Last fall, Dunkin’ Donuts announced it is testing a new straw at about 250 stores.
The straw is biodegradable and is made from a natural chemical called PHA, also known as polyhydroxyalkanoates.
“The straws have the same look and feel as traditional plastic, the PHA material is both marine and soil biodegradable, as well as home and industrial compostable, creating significant environmental advantages over plastic,” Dunkin’ said.
The PHA used to make the biodegradable straw could represent a huge opportunity for western Canadian farmers because a Massachusetts company has developed a camelina plant that produces PHA bioplastic in its seed.
If everything goes according to plan, prairie farmers could be growing tens of thousands of acres of PHA camelina. And the biopolymers in the seed will be made into bioplastics, such as straws, shopping bags and containers for take-out food.
“This (PHA) is a molecule that is inherently safe,” said Oliver Peoples, president and chief executive officer of Yield10 Bioscience.
“These materials are basically polyesters and they’re natural. The organism that produces them naturally is basically bacteria.”
Companies are already using bacteria to make PHA polymers, including the U.S. firm Danimer Scientific. It uses canola oil as a feedstock for the bacteria, which naturally produce the PHA.
Danimer Scientific is providing the bioplastic to make the Dunkin’ Donut straws.
Yield10 Bioscience took a more direct approach.
It identified the genes in the bacteria that produce PHA and inserted them into camelina. The result is a camelina with bioplastic in the seed.
“Production of PHA in seed, as a co-product with oil and protein meal, has the potential to enable production of PHA bioplastics on an agricultural scale at costs in line with commodity vegetable oils, to drive large-scale adoption in the plastics markets,” the company said in a news release.
Camelina is a member of the brassica family of plants. It performs well in cool and dry climates, such as southwestern Saskatchewan, and has natural resistance to pests and disease.
Yield10 has already field tested its PHA camelina at sites in Canada and the U.S. The lines emerged more slowly than other types of camelina, but did show good vigour, flowering and seed set.
The amount of PHA in the seed was relatively small, up to six percent of seed weight. That’s not a lot, seeing how camelina seeds are one-quarter to one-half the size of canola.
Yield10 hopes to increase the amount of bio-polymer in the seed, ideally reaching 20 percent. But producing bioplastic is commercially viable at a lower percentage.
“What we see, the seed would go into a crushing facility, you would crush it to remove the oil, take the remaining meal containing the PHA and… you would extract the PHA from the meal,” Peoples said.
Extracting a biopolymer from the seed would be cheaper than the other method for producing PHA, where bacteria are brewed in a vat to generate the biopolymer.
“With the camelina, we believe we can go head to head with the petroleum guys with a truly sustainable, truly degradable product,” Peoples said. “It will take time, but it’s great to get that first successful field trial under our belt.”
More work and field trials are needed, but western Canadian farmers could be growing a PHA-camelina in four to six years, Peoples said.
It will take that long, or longer, because the new camelina is a genetically modified crop. The regulatory approval for a GM crop is expensive and time consuming because the proponent needs to prove it is safe for the environment and humans.
Peoples is convinced that PHA camelina is worth the cost and hassle. The market for bioplastics, which are made from renewable materials (mostly crops) instead of petroleum, is expanding rapidly. Some analysts believe the global market could be worth $20 billion by 2027.
That’s because humanity needs alternatives to traditional plastics that are polluting oceans and land. The global production of plastics is about 350 million tonnes, per year, and it can take 400 to 500 years for a plastic bottle or plastic coffee pod to decompose in a landfill.
“About half of that (350 million tonnes) is for single-use packaging and food service,” Peoples said, noting PHA bioplastic degrades in about six months.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity…. The potential demand for PHA is simply astronomical.”
Growers could also benefit from the technology.
For now, camelina is a small crop in Western Canada, with 10,000 to 20,000 acres. It is produced for vegetable oil, livestock feed and as a replacement for fish oil in aquaculture feed.
If farmers can sell the oil, protein and PHA in the camelina seed, the value of the crop will jump dramatically, Peoples said.
That should encourage growers to plant the crop.
“Ultimately, it comes down to: what’s the value of the harvest?” he said. “With PHA camelina, the value of the harvest will be a lot higher, almost two (times) that of canola.”