„Microbiology is a Gamble – Sometimes You're Lucky, Sometimes You're Not.“

| By Gizem Bulut

Plastic is everywhere. Plastic pollution has significant environmental, health, social, and economic impacts. The rapidly increasing levels of plastic pollution, including microplastics, present a serious transboundary environmental problem. beworm, a German startup, uses organisms that eat plastic to solve this problem.


Eleonore Eisath holds a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Industrial Design and is the founder and team leader of beworm. beworm is developing a biotechnological process to sustainably recycle polyethylene (PE) which is the world's most widely used plastic. In this interview, Eleonore tells us how she came up with the idea of recycling, how the industry reacts to her idea, and how she feels about the future.    


Eleonore, as an industrial designer, how did you end up in the enzymatic recycling of polyethylene? 

After completing my bachelor's degree, I worked as an industrial designer for some time but I missed sustainability and purpose in my daily work. That’s when I decided to do my master's degree with a focus on environmental issues. During my studies, I read a paper about plastic-eating waxworms. To me, that was revolutionary! My motivation was on fire and I wanted to do tests with the waxworm myself. My fellow students and I bought the worms, carried out the first experiments, and already achieved the first small results. It was so motivating that I then deepened the topic in my master's thesis and was able to carry out further experiments and achieve interesting results which eventually lead to me winning a prize. The prize money made me want to do something meaningful with it. Luckily, I met two biologists who were also enthusiastic about the enzymatic recycling process and we decided to work together.


And that was the starting point of beworm?

Indeed! First, we removed the stomachs and intestines from the worms, which we had been raising on plastic for almost a year, and then used these stomachs and intestines again with plastic as their only carbon source and focussed further on those that survived. We are now at almost 40 strains that can utilize polyethylene. We work purely with PE and try to find out the enzymes these bacteria produce to understand how they work exactly. 


What are your biggest challenges?  

Our biggest challenge now is that there is no standard measurement for plastic degradation. That means that you have to do a lot of different tests to prove the degradation of plastic. That slows down the process considerably. Another challenge is testing various plastics: Up until now, we have mainly worked with pure PE. Though, we want our process to work under realistic conditions. Since the sorting system is not delivering pure PE but mixed plastics, we have to test under these conditions, too. Whether this can even be an advantage or turns out to be a disadvantage, in the end, is still open. Microbiology is a gamble – sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not.  


Is scaling also a challenge?  

Yes. It is still unclear if this process will be able to reach relevant scales. That might be the biggest challenge we are currently facing. The petrochemical industry that produces plastic is used to fast throughputs. Huge amounts of plastic are being produced for comparatively little money. 


Is this approach considered downgrading, recycling, or even upcycling?

It's upcycling! It's like being able to turn a piece of wooden furniture into a tree again. That would be awesome! In addition, much lower energy consumption is necessary. Unlike chemical recycling, enzymatic recycling does not require high temperatures and pressure. This is why so much research is currently being done.


How would it be possible to integrate this upcycling process into existing waste management?  

The best way is to build a fermenter or bioreactor next to a mechanical system which degrades the plastic that cannot be mechanically recycled. Mechanically recyclable plastics are already well integrated into an efficient recycling process. We focus only on plastics that aren‘t: PE, composites, and colored plastic for example. If we could recycle these plastics, too, that would be a great addition to the existing system.


You just mentioned plastic manufacturers. Are they interested in your work or are you facing resistance from them?  

The petrochemical industry is the industry that shows the most interest. That surprised us. We assumed that the recycling industry would be particularly interested in alternative recycling methods. After all, an additional form of recycling plastics would lead to increasing recycling in general. However, our experience clearly shows that manufacturers are under pressure. Of course, there is also social pressure since they are seen as the biggest culprits and therefore feel the necessity to promote more sustainable solutions.


We know that the global plastic overflow is a problem that is not rooted in the personal decisions of individuals but rather industries. On the other hand, many people might be interested to learn and profit from your recycling perspective: Do you have uncomplicated decision-making tips for individuals to help making the recycling process more efficient?

In my opinion, it always helps to remember how the currently used process, mechanical recycling, works: plastic is shredded, melted down, and pressed back into a new product. It is already a first step to look at the product while shopping and think about whether it can be shredded, melted down, and extruded again as it is! By doing so, you quickly realize that white or transparent products can be reused in a more versatile way than black plastics. On the other hand, it's quite challenging to constantly make the right choice while shopping. There are no such things as general rules you can blindly follow anytime: In some cases, choosing a plastic bottle can be better than a glass bottle. As a consumer, you have to take a critical look at the entire life cycle assessment of products which is often difficult to do in everyday life.


My final question is: How do you feel about the future? 

There are days I am pessimistic about the future, especially every time I see the number of plastic hotspots all over the world. Luckily though, there are mainly good days. I am sure that humans will eventually be able to use their knowledge and technologies to find a solution. Creating valuable raw materials out of mixed plastics would be a huge step towards understanding how supposedly valueless waste polluting the environment could turn into a valuable resource ready to move back into the cycle. My belief in this and meeting many committed people who dedicate themselves to saving the environment gives me hope for a positive future.


Thank you, Eleonore!


Here you can learn more about Eleonore and beworm.