A Green Revolution with Plastic-Digesting Larvae – This is Norbite
The life of a plastic bag is glorious by no means. Used for an average of 12 minutes, the plastic may take up to 1000 years to decompose. But factor in 100 wax moth larvae and a plastic bag is digested in 24h. Too good to be true? Nope. Meet Norbite.
Norbite transforms plastic waste into sustainable goods by means of an insect-based biorefinery, circulating around the farming and use of the greater wax moth larvae – the Galleria mellonella.
Upcycling our plastic waste towards a more circular and sustainable future, Norbite placed second in the Creative Business Cup Sweden 2021, showing great potential of contributing to a greener future. We met with Founder and CEO, Nathalie Berezina, to chat about Norbite, vertical farming, and the (almost) unbelievable synergies of the insect industry.
Nathalie Berezina isn’t just an entrepreneur; she is also a senior scientist with a PhD in Organic Chemistry and Biotechnology, as well as several years of experience in both the bioplastic industry andthe insect industry. But for Berezina, chugging away at big corporations wasn’t always ideal.
“I used to work at a private research center in Belgium focusing on bioplastics and biotechnology, but I often felt like they were targeting the easiness of solutions rather than their efficiency,” Berezina explains. “I wasn’t interested in taking the easy way out; I wanted solutions that were challenging but more efficient. Using insects instead of microorganisms – which was what we were using at the research center – had this potential, which is what led me into the insect industry.”
After five years of working at the French company Ynsect, Berezina moved to Sweden and founded Norbite in the summer of 2020. “I was thinking about how I could combine my experience within both the plastic and insect industry, as well as the big environmental challenges we are facing today,” Berezina says. “I remembered an article I had read about these plastic-eating caterpillars. The research was controversial at the beginning, but I decided to dig deeper into it, driven by academic and laboratory curiosity – and found great potential. That’s when I decided to start Norbite.”
Norbite uses a patented technology for vertical farming in which the farming of wax moth larvae – Galleria mellonella – is made possible on an industrial scale.
Why the G. mellonella? Well, because it eats and completely digests plastic.
“In nature, the wax moth larvae feeds on beeswax – and the chemical structure of beeswax is actually very similar to that of common plastics,” Berezina explains. “The initial finding is actually a funny story, because the scientists were doing completely different research with these larvae. They’d left them in the lab in a plastic bag overnight, and when they came back, the plastic bag was gone and the larvae were everywhere," she continues.
"Now we know, that using the right technology, the wax moth caterpillar can actually digest more than 80% of common plastics."
For us – this is huge.In a 2019 report made by The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdsverket), 1,258,000 tons of plastic raw materials entered the Swedish market in 2016. That’s equivalent to 130 kg of plastic per person throughout the country; a dizzying figure, to say the least. With plastic-digesting insects, we may efficiently upcycle some of this plastic for use in other areas, making our plastic consumption more circular, and more sustainable.
“In plastic recycling procedures, plastic sorting is often a bottleneck. Because there is such big diversification in what we can feed the larvae – different sorts of packaging, fibers from the textile industry, polyurethanes – our process can be much more efficient,” Berezina explains.
So what happens to the larvae afterward?
Well, the larvae use the plastic for their own growth, so that they can one day make cocoons and turn into moths, which means that the plastic is digested into proteins and lipids.
Using a biorefinery technology, these proteins and lipids may be turned into feedstock for agriculture or pets – or even into food for us, humans – and the larvae excrements can be used as manure in organic farming, meaning the larvae can be of use in several different aspects of food production.
“It’s very important to understand that when the larva eats plastic, it’s not just minimizing the plastic waste; it’s chemically transforming it into something else, meaning there are no microplastics left at the end of the process, at all.” Berezina explains.
But obviously, we are facing huge challenges in our collective psyche, where there is a big psychological barrier against pretty much everything that has to do with insects.
Although insects are considered to be highly nutritional, being rich in protein, iron, and healthy fats, they still haven’t really made a breakthrough on the food market.
“I absolutely understand that there are doubts about using insect proteins in the food industry. But for anything to even enter into the industry, it has to pass through the EU Novel Food Regulation, which is one of the strictest regulations in the world concerning the quality of the products.” Berezina explains. “A lot of people complain about this regulation, saying it’s too strict and that it prevents business development and innovation – but for us, it’s actually a safeguard. Once our product passes through the regulation, our consumers can be completely reassured that it is safe to consume and safe to enter the market. The same goes for if we were to use the larvae for agriculture or feedstock.”
Right now, Norbite is in a process of upscaling and automatization, co-developing the company together with early adopters.
In the coming years, the aim is to build a demonstration unit, planned at 10,000m^2 of vertical farming, meaning it will be able to host 20,000 tons of the great wax moth larvae which will be able to transform 60,000 tons of plastic per year.
It may sound like a lot, but considering our 1,258,000 tons of plastic each year, it’s still only 5% of our consumption.
“But what’s great about our technology is that it’s not competing against regular plastic recycling – it’s complementary, because it’s simply a different market – and we’re upcycling plastic for other uses. All together, I really do think we can make a difference,” Berezina says.
“I’m really excited about our future and hope that others can see our potential, too – bringing a better future for all.”
To learn more about Nathalie Berezina and Norbite, visit their website: norbite.eu.
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