BioPROTEIN: Biological Plastic Reuse by Olefin and Ester Transforming Engineered Isolates and Natural Consortia

About the project: An interdisciplinary group of researchers from Western University, with partners in the U.S. from Michigan Tech University, and the University of Illinois has received up to a US$7.2 million U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement to refine a complex method using chemical (reactor) and high heat (pyrolysis) to deconstruct plastic waste into food for bacteria, which in turn can be converted to food for people.


Imagine: There’s a mobile, solar-powered 3D-printed machine with a slot on one side where humanitarian aid workers, peace keepers or war fighters, or refugees can throw in their plastic waste. Rather than get dumped in a landfill or even just be recycled, the waste plastic is upcycled into food. The waste goes into the processing reactors to be broken down by heat and/or chemicals. Once broken down, the byproduct feeds into a warm vat where a team of different types of bacteria, which chew on whatever flows there and grow. The bacteria are harvested, killed, sterilized and dried out into a powder that can be used for food. The BioPROTEIN project is making this science fiction a reality.


How does it work? Plastic is identified, cleaned and ground up into confetti. This plastic could be meals ready to eat (MRE) wrappers from astronauts or soldiers, water bottles from tourists, plastic trash from the ocean or milk bags or jugs from your breakfast. Then, heat and chemical reactions break down plastic’s tight polymer chains into an oily fluid. The oily substance is fed to a community of oil-eating bacteria (these can be a natural collection or genetically engineered to turbocharge resulting protein for maximum nutrition) in a bioreactor, which grow quickly on their oily diet and produce more bacterial cells that are about 55 % protein. The machines are integrated together with open source electronics and software from Western’s Free Appropriate Sustainability Technology (FAST) lab run on electricity from solar photovoltaic panels and from waste gas from the pyrolysis reactor run through a generator.

Who is on the team? 

  • Joshua Pearce (UWO)
  • Stephen Techtmann (MTU)
  • Rebecca Ong (MTU)
  • David Shonnard (MTU)
  • Ting Lu (UI)


Industry Partners: Idaho National Laboratory and Supyrec LLC

Objectives: Provide a means to convert waste plastic into human edible food using an array of open source technologies. 

Progress to-date: 

  • All of the subsystems have been proven and we have demonstrated plastic can be converted into protein. Current work is focusing on improving the efficiency of the process, integrating the sub-components, and ensuring that the resultant protein powder is safe to eat.
  • For a summary of the approach see: Laura G. Schaerer, Ruochen Wu, Lindsay I. Putman, Joshua M. Pearce, Ting Lu, David R. Shonnard, Rebecca G. Ong, Stephen M. Techtmann, Killing two birds with one stone: chemical and biological upcycling of polyethylene terephthalate plastics into food,Trends in Biotechnology,2022, Academia Open Access