Open Plastic Residency


By Larissa Zhong

October 28, 2021

The Open Plastic research team is revolutionizing the war against plastic waste. The team has embarked on a four-year journey to develop clean, microbiological technology that will degrade and recycle plastics, helping Canada reach its ‘zero plastic waste’ goal by 2030 and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases globally.

This summer, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Open Plastic’s four scientific leads—Queen’s University’s very own Dr. Laurence Yang, Dr. George diCenzo, Dr. David Zechel, and Dr. James McLellan.

Chapter 1: The Grant Proposal

The team began writing the grant proposal in March of 2020, at which point Yang had been working with Dr. Naresh Singhal, an associate professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who was breaking ground on using insects to degrade plastics. Around the same time, French biochemistry company Carbios had published a paper on a dramatically improved enzyme capable of breaking down and recycling plastic bottles.

In this preliminary research, Yang saw the glowing possibility of an extensive team of researchers, investigators, and corporate partners whose collective expertise could tackle the titanic challenge of redirecting plastic waste from Canada’s landfills.

Enzyme- and microbial-based technology is a novel way of plastic processing, with less demand for high temperatures and less negative impact on the environment.

The project comes in four phases, the first of which involve using metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, whole-genome sequencing, and functional genomics identify and isolate enzymes and microbes that break down polymer plastics.

Next, the team will engineer these enzymes and microbes to optimal performance in characteristics including catalytic efficiency, stability, and specificity, reaching an industrially-viable rate of plastic degradation. In the project’s third phase, the team will use microfluidics and spectroscopic techniques to track the process of plastic degradation, such as to optimize post-consumer plastic processing.

Finally, end users will include municipal governments and textile, chemical, and packaging industries, with whom the team will work in tandem towards a circular plastics economy, identifying ideal feedstock and product streams for biochemical recycling and ultimately recycling or upscaling plastic waste.

“There was a really rigorous review process,” Yang said. “If you get negative reviews, you would feel discouraged, but those reviews were critical in improving and identifying gaps in logic.”

“I didn’t feel discouraged with the science, but the discouragement comes from trying to get funding,” diCenzo added. “Funding rates are pretty low, so most applications don’t get the money.”

Their grant proposal ultimately endured several rounds of critique and revision from Ontario Genomics and was approved a year later, in March of 2021. By then, Open Plastic had a $7.9 million budget from Genome Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities, including in-kind and overhead, and had recruited 21 researchers across six universities, three municipal partners, four corporate partners, and one fresh produce distributor.

Chapter 2: Recruiting Help

McLellan described Open Plastic as “a really big project relative to individual projects,” one needing more momentum and hands on deck.

The City of Cornwall, Utilities Kingston, and Peel Region each provide plastic samples from their municipal waste and recycling streams, offering insight into the combination and contamination of plastic waste in the real world.

Carbios has already commercialized enzyme-based biorecycling and is interested in expanding its market, while DuPont, a chemicals company, provides plastic samples aged in-lab and GreenCentre Canada, a technology commercialization company, scales up processes.

Tetra Tech, a consulting and engineering services firm that had a hand in designing the City of Los Angeles’ recycling program, is a partner and, simultaneously, an end user who could potentially implement Open Plastic’s technologies and techno-economic analyses.

Star Produce, meanwhile, is a fresh produce distributor with 200,000 square feet of distribution space that posed the challenge of reducing the amount of plastic packaging waste used in distribution processes.

“What [Star Produce] provides is relatively long term-scientific innovation to really change the way that waste is being dealt with [and] a chance to network with major players in the fresh produce industry, who are all trying to come up with a way to tackle plastic packaging,” Yang said.

Chapter 3: Worms

Just this August, diCenzo began experimenting with mealworms and superworms, which he described as “starting points.”

With in-lab evidence that the insects can eat plastics and scientific literature suggesting that the bacteria in their guts are breaking it down, diCenzo is optimistic that the worms will prove themselves an important source of microbes and enzymes capable of plastic degradation.

Chapter 4: The Social Dimension

Beyond the significant reduction in plastic waste and greenhouse gas emissions, Open Plastic’s mission has a social dimension as well.

“We’re on the cusp of really interesting science, and it’s a matter of gaining attraction with the public,” Zechel said.

The team pointed out that, while public awareness about plastic waste and recycling is growing, there is little information about where the plastics go after that.

When asked about compostable plastics, McLellan explained, “Compostable plastics have their own appeal, but part of the problem is that they can contaminate existing plastic recycling streams and won’t start to compost [without] elevated temperatures.”

As glass packaging becomes more popular, McLellan warns that glass has its own baggage—for example, it is manufactured at high temperatures and takes far longer to decompose than plastic.

“From the standpoint of granting agencies and the government, they want this to have socioeconomic impact,” McLellan said. “Solving societal problems, training qualified personnel.”

diCenzo and McLellan both hope that Canada will become a global leader in clean technology, and to this end, that Open Plastic will drive the growth of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers—‘scientists-in-training’—and grow opportunities in Canada for those with advanced education and training.

Zechel added that the team’s attraction to the Open Plastic project isn’t limited to the societal and environmental benefits of plastic waste reduction.

“From a scientific perspective, it’s interesting to see what kind of solutions nature comes up with to deal with unnatural compounds,” Zechel said. “We don’t really know what we expect to find. It could be something relatively crude and effective or something well-adapted and sophisticated.”

Chapter 5: Open Science

Fueling Open Plastic is the philosophy of open science, the idea of scientific research as transparent and freely accessible to everyone. This means Open Plastic’s project deliverables will be shared without filing patents, charging royalties, or restricting use.

“We want to show that this open science consortion model does accelerate knowledge to societal benefit and the uptake of this technology by Canadian and international companies,” Yang said. “This type of model can help open innovation in, for example, developing countries [that] would benefit a lot from non-exclusive rights to technologies.”

“Zero plastic waste in Canada is a societal goal,” McLellan said. “What we’re trying to do is develop technology that can achieve that goal … The technology is one piece, [but there are] a whole lot of pieces that have to build up.”

It will take four years to accomplish what Open Plastic set out to do, but by developing and releasing technologies and mathematical models that can be used to support recycling processes, others can “hit the ground running” in the five years between Open Plastic’s crowning moment and Canada’s ‘zero plastic waste by 2030’ goal.

Chapter 6: Next Steps

As the school year begins, the team said their work with Open Plastic won’t halt.

“The hope is that it doesn’t slow down too dramatically,” diCenzo said. “You have other people in the lab—students and [postdoctoral researchers] who drive the research.”

(“I worry that I’m becoming a research manager,” McLellan joked.)

“The sweet spot for research is May to August … you can be spending all your time on research,” McLellan explained. “When a course is ongoing, you have to fulfill the obligations the course has. It’s well-defined and fixed—lectures, a midterm, and a final, September to April.

Research is not as structured … [it’s] a flexible piece that you do around firm commitments.”

“Plastic can be a lot of good things,” McLellan said. “Lightweight, strong, [effective at] delivering sterile things—the challenge is, can we move to a sweet spot where we realize the advantages of plastics without having them contaminate the environment?”

Zechel called it “an old story in chemistry”—technological wonders like plastics develop, are quickly overdone, and its consequences prompt the world to rethink its use.

“Plastics can be our friend … but we need to tame the plastic dragon,” he said. “It would be unthinkable to get rid of plastics entirely. I can’t fathom a world like that.”

This work was completed as part of the Department of Chemistry’s 2021 Student-in-Residence Program, funded by the Department of Chemistry and Experience Ventures.