Carbios Tech Speeds PLA Biodegradation

Carbios’ process works by speeding the breakdown of PLA molecules into small enough pieces for microbes to digest them, leaving behind only carbon dioxide (CO2), biomass, and water. The company reports no microplastics linger. The technology’s biodegradability in home composting conditions is a true test of its worth, says Stuart MacDonald, senior advisor to Carbios.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

April 8, 2024

5 Min Read

French biochemistry company Carbios has developed a technology that leverages enzymes to break down polylactic acid (PLA) in industrial composting settings in 28 days, even at ambient temperatures. Branded as CARBIOS Active, it’s stood up to testing that’s found it suitable in home compost environments as well, which the company is banking on being a game changer. Today, the only end-of-life (EOL) option for PLA besides landfill is industrial composting, and compost infrastructure in the U.S. is fairly nascent.

Where facilities do exist, many operators report this first-generation biopolymer does not break down in their required timeframe, so they reject it at the gate or screen it out.

Carbios’ process works by speeding the breakdown of PLA molecules into small enough pieces for microbes to digest them, leaving behind only carbon dioxide (CO2), biomass, and water. The company reports no microplastics linger.

The technology’s biodegradability in home composting conditions is a true test of its worth, says Stuart MacDonald, senior advisor to Carbios.

“Many compostable plastics require industrial composting conditions to completely break down. These facilities have tight controls and operate at very high temperatures [and some bioplastic may still remain]. But home composting conditions are far less robust. So, the ability of CARBIOS Active to completely biodegrade even at ambient temperatures in 28 days in just about any soil is quite transformative,” MacDonald says.

Brands are drawn to PLA for its high-performance profile, especially in food packaging, and they like its comparatively cheap price point as bioplastics go—though its limited EOL options are increasingly raising concerns.

Innovators looking for better alternatives have developed what are usually more expensive next-generation biopolymers with high mechanical performance characteristics, shown to break down faster than PLA, and in both industrial and home composting environments. 

These evolving options come online, chipping into PLA’s market share, as investors have laid out massive capital for PLA production over the years.

“There is large global capacity already built. We want to breathe new life into PLA by expanding its end-of-life destinations, while offering competitive pricing compared to high-performance peer groups, ultimately opening more opportunities for brand owners,” MacDonald says.

CARBIOS Active, certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) as industrial compostable in the U.S., just received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food contact notification (FCN) in February 2024, meaning it can be incorporated in packaging materials that come into contact with food, including rigid and flexible packaging and other applications. FDA’s vetting process entails analyzing data to rule out risk for unsafe migration of a food contact substance to food, toxicological risks, and significant environmental impact.

The enzyme in CARBIOS Active will stay locked in film or rigid packaging until it is subject to pH, water, and humidity and will only activate in soil conditions, where the PLA breaks down, reports Carbios, who considers FDA’s approval a big deal.
“The U.S. is a key market for our biodegradation solution, and we expect the FCN clearance to drive significant additional demand in North America in 2024,” says Emmanuel Ladent, CEO of Carbios.

The European company sees the U.S. as a smart target, MacDonald says, because of consumer demand for sustainable products and an early but growing framework at the state level for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations, which put onus on producers to provide compostable or recyclable products and packaging.

Today six U.S. states have enacted EPR or some sort of policy around packaging: California, Colorado, Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, and Washington. Illinois and Maryland may soon follow.

These levers – policy and consumer demand along with capital allocation –are driving commitments to a circular economy and to sustainability, MacDonald says.

Carbios is partnering with converters and brands on product tests, which are currently in evaluation or final project phases.

“We are working with Fortune 50 consumer package goods companies, which is exciting for us because we believe the scale of commercialization will be significant. And there are small- to medium-sized enterprises whose products are GMO-free, fair trade, certified organic, etc.— those enterprises are important stakeholders to us too. They are nimble and agile, and sustainable packaging is a critical part of their value proposition,” MacDonald says.

The Compost Manufacturing Alliance, a network of compost facilities, is vetting the product too. Its focus is on field testing to ensure materials disintegrate adequately in real-world industrial processes.

With compostable plastic alternatives, products must break down by 90 percent in a field disintegration test to be considered a CMA “PASS,” while full disintegration is the ideal, says Susan Thoman, founder and managing director of the Compost Manufacturing Alliance.

“As food scrap programs and volumes increase into the U.S. infrastructure, sites have pressure to take more in, and post-consumer food scraps often require new processing technology that may change timeframes.

“Including CARBIOS Active (as I understand) can shorten the disintegration time of materials, giving compost facilities and product designers a higher level of assurance that they will meet the standards in the lab as well as provide assurance of disintegration in industrial piles,” Thoman says.

Carbios anticipates its technology can serve as a drop in to multiple biopolymer compounds, whether those containing primarily PLA or other materials. Incorporating CARBIOS Active into formulations may lower costs or improve mechanical performance, attests MacDonald.

Carbios is positioned to take hold of an ample market share once CARBIOS Active reaches product commercialization. Its plant has a 2,500-metric-ton-per-year capacity. With plans to drop 5 percent of the material into product (the amount required for home compostability), 2,5000 tons translates to 50,000 tons per year of enzymatic PLA.

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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