Considering the damage plastic is doing to the world's oceans, it's the last place you'd expect a revolutionary new approach to come from, but one WA company has a secret ingredient.

It’s no secret plastic and oceans don’t mix.

You’ve probably heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 1.6m square kilometre area full of discarded plastic between North America and Japan, hemmed in by the major Pacific currents. As of 2018, it contained 45,000-130,000 tons of toothbrushes, water bottles, pens, plastic bags, and more, some of it up to 50 years old.

Then there are all the microplastics damaging marine ecosystems, broken pieces of fishing nets, microwave containers, and car tyre rubber measuring 5mm or less. There were barely any in the oceans between 1950 and 1980, and today there are over half a million tons.

But now, a radical idea from Western Australia is posing a unique question; what if the ocean can actually save us from plastic?

Not so fantastic

There’s a race to solve the problems of plastic production. Back in June, AMT reported on a company called Samsara Eco that uses a special enzyme that consumes plastic waste. Now, a company based at Perth’s Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre is looking at the other end of the process – manufacturing.

Uluu (the name pays homage to the surfing paradise of Uluwatu, Indonesia) is the brainchild of co-founders, oceanographer Dr Julia Reisser and former Mergers & Acquisitions Lawyer Michael Kingsbury.

Plastic, Kingsbury begins, is entrenched in society. “It protects our food, it helps us climb mountains with weatherproof clothing, it has all these great properties, and alternatives to plastic either don’t have the same properties or they’re a bit too much like it. They don’t biodegrade, they have the same persistent pollution plastic does, etc.”

The trick Reisser and Kingsbury hit upon was to produce a polymer – the building block of all plastics – using natural rather than petrochemical means. The process not only uses fewer harmful chemicals during manufacture, the resulting material is far less harmful to the environment, degrading like any other organic molecule.

The secret sauce is the polyhydroxyalkanoate, more often known as PHAs. A PHA is a polymer made in nature from polyester – not the leisure suit material, the category of polymers that contains esters (a compound derived from an acid).

Nature makes polyesters when microorganisms like bacteria ferment sugars or lipids like they do fermenting beer or wine. When bacteria create a PHA it’s far more environmentally friendly because it can be used as both as a source of energy and a carbon store – doing the same with synthetic polymers use fossil fuels and plastic never breaks down.

What’s more, PHAs can be rebuilt into 150 different types of monomers – the molecule that can react with others like itself to form a longer chain (‘poly’ simply means ‘more than one’ in chemistry), all of which have different properties and suit different applications we normally make plastics to address.

To make biological PHAs, sugars are extracted from the carbohydrates in biomaterial using hydrolysis, a method where a water molecule is used to break chemical bonds in another substance (non-scientists know it as ‘cooking’). The sugars are then fed into the fermentation process where micro-organisms go to work, and PHAs come out at the other end.

“The two issues we’re addressing at Uluu are the feedstock and the material,” Kingsbury says. “Nature built them, nature understands them and nature can break them back down at the end of their life. But they have these really unique qualities and actually behave like plastics – great oxygen moisture barrier properties, durable, lightweight.”

Gone to sea

But what does all that have to do with the ocean? Uluu’s secret ingredient to create PHAs is one hidden in plain sight – seaweed.

“Seaweed is fantastic because it sequesters carbon,” Reisser says, “it grows quickly, it contains lots of sugar, which is important for fermentation. It doesn’t need fertiliser or freshwater like crops and it doesn’t compete with arable land for food production.”

Not only does that seem like a huge improvement over other natural PHA producers that use corn or sugar cane, it has a bonus because – like them – it can use the infrastructure already in place. “You can process them on existing manufacturing equipment, so it’ll help with adoption and scale,” Kingsbury says.

Reisser and Kingsbury realised seaweed would be a great raw input because their love of the oceans and – in Reisser’s case, a career in it – gave them an understanding of the opportunities and challenges of marine fauna. The inspiration behind the company came partly from Reisser’s exposure to the level of plastic pollution in the oceans in the course of her work as an oceanographer.

“We wanted to find a truly compelling alternative to plastics,” she explains, “and seaweed has the potential to be more attractive than others for decoupling our materials economy from fossil fuels.”

“Seaweed has carbohydrates, sugars, and lipids like other sources, and after the process, we have leftover seaweed biomass that now has a higher protein content. Raw seaweed is about 10% protein, which isn’t very attractive for feed markets because there’s too much carbohydrate. We take the carbohydrates out for PHA production and what’s left has a theoretically higher digestibility level for livestock feed.”

All of which means Uluu has a two-pronged business model. Reisser calls the PHAs its ‘flagship material’, and the lipids and proteins that are left can be sold to feed producers – she says it’s already being considered as a feedstock for farmed fish.

A natural polymer world

We all duly put our PET bottles and Christmas present packaging in the recycling, but the dirty secret of plastic waste is that we can’t recycle even 10% of what we use – the quality degrades too much every time it’s heated, melted, and reformed.

And as long as we can’t recycle plastic effectively enough, we’ll continue to make it the way we do now; using synthetic polymerisation with unsustainable fossil fuel inputs.

That makes efforts like using natural rather than synthetic processes to make PHAs seem like the best way forward. That way you can use milk bottles or Tupperware until it’s too worn and dispose of it like you would vegetable scraps or livestock manure. If you live in a big city with enough waste to justify recycling facilities it ends up there, if you’re in a rural community where there isn’t as much waste infrastructure you just throw it in compost.

And as we’ve seen, it means not having to upend manufacturing the way we do it now. “The end product is a white powder, the same stuff that comes out of a petrochemical process, so it can enter the plastic supply chain seamlessly and manufacturers don’t have to retool. In theory, we can go into any vertical,” Reisser says.

And if seaweed-based natural polymers catch on, there’ll be social as well as scientific knock-on effects. Today seaweed farming in a nascent industry found mostly in China, the Philippines, and Indonesia, but if we can do it on a more industrialised scale it’ll do more than just make better plastic.

Aside from climate change, we’re facing nutrient pollution in the oceans thanks to sewage and fertiliser run-off. One of the most effective ways to combat that is more marine plants to sequester and repurpose pollutants, and expanded seaweed farming will not only provide that, but it’ll also give many rural and developing world communities new job opportunities.

Tomorrow’s plastic today

Reisser and Kingsbury’s blueprint is to establish Uluu as an owner/operator with five or 10 PHA plants. Then, with a successful business in hand, they’ll move to a franchising model, the way Kingsbury says a company like Coca-Cola works, licensing the brand and recipe to third-party bottling facilities worldwide.

When I make a joke there’ll one day be Uluu plants all over the world and petrochemical plastic will be a thing of the past, Reisser and Kingsbury look expectant, like it’s all part of the plan. But when supermodel Karlie Koss, celebrity chef Neil Perry, and a host of other big names have invested in you as they have in Uluu, maybe that kind of success is assured…


Written by Drew Turney in WA.