Scientists have long known that our global dependence on plastics is a problem, but only in recent years have we started to comprehend just how serious the long-term consequences may be. In 2018, the U.S. generated 38.5 million tons of plastic, only an estimated 4.4 percent of which was recycled. Much of that ends up in the ocean, where it drifts into formations like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass twice the size of Texas that’s visible from outer space. Just this week, a sperm whale washed ashore in Italy with 48 pounds of the stuff trapped in its guts.
“Plastics never go away. They just break down into microplastics that are around forever,” says Lori Goff, a biotechnology researcher based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “They get into everything—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”
Goff is part of a generation of scientists racing to discover a biodegradable alternative that won’t haunt our planet for generations to come. Currently, firms in several countries have produced bioplastics from seaweed and the stakes are high to make them commercially viable. Microplastics now exist in everything from marine life to drinking water to, yes, even beer. Although we’re still learning about the full extent of their impact, what we do know is damning. These microscopic particles pick up environmental toxins such as phthalates, which have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, miscarriages, and male infertility.
In her efforts to come up with a plastic substitute that wouldn’t break down into these semi-indestructible particles, Goff turned to another interest: beer. After Nebraska native learned about a successful attempt to create biodiesel from algae, she wondered if she might be able to produce similar results by starting with brewery wastewater.
“I was given a beer kit for my birthday, so I started homebrewing in my kitchen,” Goff says. She became so interested in the process that she began reaching out to Dutch breweries. What she found out made her think twice. “For every liter of beer produced, there are about six liters of wastewater. At one brewery I visited, the wastewater went to a local facility, where it was processed by anaerobic treatment. In the end, there was semi-purified water that still wasn’t fit for drinking, plus sludge that you can’t do anything with it.”
Plastics never go away. They just break down into microplastics that are around forever. They get into everything—the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.”
All that sludge starts to add up when you consider that there are around 9,500 breweries in the European Union, not to mention another 7,000 in the US. Other startups are already attempting to tackle other waste products from the brewing process, such as the 42 million tons of spent grain produced in the U.S. each year.
Goff’s prototype material, which she has been able to produce in limited quantities, would use brewery wastewater to generate a fully biodegradable plastic substitute.
“I take the wastewater and do some magic to create what I call ‘unplastic,’” Goff says. Although her initial tests have proven successful, it will still be a while before Goff can get her product to the market. At present, she hopes to have a production facility set up in 18 months and to begin producing on a commercial scale a few months after that. “It’s a totally compostable, non-toxic, plastic-free alternative.”
Since she needed a steady supply of wastewater for experimentation, she set up shop in BlueCity, an incubator space in a former swimming pool that also houses Vet & Lazy. The brewery is best known for flavorful, high ABV beers like Je Moeder, a classic tripel.
“I was actually brewing with them in the summer,” Goff says. “They make some really fantastic beers and it was great to learn about the process.”
It helps that the circular brewery shares her commitment to building a more sustainable future. Much of their spent grain goes directly to a caterer in BlueCity, who bakes it into breads and granola. Anything that they cannot use goes to local farms around Rotterdam for animal feed. These may be small steps in the right direction, but they add up. For now, Goff will keep pushing for a world in which we wrap our groceries and toys in unplastics.
“You could just throw it into the garden,” Goff says. “It will never break down into microplastics. It will just return to nature.”