Innovation That Matters

The bioplastic can compost at home | Photo source Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering

Startup creates compostable plastic that breaks down quickly

Science

The new material can break down within days or weeks, varying with the type of plastic and conditions of the compost

Spotted:  San Francisco-based startup Intropic Materials is developing a bioplastic that is possible to compost at home. Unlike most compost facilities, where products degrade from the outside in, the materials are degraded from the inside out. 

Aaron Hall, a former UC Berkeley doctoral student, launched the startup with the use of technology he worked on at the university. 

According to a study published this spring in Nature, the new material break down within days or weeks, varying with the type of plastic and conditions of the compost, such as its temperature. 

Normally, microbes use enzymes to slowly “eat” biodegradable plastic. In the new material, however, the enzymes are built into the plastic itself. When the plastic is thrown away, and there is the right environmental conditions of humidity and temperature, the enzymes are activated.  

Hall explained to Fast Company that: “Since it’s trapped inside the plastic, it grabs hold and starts pulling the polymer chains one by one, cutting them into small molecules that are really easy to break down by microbes”. 

Because the new material will break down into monomers, it could also be recycled rather than composted. The embedded enzymes also break down the plastic more completely by going from one polymer chain to the next, rather than breaking down the polymer in random areas, with the result being that no microplastic remains. 

Hall envisions that eateries and other large facilities might eventually have an on-site system to degrade the material and then send the monomers back to be recycled into new plastic, providing a closed-loop. 

Hall currently has a fellowship at Activate, a two-year nonprofit fellowship that helps scientific entrepreneurs turn their concepts into products and launch businesses. After demonstrating that the plastic can be successfully composted in lab conditions, the next step will be trialling the performance in the real world. The company plans to begin with alternatives to plastics that can’t normally be recycled, like plastic films and bags.  

Written By: Katrina Lane

Explore more: Science Innovations | Sustainability Innovations

Email: aaronhall@intropicmaterials.com

Website: intropicmaterials.com

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