Plastic-eating climate tech takes on global warming challenge
The Green Files is a unique CEFC series where we talk to the people making a difference in the race to net zero emissions.
Sometimes truisms ring true. Like the one that says big problems require big solutions. Not to mention big ambitions.
It’s the kind of visionary ambition that has seen Samsara Eco’s Paul Riley tapping into one of the largest capital deployments in history to solve one of the most confounding problems of emissions reduction – what to do with all that plastic.
It's this big and connected thinking that has Riley putting Samsara Eco technology centre stage in the emerging climate tech sector, after its humble beginnings in the science labs of our nation's capital.
Along the way he's attracted investment support from some of the biggest investors in Australian climate tech – from the CEFC to Main Sequence Ventures and W23 – who share his vision to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.
Global fitness wear behemoth Lululemon – with a market capital approaching US$55 billion – is also an investor, as part of its textile-to-textile recycling ambition to achieve 100 per cent renewable or recycled nylon by 2030.
And Samsara Eco is on track to open a new research and manufacturing facility in regional NSW, a powerful demonstration of the potential for climate tech to create new industries in our clean energy economy of the future.
Plastic everything, everywhere, all at once
Riley, Samsara Eco CEO and Founder, sums up the challenge this way: “The earth has 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics waste. It’s time we start using it.” For Samsara Eco that means recycling more than 1.5 million tonnes of plastic and textile waste annually by 2030, saving an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It might sound like a large amount of plastic, but as Riley notes, its just 0.375 per cent of the world’s annual plastics production.
You can’t solve the climate crisis unless you solve the plastics crisis. The scale of the challenge ahead of us is enormous, so we need to be successful. We need to ensure that we can deliver those sorts of outcomes if we're to get to the point where we're making a real impact in terms of carbon and plastics.Paul RileyCEO, Samsara Eco
There's an element of déjà vu in the Samsara Eco story. Back in the mid-1900s and early 20th century, the development of plastics was hailed as a technological and economic breakthrough. From its earliest uses as a cheap and colourful substitute for ivory and tortoiseshell, to the development of packaging and synthetic fabrics, plastic has become one of the most ubiquitous products of our times. Used in everything from stockings to space suits, you can find plastic in our cars, our homes, offices, factories and farms. It's proved itself to be cheap and flexible. And best – and worst of all – durable.
So durable in fact that its negative impact on our land, oceans, carbon emissions and more means yesterday's technological breakthrough is today's environmental headache. By 2050, plastics alone will contribute to 15 per cent of the total carbon budget, and outweigh fish in the oceans – you can find it in pretty much everything, even the human bloodstream.
Enter two research students from the ANU: Vanessa Vongsouthi, now Samsara Eco Head of Protein Engineering and Matthew Spence, Head of Design. Their work led to the development of enzymes that can break down plastics to monomers. Monomers turned out to be the key to unlocking infinite plastics recycling. It’s a technological breakthrough that is winning plaudits for its potential role in combating climate change. Recycled plastic means less waste. It also means less plastics production, which means less use of the fossil fuel inputs.
Infinite recycling for infinite good
First, a little bit about the technology.
The main ingredient in most plastic material is a derivative from crude oil and natural gas. Samsara Eco’s ‘plastic-eating’ enzymes accelerate the breakdown of plastics into their fundamental building blocks or monomers. These monomers can be combined to produce polymers to create new high-grade plastic products – creating the potential for infinite plastic recycling in closed-loop cycles, avoiding the use of carbon-intensive fossil fuels and the creation of ‘virgin’ plastics.
It’s a remarkable breakthrough that is a significant step forward on the conventional mechanical recycling process, where plastic is washed, heated, melted and extruded. While these plastics can be recycled and reused three or four times – no small feat – the recycled product eventually loses its strength and usability. Another drawback of mechanical recycling is that it cannot tackle plastics contaminated with food waste, colours and other materials.
Says Paul Riley: “This is the first true plastic recycling technology that allows you to produce product in a sustainable manner at a virgin equivalent and for a price that meets the market. It goes down to that original molecule. You're using exactly the same molecule that was used in the production of the original plastic. It is just as durable. It's exactly the same. It performs the same. But you don’t need to tap into fossil fuels to produce it.”
Investing capital into a key solution
Samsara Eco was founded in 2019 when Riley and others saw the potential value in the new work of the research students. Venture capital fund Main Sequence Ventures and supermarket group Woolworths were early investors, with the CEFC becoming involved via an initial $1.1 million investment in 2022.
Through its Clean Energy Innovation Fund, managed by Virescent Ventures, the CEFC committed a further $8 million as part of a $56 million Series A funding. Other investors included innovation fund W23, Breakthrough Victoria, Temasek, Assembly Climate Capital, DCVC and INP Capital.
Samsara Eco is now building a research and development facility and is in talks to build commercial-scale recycling facilities, to supply manufacturers with commercial quantities of plastics raw materials.
The CEFC were very early parties to the table in terms of investment. It was important from our perspective. It got us through that seed round stage, which is always challenging. It gave us a strong credibility within the marketplace to have them on board as a shareholder.Paul RileyCEO, Samsara Eco
The latest capital raising puts Samsara in a strong position, but Riley says the company will raise more capital in the next 12 months to fund its international expansion.
“These projects that we're developing are capital intensive,” he says. “The investment in climate tech is probably going to be one of the largest redeployments of capital in history. The opportunity is huge if we get this right.”