Sustainable Solutions

How U of G is helping rid the world of plastic

“Throwaway Living”: That was the headline on a 1955 Life magazine story celebrating the plastics revolution. In a photograph, smiling family members stand with upraised arms to welcome a rain of bowls, cups, straws, trays and other items. Jump to 2018, and you get a different picture. Reprinted this past summer in a story called “Planet or Plastic?” in National Geographic, that decades-old celebratory photo jars against more sobering shots: waste dumps, plastic recycling facilities, bottles choking a Madrid fountain during an art installation about the environmental impact of disposable plastics. In less than the average human lifetime, we’ve gone from singing in the plastic rain to drowning in it.

Some nine billion tons of plastic have accumulated on Earth mostly since the 1950s, with nearly seven billion tons’ worth ending up as waste. Today’s production adds almost 450 million tons a year, 40 per cent of it in single-use items, especially packaging. Much of that material will take centuries to break down. Meantime, it’s accumulating on land and in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Plastic pollution – the theme of this year’s Earth Day – poses a hazard to living things of all kinds, including a now-iconic sea turtle found three years ago with a straw stuck in its nose. After a marine biologist’s video went viral, the creature’s plight spurred companies and governments to ban plastic straws.

Prof. Bruce McAdams
Prof. Bruce McAdams

At the University of Guelph, PJ’s Restaurant was ahead of the game. In 2011, the student-run campus dining room stopped providing plastic straws, just one of many environmental initiatives that earned the establishment both third-party LEAF certification and inclusion on a list of Canada’s Greenest Restaurants for 2012. Prof. Bruce McAdams, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management, displays a “Straws Suck” T-shirt designed by students in his restaurant operations course in 2011 whose life-cycle analysis of PJ’s included the environmental impact of the enterprise. Referring to PJ’s plastic straw ban – and a continued focus on plastics as part of his University of Guelph Sustainable Restaurant Project – McAdams says, “It’s all part of our move to become more sustainable.”

That’s the wider goal of research, teaching and institutional projects at U of G aimed at reducing or eliminating the use of fossil fuel-based plastics and finding alternatives to those materials for numerous applications on campus and off.  Various players from researchers to campus administrators aim to help curb plastic pollution and reduce reliance on petroleum-derived products that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

“What we’re doing today is embedding the agri-food production cycle well within the bio-economy.”

Prof Amar Mohanty
Prof Amar Mohanty

In what is arguably the University’s signature project in this area, plant biologists, chemists and engineers in the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC) are exploring plant-based alternatives to petroleum-derived plastics for numerous applications. The group designed the world’s first fully compostable, single-serve coffee pod in 2015 as an alternative to millions of pods made with conventional plastics that end up in landfills. Now marketed by Toronto’s Club Coffee in North America, South America and Europe, the pod is made from compostable coffee chaff, formerly a waste by-product from roasting beans. BDDC director Prof. Amar Mohanty – who is cross-appointed between the Department of Plant Agriculture and the School of Engineering – says, “This innovative coffee pod not only addresses issues of environmental sustainability but also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels.”

The group is also looking at renewable car parts, packaging and a range of products that incorporate bio-based polymers as composites. During a visit this past summer by Catherine McKenna, federal minister of environment and climate change, University officials discussed the coffee pods as well as products from drinking straws to mulch films to tomato rings for the greenhouse industry, all made from bio-composites. Digging up plant-based bioproducts makes sense for a university whose roots lie in agriculture, says Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “We have always been involved in mobilizing knowledge out of the academy and into the real world,” he says. “What we’re doing today is embedding the agri-food production cycle well within the bio-economy, looking at capturing agricultural resources and using them in novel ways.” Now 10 years old, the BDDC completed a $7-million expansion this year, bringing the facility to about 14,000 square feet in size. Researchers use a range of equipment to create composites and test their properties for potential applications.

At an international conference held by the centre this past summer in Guelph, experts discussed bioplastics and bio-composites and the so-called circular economy intended to reduce waste and ensure environmental sustainability – what U of G president Franco Vaccarino calls “one of the most pressing issues of our time.” Unlike the “take-make-dispose” model of the current linear economy, says Mohanty, “the circular economy is a system where nothing is wasted, and valuable materials destined for the landfill are put back into the economy without negative effects on people and the environment.” (Along with other local groups, U of G is supporting a proposal to designate Guelph-Wellington as Canada’s first circular food economy, intended to increase access to affordable, nutritious food, create new businesses and jobs, and turn food waste into new products.)

Also based at the BDDC is a new project led by Prof. Manju Misra to develop and commercialize sustainable plastic packaging from recycled and renewable plastics as well as industrial and food waste. Earlier this year, U of G received $3.8 million from the provincial government for the project. “Our innovative, sustainable packaging research is intended to reduce landfill bur-den, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions,” says Misra, who is also cross-appointed between Engineering and Plant Agriculture.

That project includes industry and government partners as well as other U of G faculty members. One is Evan Fraser, a professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, who plans to look at consumer attitudes toward alternative materials, specifically biodegradable, food-grade plastics used in packaging.  Those alternatives currently carry undesirable traits – brittle, opaque – inimical to use on grocery store shelves. They can also be costly. Disposable plastics are both convenient and cheap, says Fraser: “So much of our economy is predicated on not paying the full environmental cost of fossil fuels. We need ways of ensuring that we pay the full, long-term environmental cost of our lifestyles.” He heads U of G’s Arrell Food Institute (AFI), which was launched in 2017 and brings together campus researchers working to ensure sustainable global food production. He adds: “The challenge with food packaging is that, despite being polluting, it helps keep food safe to eat for longer. In some ways, there’s a trade-off between environmental sustainability and food safety.  The thing that gets me excited is the potential to address that trade-off. Can we develop food-grade plastics that use biodegradable materials and keep food safe that consumers will accept?”

“Bagasse is all imported to Canada. How about a made-in-Canada product?”

Prof Maria Corradini

Helping to answer that question is partly the point of research by Prof. Maria Corradini, who will join U of G’s Department of Food Science this fall as one of three newly appointed Arrell Food Chairs. Formerly at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, she studies the use of edible coatings and biodegradable plastics for food packaging. Along with a Spanish colleague, she’s assessing the sensitivity of molecular sensors to changes in the integrity of packaging materials, from increasing brittleness to higher water content. By indicating whether biodegradable packaging may be losing integrity, these probes may help prevent contamination or spoilage. She’s also interested in real-time ways to convey that information to consumers. Imagine retrieving information on packaging integrity and food quality from those sensors using your mobile phone in the grocery store or in your pantry at home. “Effectively determining the remaining shelf life of a product through real-time monitoring will have a huge impact on waste and safety,” says Corradini.

Prof Loong TakLim

Food science professor Loong-Tak Lim, who is director of the Guelph Food Innovation Centre, also hopes to make food packaging greener. He’s working with a Brampton, Ont., company that currently uses bagasse, the pulpy residue from sugar cane grown abroad, to make bowls, cups and takeaway containers used in restaurants and food service. Referring to wheat straw, or stalks left on Canadian farmers’ fields after crop harvesting, he says, “Bagasse is all imported to Canada. How about a made-in-Canada product?” Now he and School of Engineering professor Manickavasagan Annamalai aim to help the company test its production processes for using wheat straw in its products.

This fall, they obtained a project grant from a sustainable engineering research fund established in early 2018 as part of a $5-million gift to U of G from the Barrett Family Foundation. Announced early this year on campus, that gift will also support a new Barrett Family Chair in Sustainable Food Engineering, Canada’s first academic chair in the topic. Based in the School of Engineering and connected to the AFI, the chair is intended to find innovative ways to improve food processing, including better packaging and green technologies that will help prolong shelf life and reduce food waste.

Besides conducting research projects intended to reduce plastics use, U of G is holding up a mirror to its own institutional practices. When students returned for the fall semester, they found a campus nearly free of plastic straws and bags. In a move that drew national media attention this past spring, U of G’s Hospitality Services announced plans to remove the single-use products from its in-house retail and restaurant outlets. Ed Townsley, executive director of the department, estimates that the University will effectively divert 155,000 plastic bags and 175,000 plastic straws from landfills every year – what he calls “a small but important change with a huge impact.” Procurement manager Mark Kenny says on-campus franchises such as Starbucks and Booster Juice follow their own corporate policies and are exempt from the change, but “we’re working with them to pull out straws.”

Widening the scope, Kenny says end consumers and point-of-sale outlets on campus account for only part of the plastic generated through his department. A much larger component is what he calls “back of house.” Food ingredients and products destined for preparation in dining halls and residence kitchens arrive on campus in plastic packaging for shipping convenience, increased shelf life and food safety. Besides encouraging reuse of plastic containers within campus food services, Kenny works with suppliers to look for improvements. This summer, he was assessing a clamshell takeout container made by a Canadian supplier from bagasse for campus dining halls and food trucks. “Sustainability is top of mind in sourcing,” he says. “When I source products, I ask how they are packaged, and I source in bulk as much as I can.”

Sustainable improvements in food services and other U of G departments are part of the wider campus waste-handling system involving Physical Resources (PR) and municipal waste services. Brandon Raco, sustainability coordinator in the Sustainability Office and a 2015 U of G graduate in environmental governance, says it’s tough to know how much plastic arrives on campus and how much ends up in recycling programs. He says administrators in pertinent departments have discussed the need for a comprehensive institutional infrastructure and systems for reducing or eliminating all forms of waste, including plastics, across campus.

“Can we develop food-grade plastics that use biodegradable materials and keep food safe that consumers will accept?”

Last year, his department started a composting program that collects food scraps from Creelman Hall’s back of house – as well as manure and animal bedding from the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) – and turns them into compost for use by campus grounds and the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming. PR plans to expand the program to kitchens in the University Centre, OVC and South Residences. Raco wants to add post-consumer food waste, too, but that raises a challenge: educating customers to keep single-use disposable plastic out of the composting stream.

That points to a wider question that goes well beyond campus alone to involve the waste management systems in Guelph. The City of Guelph is developing a solid waste management master plan and is investigating the possibility of banning single-use plastic bags, prompted this year by the advocacy group Plastic Free Guelph. Besides ensuring that consumers do what’s right, says Raco, we need to ensure that those systems can deal appropriately with various waste materials, including plastic. Referring to those systems – whether on campus, in Guelph or further afield – he says three elements are needed: a sound waste-handling infrastructure, clear policies and procedures, and appropriate behaviours. “Dealing with plastic is a structural challenge,” he says. “Plastics have been ingrained for so long.”

Will that change? Bruce McAdams hopes new generations will continue to push for improvements. That includes his two children, aged 11 and 16. “When my son and I walk the dog, we take a bag to pick up plastic bottles for recycling. It’s part of our commitment,” he says. That’s echoed by Alexia D’Angelo, a fourth-year psychology student who worked with McAdams this past summer. Her discussion paper on single-use plastic, appearing this fall on the website of the Sustainable Restaurant Project, includes findings about millennials, born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. “My generation is becoming more aware and interested and motivated to reduce single-use items,” she says. “They’re looking for more environmentally friendly options.”