The future of biodegradable plastics is here, thanks to CTK Bio Canada

CTK Bio Canada has developed new biodegradable and compostable plastic pellets with organic waste that will replace conventional plastics. These new materials are an upgrade and improvement over other biodegradable plastics like polylactic acid (PLA) because they can break down in the natural environment – something PLA by itself has not been able to do. That means they are biodegradable even in uncontrolled environment such as soil, freshwater and the ocean. What’s more, CTK’s new plastic pellets can be used as a drop-in substitute for traditional plastics in any production machine, making the product ready for commercialization.

Founder and CEO, JK Park started with an idea to use leftover organic waste as the building block for bioplastics. After countless calls and hundreds of visits to different universities across Canada, Park made his vision of creating an innovative bioplastic startup a reality by leveraging a network of leading scientists in academia. These researchers include Dr. Emily Cranston from the University of British Columbia, Dr. Tizazu Mekonnen from the University of Waterloo, Dr. Elizabeth Gillies from Western University, and Dr. Michael Thompson from McMaster University.

During the last year, CTK Bio Canada has formed close relationships with different companies in the public and private sectors with one important goal in mind: to create a usable product from organic waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. Using an agricultural byproduct that’s specially treated, the company collects and processes more than 100 tons of organic waste per week and is looking forward to increasing this amount in the next few years.

From linear to circular economy

CTK Bio Canada can help companies transition to a circular business model – recovering waste and converting it into high-value materials – in this case, biodegradable and compostable plastic pellets. These pellets can then be used at traditional manufacturing facilities, in place of regular plastic.

“We went through several trials to ensure that our material is not harmful, and it’s compatible with traditional infrastructure,” notes Park. “So any machines that are currently using traditional plastic to make these products can use our pellets as a drop-in substitute.”

The biodegradable and compostable plastic pellets CTK Bio Canada produces, which will be ready for use in the third quarter of this year, can replace conventional plastics such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), as well as polylactic acid (PLA) and paper. It also meets the product criteria of 3 Es – excellence, economic and environmental and 3 Rs – recover, renew and replace.

The patented technology was developed in partnership with the University of Waterloo and turns organic waste from agricultural or food residues into a biodegradable polymer known as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), through a dry-fermentation process.

This is what makes CTK Bio Canada’s materials so unique – they’re designed from waste specifically to degrade in both controlled and uncontrolled environments. That reduces not just their cost of production but their carbon footprint, both areas where other biodegradable plastics have shortcomings. The company recently obtained the “Ultimate biodegradability” certification for its bioplastic resins in accordance with the OECD 301B standard.

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Recycling Issues

Ideally, the best way to save the planet from plastic is to stop using it altogether, but that’s unrealistic as it’s used in virtually everything. Traditionally, plastic is made with fossil fuels and most plastic products take hundreds of years to decompose. And while everyone was taught that putting plastic items in recycling bins would help the environment, these programs have fallen short of that promise.

“Unfortunately, only 9% of recyclable plastics are actually recycled, and this percentage decreases drastically in developing countries due to waste mismanagement,” explains Dr. Emily Cranston, the President’s Excellence Chair in Forest Bio-Products at the University of British Columbia and one of CTK Bio Canada’s scientific partners. “While efficient recycling processes and better waste management are required to support the circular bioeconomy, the current costs, energy consumption and GHG emissions reduce some of the positive impacts of recycling. But for CTK Bio Canada the time is right – they have innovative technology, they have the right people, the right partnerships and a lot of market pull.”

Many single-use plastics suffer from sorting and contamination issues and therefore are not accepted at recycling facilities. The plastics that do make it into the recycling stream go to either primary or secondary reprocessing. The former involves remaking the plastic into the same product, which degrades the structure of the plastic further each time it’s done, to the point where it’s too brittle or weak to be used. The latter takes the recycled plastic and turns it into something new. Both types of processing still result in plastic waste.

“More commonly, plastics undergo secondary reprocessing and are essentially ‘repurposed’ into new items, normally with lower value and less stringent performance requirements,” adds Dr. Michael Thompson, the Associate Dean and Professor of Chemical Engineering at McMaster University and one of CTK Bio Canada’s materials processing partners. “These new items are often not recyclable and, again, at each recycling step, purity and quality decrease.”

These recycling issues are part of the driving force behind the global movement to phase out single-use plastics wherever possible, which is where the concept of biodegradable and compostable plastics comes in. The materials are more eco-friendly and decompose thanks to bacteria.

“Compostability is another end-of-life option for bioplastics that offers a controlled environment rich in decomposing bacteria,” notes Dr. Elizabeth Gillies, the Canada Research Chair in Polymeric Biomaterials at Western University and another scientist affiliated with CTK Bio Canada. “It diverts plastic waste from ending up in the landfill and decomposing anaerobically to produce potent greenhouse gases (GHG) such as methane.”

The problem with biodegradable plastic  

In the last decade, many companies have experienced the shortcomings of one of the most popular biodegradable plastics in the market, polylactic acid (PLA). This bioplastic has poor biodegradability outside of controlled environments and has been criticized for its limited compostability. In fact, it is generally rejected by municipal composting facilities.

“CTK Bio Canada’s innovation is an improvement over PLA; these biodegradable and compostable plastics that can degrade under controlled and uncontrolled conditions by the action of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi and the natural environment,” explains Dr. Tizazu Mekonnen, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, who is also involved in CTK Bio Canada’s materials development. “However, under uncontrolled conditions, biodegradable plastics and bioplastics such as polylactic acid can take years to decompose.”

Uncontrolled conditions include both land and marine environments, and really anywhere that isn’t an industrial composter designed specifically to degrade these types of plastics. That means the biodegradable plastic bag claiming to be better for the environment might still take a long time to degrade. That is why CTK Bio Canada’s pellets based on polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are an attractive solution to these issues.

A new sustainable plastic

Recently, CTK Bio Canada partnered with Inspired Go, a Canadian direct-to-consumer salad company that’s trying to change sustainability practices in its industry. Inspired Go is backed by The Star Group, a large fresh-produce company servicing major Canadian and U.S. retailers and foodservice companies, and an industry leader when it comes to tackling plastic issues. It plans to roll out CTK Bio Canada’s truly compostable packaging technology into its salad containers and eventually into all of its major fresh-produce categories, starting with greenhouse strawberries.

The company has chosen to accelerate its growth in Surrey, British Columbia, one of Canada's leading cities in green initiatives. With a business ecosystem that has made the protection and betterment of the environment a top priority, the city is paving the way for companies like CTK Bio Canada to thrive and realize their growth plans.

In the third quarter of this year, the company will begin producing cosmetic compact cases, with a 7,000-tonne annual capacity. From there, it will expand its resin manufacturing in the first quarter of 2023, increasing its annual capacity to 25,000 tonnes and beginning PHA production in the second quarter.

Businesses will have the option to purchase off-the-shelf biodegradable and compostable plastic pellets for specific types of products, such as cosmetic cases, single-use items like containers, cutlery, bags, liners for paper cups, as well as multi-use bottles and circuit boards. In addition, CTK Bio Canada recently developed a new biodegradable printed circuit board (PCB) with excellent flame retardant properties and has met the V-0 rating requirements according to UL-94 standard. This material can be molded to fabricate enclosures for structural parts found in consumer electronic products. They also offer solutions for the agricultural, toy, medical, aerospace, and automotive industries.

CTK Bio Canada can become a strong player in the new generation plastics market and Park is determined to help as many companies make the transition to a circular economy model as possible. It’s vital for both industry leaders and consumers to recognize that as long as we continue to use conventional plastic, we will remain dependent on fossil fuels and aggravate global warming.

“For the future of our planet, it is our moral responsibility to help combat plastic pollution and climate change,” he adds. “Making a genuine effort to protect our environment will make all the difference to our future.”