We did comparisons of our CO2 emissions, our life-cycle analysis compared to the production of virgin PET. We estimate that we save 46% of CO2 emissions compared to virgin PET, which is manufactured and then incinerated or ends in landfill. But that’s only for one recycling cycle. The beauty of our technology is we will do 30, 40, 50 cycles. So, when we do a life-cycle analysis from the moment we take raw materials from the planet to the moment we give it back to the planet, we will have a much smaller footprint than any existing recycling processes. That’s a huge benefit for the brands supporting Carbios.”

    It’s a benefit that retailers are increasingly willing to pay for, Ladent says. “Regulations are pushing brands to use more recycled content. In Europe, regulations will force everybody to use 25% recycled content in their packaging. Momentum is also being created by consumers, who want sustainable products. And the brands are going further, with public commitments to go beyond the regulations and use even more recycled content. Our enzymes are natural products so there is no toxicity. And we use no solvents in our technology. This is very important for the food industry and the bottling industry.”

    Carbios is seeing strong interest from a number of major corporate names. First to sign up were L’Oréal, Nestlé Waters, Pepsi-Cola and Suntory, who partnered with Carbios at the research and development stage. Recently, they have been joined by On-running, Salomon, Patagonia and Puma, as Carbios added textile recycling to their offering. Here, Ladent eyes a commercial advantage: “The main cost in this industry is waste. A tonne of textiles costs about USD 200-300, while a tonne of bottles can be USD 2,000. Since we’re able to target the textile waste that other recyclers can’t process, that’s a huge competitive advantage for us.”

    The result is an inexpensive product that adds little to the cost of doing business

    Read also: The CLIC® Chronicles: Patagonia, an outdoor brand with a mission. An exclusive interview here

    Plastic’s polar star

    The result is an inexpensive product that adds little to the cost of doing business. “It is normal for the consumer to be concerned about the cost,” Ladent says. “But we are talking no more than a few cents on a bottle, or a few cents on a T-shirt. The cost of this technology will be insignificant for consumers. And for most brands we bring so much value that they will be ready to absorb the cost themselves.”

    In 2021, Carbios opened a demonstration plant, proving that the processes they were seeing in the lab could work at commercial scale. “That was really the key moment in the story of Carbios, the moment we had confidence in the technology,” Ladent says. “We did the first test in our 20,000 litre reactor and we had the same result we’d had in our laboratory with a 5 litre reactor. Now we can handle 2 tonnes of waste, which is 20,000 T-shirts, so we know it works at industrial scale.”

    Carbios plans to license the technology in order to scale quickly – next year the firm will open its first 50,000 tonne plant, capable of processing 2 billion bottles or 300 million T-shirts.

    For Ladent, enzymes are the natural solution to plastic’s circular future: “I feel very lucky, because I’m at a company that really can change the future of plastics. I’m also very proud, because we are doing something very good for the planet. Our dream, our polar star, is that all plastics will have a biological recycling solution. Is it far away? I don’t think so. I can tell you that we have the research to say we will have a solution for any kind of plastic in the future.”


    Plastic Pollution - Our World in Data

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    This document is issued by Bank Lombard Odier & Co Ltd or an entity of the Group (hereinafter “Lombard Odier”). It is not intended for distribution, publication, or use in any jurisdiction where such distribution, publication, or use would be unlawful, nor is it aimed at any person or entity to whom it would be unlawful to address such a document. This document was not prepared by the Financial Research Department of Lombard Odier.

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