Prof. Amar Mohanty

You know about blue bins. How about “bio-bins”? Biocomposite storage bins introduced this year on the store shelves of two major Canadian retailers have roots in a University of Guelph lab where scientists have joined a novel partnership benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

That empty box cupped in Amar Mohanty’s hands looks and feels like ordinary plastic. Meant to hold anything from small parts in a garage or carpentry shop to pens and pencils on your desk, the bio-bin combines post-consumer plastic with natural plant fibres, notably switchgrass grown on a Huron County farm.

Formulated in U of G’s Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre (BDDC),  the bio-bin arrived in Home Hardware stores in early 2011 and will appear this year in Canadian Tire outlets. Now the plant agriculture professor and his partners, both at U of G and off campus, plan to explore other products and applications such as flowerpots, bird feeders and blue boxes for municipal recycling programs.

By making these products from post-consumer plastics and natural fibres such as switchgrass, oat hulls or wheat straw, Mohanty hopes to reduce their carbon footprint, lessen dependence on fossil fuels, and open new markets for Ontario farmers and manufacturers.

The project, which has been funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, also benefits U of G, which earns royalties from licensing the bio-bin formulations developed by the Guelph team.

Under a licensing agreement with the University, the biocomposite bins are marketed by Green Ripple Innovations Inc., an eco-products marketing company in Waterloo, Ont. Manufacturing involves companies in Cambridge and Kitchener, Ont.

Finding the right blend of materials to make the bio-bins took science smarts, patience, and about 18 months’ worth of experimenting in the campus BDDC lab and by its industry partners.

Opened in 2008, the bioproducts centre brings together plant scientists, chemists and engineers to develop biomaterials for car parts, packaging, and furniture and building materials. It’s run by Mohanty, who holds the Premier’s Research Chair in Biomaterials and Transportation.

The idea is to use renewable resources such as natural fibres and agricultural residues to replace non-renewable fossil fuels. Mohanty says starting with a hybrid, or biocomposite, containing post-consumer plastics and natural fibres is a step toward a fully compostable bio-bin.

“The challenge is to make them bio-based but cost-competitive,” he says. “We can make them 100 per cent bio-based in the future and hope to do that cost-competitively. The biocomposite bio-bin is a good start and helps reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 per cent and promotes carbon sequestering.”

His studies show that the bins are both environmentally friendly and cost-effective, for several other reasons:

  • Bio-bin materials can be recycled several times.
  • The product is up to 10 per cent less expensive to make than conventional plastics.
  • The products are made within a 125-kilometre radius, reducing transportation costs and emissions.

BDDC scientists are now studying new ways to combine post-consumer plastic and farm biomass and new uses for modified recipes. Prof. Manju Misra, cross-appointed between the School of Engineering and the Department of Plant Agriculture, is looking at biodegradable resins. “We’re doing world-leading work at the BDDC to make Ontario a centre of excellence in bioproducts,” says Misra, a nanotechnology expert.

The Guelph scientists work closely with partners along what they call the value chain, from lab and farm all the way to store shelves.

The switchgrass contained in the bins grows on a farm near Clinton, Ont., owned by Don Nott. As president of Nott Farms (Ontario) Ltd. and Switch Energy Corp., he has grown 130 hectares of the crop – some 1,600 tonnes a year – to supply a biofuel producer for the past six years. Switchgrass is used to make biofuels as a petroleum alternative.

Nott wants to provide more of his crop to make biomaterials. “The big attraction for me is the environmental side,” he says, pointing out that these materials can help replace petroleum-based products, pull carbon from the atmosphere and lock that carbon into recycled products.

He says switchgrass is easy to grow, thrives on marginal land, requires no chemical pesticides and little energy to produce, and pays comparably on average to corn and soybeans. “Any farmer in Ontario growing a cash crop can grow this crop.”

He’s now looking to improve crop production and pre-processing on his farm. That work will be helped along by a two-year, $400,000 grant beginning this year through Ontario’s Agricultural Adaptation Council. The funding application was led by Gord Surgeoner, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies (OAFT) in Guelph, which is now working with the project partners. OAFT works with grower groups, industry, academics and government to find new markets for farm products.

In what Surgeoner calls “de-risking,” the group intends to smooth the way from the grower through U of G researchers and manufacturers to retailers and green-conscious customers – not just for the existing bio-bins but for related products.

“Parts bins are different from flower pots or blue bins or bird feeders,” says Surgeoner. “You have to be able to reformulate quickly. In the world of business, you can’t wait six months to try again.”

He says manufacturers have to alter parameters – more or less product, altered cycle times, modified recipes, different bin sizes and colours – to pump out products quickly, easily and reliably. Back at the University, those requirements will keep BDDC scientists busy in testing formulations and production processes.

Keeping that U of G connection is vital, says Atul Bali, an engineer and president of Green Ripple Innovations. Referring to the scientific expertise and market-oriented approach at the bioproducts discovery centre, he says, “They’re a very responsive group of people. I can go with a flowerpot this afternoon, show the BDDC what we’ve done, cover technically all the issues and within 48 to 72 hours I’m almost certain to get an answer back about what they can do to make a better product. It’s an amazing collaboration.”

He hopes to sell biocomposite bins to other retailers. Besides sequestering carbon in plants and reducing the products’ carbon footprint, Bali says reusing plastic helps keep waste out of landfills.

Surgeoner says the group is using waste plastics such as farm bale wrap and greenhouse plastic that formerly entailed high disposal costs. “We’ve had historical problems with getting rid of excess plastics. We had a $200-a-tonne problem in disposing of plastics. Waste is an opportunity looking for a solution.”

Group members will discuss their project and Canada’s role in biofibres and biocomposites at the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing, May 8 to 10 in Toronto.