While bodysurfing off San Diego in the winter of 2012, fraternal twins Jeff and Dane Anderson saw how much plastic waste was in the water. They were aware of the Great Pacific Plastic Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California and its potential impacts, but they hadn’t seen so much plastic waste in the ocean before.
Unlike most people, however, the pair had the expertise to do something about it. Both are engineers, Jeff with a bachelor’s in civil engineering from UC Davis and a master’s in environmental engineering from the same university, and Dane with a bachelor’s in civil engineering from Davis. They began brainstorming on a way to convert organic waste – such as food scraps, agricultural byproducts, cardboard, and waste paper – into a biodegradable substance with a tongue-twisting name: polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). To the layperson: bioplastic.
The concept of bioplastic is not new. Henry Ford is known to have experimented with the idea; his famous “Soybean Car” contained panels supposedly made from a formula that included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax, and ramie. Other companies have been tinkering with bioplastics since the ’50s, resulting in two major types, PHA and PLA (polylactic acid), a version made from corn or dextrose. But bioplastics have also faced major problems, the most important of which is cost.
The Anderson brothers are determined to address this issue. Their current Richmond-based company, Full Cycle Bioplastics, started in 2012 with assistance from Wawona Frozen Foods in Fresno, noted for its commitment to sustainability and its partnership with researchers at Fresno State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Dane noted the food industry is a prime market for bioplastics.
Full Cycle’s breakthrough idea was to craft a way to convert organic waste, created in huge amounts by frozen foods companies, for example, into PHA, which can then be used to make bioplastic bags. PHA can also be reused and recycled, thus completing the “full cycle” of the company’s name. Costs are greatly lowered because of the “waste” nature of the material used, compared to the corn or dextrose used to create PLA.
Asked to describe in simple terms how their process works, Jeff chuckled and replied, “We take the food waste [and/or agricultural byproducts, paper, and cardboard] and break it down into its basic building blocks, which is food for bacteria.” The bacteria eat the prepared waste, growing very fat, and converting it into PHA. “The PHA can be used to replace all single-use plastic items as well,” he said, including bottles, utensils, and straws.
The Full Cycle version of PHA is home compostable and would break down in “about a month” in a compost heap, Dane said, and “about nine months in the ocean.” This is especially important because another environmental impact of plastic is that fish and shellfish eat floating plastics. “By 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight,” said Jeff. “But our bioplastic could actually be certified as fish food.”
Full Cycle has received, and continues to receive, calls about obtaining its product from U.S. and global corporations. The company has already garnered numerous awards, including the grand prize of the Europe-based Sustainable Entrepreneurship Awards 2016.
Right now, according to Bioplastics Magazine, bioplastics represent only 1 percent of the 320 million tons of plastic produced annually. But, according to Bioplastics.guide, “global production capacity of bioplastics is predicted to quadruple … from around 1.7 million [metric tons] in 2014 to approximately 7.8 million [metric tons] in 2019.”
Full Cycle is working with “a large strategic partner,” whom the brothers declined to name because of work in progress, to scale up their production capacity. “Some people have actually called to make donations to speed things up,” said Dane. “We expect to be commercial by 2019,” Jeff said. California, with its giant agribusinesses, is a prime target for their product.
And what’s behind industry demand is consumer demand. Global market research reports that growing consumer pressure, along with legislation, such as plastic bag bans and global warming initiatives, will significantly increase demand for bioplastics. Public awareness of the problem of plastics is now much higher, the brothers agreed, and environmentally aware buyers are taking notice of how much plastic is used in packaging. “We are giving consumers the option to do better by giving them a better option,” said Jeff.
“Consumers are going to keep demanding alternatives and voting with their dollars,” added Dane.
The Anderson brothers are looking ahead to the near future in which Full Cycle could offer some sustainable solutions for the developing world. “Most of the developing world has no waste collection systems,” said Jeff. “But if you put a value on waste, you incentivize its use.” So, what was once discarded becomes a source of jobs – and profit.
And that, the 32-year-old brothers agree, is why they expect Full Cycle to quickly get up to speed. Source problem solved, costs reduced to a manageable level, and growing consumer demand all add up to a sustainable answer to the classic capitalist maxim, often cited by none other than Richmond’s own Henry Kaiser: “Find a need and fill it.”
Then, go back to bodysurfing in a clean ocean.
This report was originally published by our sister publication, Oakland Magazine.