Toronto

How a Scarborough facility is converting food waste into biodegradable plastics

Imagine a plastic water bottle made out of apple cores and coffee grounds. A facility in Scarborough is helping to make that happen. Genecis takes organic waste and puts it through a process that turns the waste into biodegradable plastic.

Genecis says if its product does find its way into the ocean, it degrades within a year

Luna Yu is the CEO of Genecis Bioindustries Inc. The facility in Scarborough converts food waste into biodegradable plastics. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Designer bags and cellphone cases don't usually conjure images of leftover spaghetti — but at a facility in Scarborough, these things are related.

Genecis Bioindustries uses bacteria to convert food waste destined for the landfill into biodegradable plastics. Luna Yu, CEO, says the substance the company makes is called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), and it works similarly to most plastics. The product can be used to make things like cutlery, cups and textiles.

"We basically were looking at how much food waste was going to landfills and we thought why don't we repurpose that food waste into something that's a lot more valuable and better for the planet," she said.

The company's website says when the product reaches the end of its useful life it can be composted within a month, and if it does find its way into the ocean, it degrades within a year.

Yu says the company launched four years ago, and has grown to a 10,000-square-foot facility in Scarborough, an eastern Toronto suburb.

Diverting food waste from landfills

The City of Toronto says it encourages innovations that reduce both the amount of food waste going to landfills and the amount of food waste generated, and that its green bin program helps to keep waste out of landfills by collecting and processing organics into material that can be used to create compost used to feed soil.

"When creating new products, whether it be from food waste or other materials, it's important to consider the impacts of the whole lifecycle of that product, including how it's disposed of and whether or not it is compatible with municipal disposal systems," a statement from Solid Waste Management Services said.

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks says Ontario is working on a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out the amount of food waste going to landfills by 2030. It says that with over one third of Ontario's waste stream made up of organic waste, including food waste and scraps, it is critical to continue exploring ways to prevent these materials from ending up in landfills.

We don't need to think of ways to better throw away food that retailers don't want to sell, we need to stop that waste from happening at all.- Laura Yates, plastics campaigners, Greenpeace Canada

Environmental organizations like Greenpeace, however, say while it supports innovation that benefits the environment, it would rather see single-use packaging like shampoo bottles eliminated altogether.

"Solutions that are focused on taking products and creating single-use products aren't really the solutions we're looking for," said Laura Yates, plastics campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. 

"They don't challenge our current system, they perpetuate our reliance on convenient single-use and disposable materials, delaying what must be our inevitable shift to more sustainable systems."

Yates says there should be a greater focus on going package free, reducing overall consumption and eliminating food waste.

"We don't need to think of ways to better throw away food that retailers don't want to sell, we need to stop that waste from happening at all," Yates said.

WATCH | Going from food waste to plastic:

Converting waste into plastic

6 months ago
Duration 2:09
A business in Scarborough is using bacteria to convert food waste that's destined for landfills into biodegradable plastics. The product can be used to make things like cutlery, cups and textiles.

Waste diversion innovation 

Mike Chopowick, CEO of the Ontario Waste Management Association says Ontario generates about 3.7 million tonnes of food waste a year and currently, about 1.1 million tonnes of that waste is being diverted from the landfill.

"I always note that Ontario is running out of landfill space, and that makes things like food and organic waste diversion even more important," he said, adding a lot of the ideas coming out of the private sector are very interesting.

"Ontario is a hotbed for innovation when it comes to waste diversion, the trick is seeing if it can operate at a large enough scale to make sense," Chopowick said.

Yu seems up for the challenge, saying they can actually load their technology onto existing biogas companies' infrastructure, using the same waste stream, so it's turned into both biogas and compostable plastics.

"With our solution, the vision is to literally replace the blue bin with a green bin," she said.

"So, no matter what it is that you use whether it's compostable cutlery, a cup, or textile fabrics, you can put it all into green bins where they get recycled back into a new generation of compostable materials."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.

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