Navigating Our Way Towards A Sustainable Plastics Future
—Belinda McFadgen, for OEC
When Victor Vescovo was about to dive into the deepest part of the world’s oceans, he was probably not expecting any plastic to beat him to it. However, deep down in the Pacific Ocean there exists the Mariana Trench, where Victor spotted a plastic bag and several sweet wrappersfloating almost 7 miles below sea level.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. While humans produce approximately 78 million tons of plastic per year (see infographic below), and an alarming 86% of this ends its life as non-recycled plastic waste.
The plastics crisis is a global phenomenon, and to address it we require comprehensive, global solutions. Recently, the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment was launched to promote a new circular economy for plastics. A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and it focuses on how to eliminate, circulate, and innovate with plastics. This blog post delves deeper into these goals by examining efforts being made to recycle existing plastic waste and to replace fossil-fuel plastics with non-toxic, biodegradable substitutes.
THE STATE OF PLASTICS RECYCLING
Compared to the amount that is produced, plastics are drastically under recycled (14% of that produced, according to the above infographic). There is simply not enough (economic) incentive to design plastic materials so they can be broken down and reassembled into new products, partly due to the low price and ease of sourcing fossil fuels used to make virgin plastics.
There is also little domestic market for used plastics because, for decades, China has been importing most of the plastic waste from other, wealthier regions, such as the US, Japan, Australasia, the U.K., and the E.U. Until now. When China restricted plastics importing in late 2018, largely due to contamination issues, plastic has been piling up back home.
So, many countries are currently at a crossroads: what to do with their plastic waste? An improvement in recycling technologies is desperately needed, but, for this, plastic needs to be clean, which requires spending money to sort it and educating consumers to recycle more carefully. Moreover, there are seven types of plastic and some are more recyclable than others. For items made up of different sorts of plastic (such as multi-layer materials), mechanical recycling technology cannot yet separate out the different types.
The circular economy demands that businesses producing and/or selling packaging have a responsibility beyond the design and use of their packaging; they must contribute towards its being collected and reused, recycled, or composted. Voluntary initiatives exist, such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste, where corporations have collectively pledged $1.5 billion dollars for research into
improving recycling practices.
toreverse all types of plastics back into their basic molecular structure and remake it into fuel or durable plastics, with no harmful emissions (poisonous dioxins or carbon dioxide). The key will be to incentivise recycling, to make it more cost effective to recycle used plastics than to make it new in the first place, and to clean up and reuse what has already been produced.
However, there are environmental risks to making plastic waste a profitable commodity. Investors will want to ensure a waste stream and this encourages, not discourages, increased interest in single-use plastics. There has to be a balance—the existing plastics in landfills and dredged from the rivers and oceans need to be dealt with promptly, but coupled with a gradual phasing out of fossil fuels plastics overall. This may be done if effective bio-materials are developed.
SHIFTING FROM FOSSIL-FUEL PLASTICS TO BIO-MATERIALS
The fossil fuel liquified natural gas is used to produce 99% of plastic products. Not only do these synthetic plastics pollute and toxify our environment and bodies, the production process is a rapidly growing source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions.
The remaining 1% of products on the market are bio-based plastics. These are plastics made from renewable materials, mainly corn, sugar, bamboo, and hemp. They generally replace fossil fuel plastics and are quite common these days at the local supermarket. Critics of corn-based packaging note that it can have negative effects on land use if land is diverted from food production, and that corn based materials in particular will not break down in the marine environment. So, clearly, we can do better.
One effective question when designing plastic alternatives is: “How would Nature do it?”. Plastic provides multiple functions—including adhesion, structural strength, and flexibility, and when performing these functions, Nature’s solutions are non-toxic, made with renewable sources, and produce no waste. Along these lines, recent exploration into specific bio-based functions, structures, and processes has produced some fruitful results (for more inspiring bio-based solutions, please see the New Plastics Economy Innovation prize winners for 2017).
For example, the realization that the mushroom fungi mycelium functions as an effective bio-resin adhesive has led to developments in biodegradable packaging materials, textiles, and alternative meat products. The packaging materials are particularly interesting, they are made by using mycelium to bind hemp agricultural waste, which produces protective packaging to replace polystyrene. Mycelium is quick to grow and can even be grown at home.
To reproduce the hardiness of some plastics, engineers have developed a new way to process the natural polymer ‘chitin’, thematerial that is found in shrimp shells. By mixing chitin with a silk protein, scientists at Harvard produced a bioplastic with the unique material properties of insect cuticle, which is fully degradable and cheap to produce.
Biostructure also has a role to play in decreasing plastic use. Observations on how whitebark pine trees have bark that follows a spiral growth principle to increase flexibility and strength led to a redesign of plastic drink bottles. The redesign uses 25% less plastic and reduces the bottle’s weight but increased its durability.
Navigating humanity towards a future where plastics are not poisoning and smothering the Earth has taken a long time to emerge as a vitally urgent goal. Bad packaging design has led to inefficient recycling processes, and our failure to decouple from an oil-based economy is leaving us with toxic-soup oceans. However, with the disturbing scenes of marine life smothered in plastic now seared into our collective conscience, and after China’s volte-face on imported plastics, it seems that governments, citizens, and businesses are finally taking plastic waste seriously. None of these changes will make much difference though, if we do not reduce through reuse. So, for your best reduced plastic life, ensure you have on you at all times a refillable water bottle, a keep cup, and reusable shopping bags and containers!