Canola carves new role in cutting poly-pollution

In late November, Ben Lecomte abandoned his attempt to swim across the Pacific Ocean.

The 51-year-old Frenchman began his swim in June and covered 2,700 kilometres of the 9,100 km journey, in an effort to raise awareness about plastic accumulating in the world’s oceans.

Lecomte swam through an area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — a floating zone of plastic that’s about the size of France. Unfortunately, a storm severely damaged Lecomte’s support boat. He had to quit his swim and return to land.

On the positive side, Lecomte and other activists got people talking about plastic pollution in 2018. Countries, companies and citizens are now seeking solutions to the problem, including Qiang Liu, an Agriculture Canada scientist in Guelph, Ont.

Liu, a chemist, has been studying how to make bio-plastics from canola meal and the proteins in canola meal.

“We extract… protein from the canola meal and develop a canola protein-based bioplastic,” Liu said from his office in Guelph. “(And) we have developed several innovative technologies to overcome some weakness of the canola meal protein-based bioplastic.”

Bioplastics are manufactured from renewable sources, typically plants, and decompose more quickly than petroleum plastics. Estimates suggest it takes, on average, 450 years for plastic bottles to completely break down in the natural environment.

Liu and his colleagues have published about six scientific papers on their work, showing how canola meal can be converted into a high-value bio-plastic.

“Canola protein-based bioplastics have demonstrated comparable mechanical and moisture barrier properties compared with other plant protein-based bioplastics. They have great potential in food packaging applications, including their use as wraps, sacks, sachets, or pouches,” says a 2017 paper, published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

Liu believes that canola protein bioplastic is ready for commercialization. What’s needed now is investment and a company willing to take a chance on the technology.

“The specific product will take more time to design, or test… but the technology is available.”

It could be a few years before canola protein bioplastic is used to make plastic sandwich bags, but others are very close to commercializing bioplastic made from canola.

In October Danimer Scientific, a firm based in Georgia, announced that it is building a “fermentation facility” in Kentucky.

The company will use the fermentation plant to produce polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a biopolymer that can be used to make straws, food packaging, cups, bottles and shopping bags.

In a press release, Danimer stated that it uses canola oil as a feedstock for its bioplastic.

“(It) begins with fermentation where canola oil is consumed by soil bacteria and converted into PHA, which is then processed into a powder form. The powder will be transported to the company’s Bainbridge, (Georgia) facility and combined with other biopolymers to manufacture biodegradable plastic resins.”

Danimer Scientific has been developing a process to convert canola oil into bioplastic for more than five years. In 2014, the company’s chief operating officer, Michael Smith, told The Western Producer that they have global ambitions and hope to manufacture canola oil bioplastics in Canada.

“We (want to) have plants in Canada, plants in North Dakota, plants in Brazil … and plants in Germany that only go a few hundred miles out to get their feedstock,” he said.

Such as scenario may be more than corporate bluster.

Danimer Scientific has been collaborating with PepsiCo on bio-based and compostable packaging. This fall, the two firms received the 2018 Innovation in Bioplastics award for their work on a compostable snack bag for chips.

PepsiCo has committed to having 100 percent of its packaging be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025. McDonald’s made a similar announcement in January 2018.

Given such commitments, the bioplastics industry should boom over the next decade.

Smithers Pira, a consultancy, has forecast 17 percent annual growth in bioplastics packaging, with the market reaching $7.2 billion in 2022.

However, it’s unclear what that means for farmers and commodity prices.

In 2017, the global production capacity of bioplastics was 2.05 million tonnes, European Bioplastics said. That translates to about two million acres of cropland, or 0.016 percent of the agricultural land on earth.

As of 2017, bioplastics represented about one percent of the 320 million tonnes of the plastic produced annually.

“Even if we were to increase (the bioplastics market) 10-fold, the impact that’s going to have on corn prices … is pretty minimal,” said David Grewell, agricultural engineering professor at Iowa State University, who studies how to produce plastics from corn and soybeans.

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