Polymer expert turns waste into biodegradable materials to create a circular economy

Thursday, February 2, 2023
Professor Tizazu Mekonnen

Professor Tizazu Mekonnen

 Professor Tizazu Mekonnen recently shared his expertise in creating biodegradable polymers in a CTV news report on CTK Bio Canada. CTK Bio Canada is a company whose mission is to create bioplastics with waste by-products to combat climate change.

The partnership between Mekonnen and CTK Bio began three years ago when CTK Bio Canada’s Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Shum reached out after reading one of Mekonnen’s publications on polymer synthesis.

“CTK Bio's partnership with Professor Mekonnen has been innovative and disruptive,” says Shum. “Professor Mekonnen has gone above and beyond to understand our business needs and bridge the gap between academia and industry. Professor Mekonnen has extensive knowledge around sustainability and a strong understanding of biopolymers that will benefit society."

Mekonnen has contributed to CTK Bio Canada’s process design, molecular design, testing methods, and research and development approach.

Two post-doctoral fellows working with Mekonnen helped to innovate these new products. Arvind Gupta, who was working with Mekonnen at the University of Waterloo is now a senior researcher at CTK Bio Canada.

Parinaz Ateien who completed her PhD in chemical engineering under the supervision of Professor and University Research Chair Michael Tam is also working with CTK Bio Canada under Mekonnen’s direction. She designs molecules and creates materials engineered for specific applications.

Initially, Mekonnen, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, designed biodegradable cosmetic containers and packaging. Then expanded to create biodegradable plastic cutlery and lunch boxes.

Black plastic cosmetic containers

Plastic waste is a serious ecological issue. It litters the environment, contaminates water bodies, and contributes directly to greenhouse gas emissions. Plastic generates methane as it decays in landfills, contributing to global warming.

“Utilizing waste for bioplastic production avoids the feedstock competition with food production while concurrently bringing plastic sustainability and is considered the holy grail of solving our environmental pollution problem,” says Mekonnen, who also serves as IBET Director.

The raw materials Mekonnen uses to create bioplastics come from plant-derived materials and from plastic waste. Bioplastics can degrade the in the environment and the residue can be used as compost or biofertilizer thereby creating a circular economy.

Chemical Engineering professor and Waterloo Endowed Chair in Nanotechnology Boxin Zhao is also engaged in polymer research.  His work seeks to find a long-term strategic method to utilize microplastics from the environment to create biobased materials. He is investigating ways to treat microplastics that would allow microorganisms to ingest them and excrete a bioploymer.

Mekonnen says, “Plastics are incredibly useful and beneficial to society. The complete eradication of plastics would lead to other challenges, which may also harm the environment. So, we must find ways to produce and process plastics sustainably for the betterment of society.”