Biotechnology is defined as a set of techniques in which living cells and molecules derived from an organism such as enzymes are used to obtain or modify a product or process.
Biotechnology applied to the plastics sector combines science and technology to develop sustainable solutions. We use microorganisms and enzymes to degrade and recycle plastics, thus reducing environmental pollution and promoting a cleaner, healthier future.
Biotechnology is therefore applicable to a wide range of sectors and industries, with the most obvious examples of application being the food industry and pharmaceutical industry for the production of food and antibiotics, respectively. In recent years, however, biotechnology has been making inroads into other sectors such as the plastics industry. There are now several applications in which the use of microorganisms and enzymes is key in this industry. These uses mainly focus on achieving circularity and guaranteeing the safety of plastic materials.
Different technologies and strategies are available to achieve these objectives:
This technology makes it possible to obtain chemical building blocks for the plastics industry using renewable resources and/or organic waste as starting materials and the action of different microorganisms. In this way, monomers such as lactic acid can be produced to make a bio-based, compostable polymer such as PLA from the chemical polymerization of lactic acid obtained by fermentation. Biodegradable biopolymers such as the family of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) can also be produced directly. These polymers are of great interest due to their high biodegradability.
This technique is based on the use of hydrolytic enzymes that catalyse the breakdown of the polymer chain so that partial biodegradation takes place until the monomers of each polymer are produced. The end products of this technology are therefore the monomers and oligomers of each polymer, as in the case of other chemical recycling techniques, but in this case under much milder operating conditions such as lower temperatures, thus decreasing the energy consumption of the depolymerization process.
Biodegradation is the process by which microorganisms convert polymer chains into their simplest products, including CO2 (and CH4 under anaerobic conditions), H2O, salts and new biomass. Biodegradation can take place in different environments and different standards therefore exist to assess the biodegradation of plastic materials in these different environmental compartments. One of the drawbacks of biodegradation assessment systems is the long testing times, to help the industry to develop new biodegradable plastic materials AIMPLAS has developed a biodegradation simulation tool based on initial biodegradation test data which requires less time optimizing the timing for the development of these plastic materials.
In vitro tests
In vitro tests are performed without the use of a living organism. They are usually carried out using isolated tissues or cells. These tests are very useful in studies and for determining the toxicity of certain substances such as non-intentionally added substances (NIAS). AIMPLAS has developed a method to determine the toxicity of these substances associated with plastic materials. Cytotoxicity and genotoxicity are determined using different techniques.
Antimicrobial tests are used to assess and determine the efficacy of different antimicrobial agents on plastic surfaces. These tests are essential in the research and development of products that need to be resistant to microbial contamination, such as food packaging, medical devices and hospital surfaces.
Biotechnology offers many opportunities within the circular economy to recover plastic waste through enzymatic recycling and organic waste for the production of biomonomers, bioplastics and biofuels using different biological processes such as fermentation, thus giving added value to waste with a low potential for recovery.
At the same time, computational biology and modelling biology systems make it possible to test the biodegradation of plastic materials over shorter periods of time. In vitro tests ensure the safety of plastic materials throughout their lifetime. Biotechnology includes a number of techniques that have a positive impact on the plastics industry by ensuring material safety and promoting the development of renewable, sustainable materials.