"Environment" research area

Microbial Conversion of Plastic Waste

Primary Investigator - Boya XiongPrimary InvestigatorBoya Xiong
Co-InvestigatorsSebastian Behrens
Industry PartnersRamsey/Washington County Recycling and Energy Team
Award Type: Seed Grant - Postdoctoral Research Scholar

Problem: Single-use plastic or Polyethylene (PE) is the dominant plastic in the world, at 30% of the total global plastic market. Single-use plastic is a significant contributor to the solid waste stream and production forecasts indicated continued growth over the next few years. PE is the third most abundant form of plastic waste in Minnesota landfills and contributes to the increasing prevalence of nano/microplastics in local and regional waterbodies. PE plastics are both largely non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, and will continue to pollute the environment without a sustainable management plan.

Solution: Recent findings on the biodegradation of PE’s show the potential to biologically recover energy within densely packed PE structures. MnDRIVE researchers recently discovered a consortium of fungus and bacteria in Minnesota that can degrade and utilize PE as their sole carbon source. Dr. Xiong’s Lab will build on this early finding to develop a novel co-treatment process to enhance the microbial conversion of PE into value-added intermediates and energy. By enhancing the degradation of densely packed PE structures, this treatment process will enable the bioconversion rate to meet industry demands. 

Impact: The creation and implementation of this technology could completely alter the current, linear material flow of PE. The transition to a circular flow, where the use of PE products no longer signifies the end of its life, could stimulate and incentivize the collection and separation of such waste. A circular material flow for PE would drastically reduce the negative impacts of plastic waste accumulation. If successful, the product could be integrated with anaerobic microbial degradation and the accompanied production of biohydrogen and/or biomethane.