Our world is drowning in man-made microplastics. And although these tiny fragments of non-biodegradable plastic – floating in the sea, embedded in the ground – are barely visible to the naked eye, they pose a gigantic threat to life.
Plastic pollution inexorably finds its way into the human food chain, with unknown effects on our health, as we consume plastic fragments that end up in our water supplies or have been unwittingly ingested by the fish and other marine life we eat.
Research has shown that microplastics are harmful and even deadly to aquatic life, causing fish to die before they can reproduce or stunt their growth as they fill up with plastic fragments instead of food.
The health effects of increasing plastic consumption for humans are clearly not good. (Microplastics, for example, have proven to be a carrier for other harmful substances – for trapping heavy metals and other pollutants.)
This apparently invisible soil pollution is just as problematic for the preservation of life – because microplastics deteriorate soil fertility and diversity, impoverish the soil's microbiome and reduce the amount of food that can be produced from arable land. (And with a growing human population to feed, this is another crippling sustainability challenge that arises from our habit of polluting the environment with plastic dust.)
The Paris-based greentech startup Calyxia believes it has an answer to mankind's microplastic problem – and is targeting this global pollution crisis with a new type of chemistry.
Biodegradable microcapsule technology with "green" and "advanced performance" has been developed that can reduce the amount of harmful microplastics released into the environment through human activities – assuming widespread ingestion by manufacturers, of course.
The startup, founded in 2015, is now announcing a EUR 15 million Series A financing round, led by impact investor Astanor Ventures, to bring its first products to market this year.
Hendrik Van Asbroeck, Partner at Astanor Ventures, commented in a statement: "Beyond the already tremendous feat of reducing microplastic pollution in our ecosystems, Calyxia's technology will dramatically reduce the impact of global agri-food, home maintenance and advanced materials." Industry sectors. With a deeply missionary team, extensive technological know-how, a growing product pipeline and an environmentally friendly manufacturing process, Calyxia is poised to make an exponential impact on a global scale. ”
The round brings Calyxia's total amount to 23 million Relance awards (2020).
Some of Calyxia's first partners produce fast-moving consumer goods (especially detergents) and "crop protection" for agriculture.
The startup says it works with “leading” (top three) manufacturers in Europe and around the world in these target sectors. (The partners cannot yet announce them for commercial reasons, but their customers will certainly be known for the washing liquids.)
In the case of “plant protection”, this collective label can refer to chemicals such as insecticides, herbicides and pesticides, but also to enzymes, pheromones and “bio-inputs”, depending on the product. And Calyxia co-founder and CEO Jamie Walters tells TechCrunch that it is committed to only working with partners whose products have no other "ecotoxic" problems.
"As a company, our values - actually our mission – are to build a safer, superior, and sustainable future for everyone," says Walters. "So we don't work with a pesticide that is unsafe, that is not sustainable."
This mission would preclude Calyxia from working with manufacturers of certain notorious herbicides that – for example – have been linked to cancer in humans and mass deaths of bees, among others. (In response to a direct question, Walters confirms that there is “no, no chance” of working with the manufacturer of glyphosate.)
Instead of using plastic microcapsules (non-biodegradable) – to give the products a "value" at the expense of the environment – the selected partners of Calyxia promise their biodegradable microcapsule technology to reduce the plastic pollution of their products and yet Promote long-lasting “fresh” scents (in the case of liquid detergents) or sustainable plant protection that does not simply wash away after a rain shower.
While you might think that these particular use cases for microcapsules could be better completely eliminated, Walters argues that using the technology for crop protection is helpful in reducing the amount of pesticides that must be used – which means that there are broader environmental benefits through continued use.
Not so much for perfumed washing liquids. Additional “perfumes” have no hidden benefits other than that they smell – at best, one could argue that their use could help encourage people to wash their clothes less frequently. But justifying the use of additional chemicals that have also been linked to allergies and other health problems is quite a stretch.
The reason for further use there is largely of an economic nature. Detergent manufacturers want to relocate more products – and think they will do so when washed clothes "smell good".
At the same time, however, the continued use of smelly detergents and sustainable crop protection are only two of the applications that lead to microplastics entering the environment. The problem is much bigger than any of these use cases, which we could at least imagine, should be discontinued entirely and replaced with less harmful interventions.
After all, some industrial processes in which tiny plastic fragments were intentionally incorporated into products have already been banned – for example, the use of microplastic beads as peeling in cosmetics. And the European Union is considering banning all deliberately added microplastics. Industry lobbying has complicated the picture – and appears to be delaying legislative action.
The broader problem is that most microplastics are not produced as microfragments, but are created through the wear and tear of a larger amount of a material. Basically, the friction causes tiny fragments to break off and escape – being washed into bodies of water and oceans, ending up in soils and sediments, or accumulating in the dust of our urban environments.
(Car tires, for example, are a major source of polluting microparticles. And again, they have serious human health effects – think of the dust that city dwellers constantly breathe. Even if an electric vehicle might not have emissions – it could have emissions still oversaturate our urban living spaces with rubber fragments that affect our health.)
This is why Calyxia's business looks a lot more interesting – and scalable – than it may seem at first glance if you focus on the eco-scent of washing liquids: Because the startup has developed a version of its microcapsule technology, the other materials – plastics, coatings, foams, etc. – are added to make them more wear-resistant and thus limit the amount of microplastics that are created when they are used.
Reducing the formation of microplastics over time by enabling the materials to behave better under friction could also have other advantages – for example more durable, more wear-resistant components and better environmental compatibility.
“Primary microplastics that are added by humans to have a benefit make up less than 17% of microplastics. The other 83% comes from the destruction of plastics and rubber in our lives, ”explains Walters. “The same goes for coatings, road markings, the same with paint. So we have an ingredient that you add to plastics or paints or packaging or coatings and when it comes to abrasion the capsules open and deliver a lubricant to the surface that prevents wear.
“Our only ingredient added in a small percentage can increase the life of materials tenfold. Can increase wear resistance 10 times. And can reduce the production of microplastics by more than ten times. "
With this more widely applicable technology, Walters says the startup will produce a new portfolio of plastic products – “Coatings, composites, foams, plastics in automotive applications, in sporting goods, in consumer goods; wherever a material wears out. "
The potential of such a substance – provided it behaves as invoiced – to limit unintentionally released microplastics looks enormous.
And that is good news, because the challenge of plastic pollution is certainly a global one.
Walters says this broader microcapsule technology – which it calls Caly-Shield – will be launched later this year. (For laundry fragrances, his product is marketed as "Enviro-Caps". For agricultural applications, his active ingredient-release capsules are called "Natura-Caps".)
“By making [materials] more wear-resistant, you have 10 times longer service life, so you can replace them less often – which also means a massive reduction in the ecological footprint. And you can replace them before the microplastic is created, ”he adds about the Caly-Shield technology.
“People talk less about this topic because people are more familiar with agriculture and fragrances, but this is really one of the biggest causes of microplastics in the world today. And our technology here will change the material world in this area. "
While biodegradable microplastic certainly sounds a lot better than the current fragments – which have a habit of hanging around for centuries – it is fair to say that biodegradable plastic doesn't always have the best reputation.
Biodegradable plastic bags, for example, have broken down into many small pieces of plastic – which leads to more microplastics! – which can then take a very long time to rot, which means that plastic pollution remains in the environment as an ecotoxin and poses all of the above-mentioned risks to the life of animals and humans …
When asked how Calyxia can guarantee that its "biodegradable" microcapsules will actually break down quickly and not hang around long enough to harm the environment, Walters says the company is using a new process to make microcapsules that enables the use of many different materials as an alternative to the use of microplastics.
He also notes that it has subjected its technology to independent testing which, in his opinion, has shown that its biodegradable capsules are disappearing really quickly.
“All microcapsules produced worldwide today are manufactured using one process. They produce polyurethane or polymelamine-formaldehyde capsules … We have invented a new environmentally friendly process – so energy and water saving that we will be carbon-free or climate-neutral next year. So our process is more sustainable, but also our process is compatible with thousands of different shell materials, ”he says.
“I can't tell you what specific material we use for the capsules themselves as our competitors are very large chemical companies and are very aggressive, but I can tell you that we [an independent testing company] regularly make our capsules [to determine if performance meets the standard of the OECD 301 biodegradability test]. "
“Ultimately, it has been proven that the capsules are completely biodegradable,” he adds, saying that home care microcapsules are being verified to ensure that microbes in sewage treatment plants use the capsules completely to prevent plastics from being released into the ocean. A soil test is carried out for agriculture – the capsules are placed in the soil and an assessment of the biological degradation rate is carried out when soil microbes consume the capsules.
"We have confirmed in soil tests by an independent test laboratory and in sewage treatment plants by an independent test laboratory that they are biodegradable and are completely consumed in CO2 and oxygen," adds Walters.
Some of the NGOs advocating EU regulations banning microplastics have raised concerns that industry lobbying will create loopholes for manufacturers to continue using harmful plastics – either in even smaller forms (so-called nanoplastics) or by expanding the definition of biodegradable, since, as well as these self-interests, continue to push for regulations banning its use to be delayed.
We also asked Walters about this and he confirmed that Calyxia's capsules are not a nanoplastic (nor are they classified as microplastic) and repeated: "They are biodegradable and do not leave any traces in the environment."
“I agree with the rejection of the NGOs against the long transition periods. Lobbyists are trying to extend the transition period. For me, the regulation should be enforced now because there are biodegradable solutions, ”he also told us. “I also agree with the opposition from NGOs about the very broad definition of biodegradability. Lobbyists are trying to expand on the European Commission's original proposal. That is a problem.
“The original proposal was a test called OECD 301 B. This is a very rigorous test for biodegradability that many of the company's products now fail. Calyxia capsules pass this strict test. "
"The European Commission should shorten the transition period and not extend the definition of biodegradability," he demanded.
While Calyxia's technology sounds like it could be good news to curb the flow of new microplastics into our environment, it obviously cannot do anything to remove the existing microplastic pollution.
Walters says that other innovations will be necessary – as far as it is humanly possible to remove so many tiny fragments. It is possible that this poisonous legacy will be burdened on us for hundreds – or even thousands of years.
At the same time, scientists were working on the development of enzymes that could consume plastic – and last year it was reported that a so-called "superenzyme" was developed that could consume plastic 6x faster than previous biotechnological efforts. So it is certainly interesting to speculate whether an environmentally friendly microcapsule technology that enables the sustained release of active ingredients could be an interesting delivery system for plastic-eating enzymes – to essentially bake plastic products in a rapid self-destruct mechanism so they can't do it as pollution end.
Of course, we need to get a lot smarter about the materials we make – taking into account the entire life cycle of products and what happens at the end of their lifecycle, rather than just pumping out more shiny new things without worrying about tomorrow .
However, the inevitable higher up-front costs for product manufacturers of eco-interventions like that of Calyxia mean that regulators play a key role in setting the conditions under which environmental aspects must be standardly integrated into product development. Really shifting the needle on microplastics means that it cannot be left to just a few “leading” brands to market their “green” solution as a product differentiator.
“Today you don't see people dying from microplastic pollution, and we don't see animals becoming extinct and the food chain becoming extinct. But … if we leave this problem unresolved, within a decade or two, especially as the population and consumption increase, it could reach a level that we can no longer correct, ”says Walters. “We cannot remove microplastics from the oceans. We can remove bulk plastic, but we cannot remove microplastic. So if it reaches a catastrophically high level of pollution, it is too late … We must act now, before it is too late. "
“With Calyxia's solution, you could eliminate microplastics in agricultural and laundry products and start introducing them into materials around the world. But it will take time to implement them everywhere, ”he adds. “What we really need is that we need regulators in the US and Asia to follow the European example. And begin to limit microplastics that are produced from materials – and to ban microplastics on products in the USA and Asia as well.
"If we succeed in that, global manufacturers around the world will have no solution but to change their practices – and they will find solutions either with Calyxia's technology or another technology."