“It comes from bacteria and comes back to bacteria”: the future of alternatives to plastic | Plastics

When people think of plastic waste, they often think of the packaging that swaddles fruit and vegetables in supermarkets – shiny layers that are removed and thrown in the trash as soon as products are unloaded at home.

It’s a cycle of waste that California-based company Apeel says it can help end. The company has developed an edible, tasteless and invisible herbal spray for fruits and vegetables that acts as a barrier to prevent oxygen and moisture from entering, increasing shelf life without the need for plastic to use. unique.

It is currently sprayed on cucumbers and avocados at retailers, including Walmart. “We’re showing that you can really reinvent a food system that doesn’t rely on single-use plastic,” said CEO James Rogers.

Apeel, which is valued at $ 2 billion, is part of a wave of startups and science projects racing to develop materials that could help replace traditional single-use plastics. Their production methods and applications are very varied, but their stated goal is the same: to put an end to the plague of plastic waste.

Since the 1950s, the world has produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic, nearly two-thirds of which ended up in landfills or seeping into soil, rivers and oceans; suffocate wildlife. Plastics are a driver of the climate crisis – the vast majority are made from fossil fuels and if global production continues on current trends, plastics could account for around 20% of oil consumption by mid-century .

The problem is that plastics of fossil origin are not easily replaced. Plastic is a miracle material: cheap to produce, lightweight, and incredibly durable. The latter is of high quality in use, but not when it ends up in a landfill or in the environment – plastic can take centuries to degrade. Finding a material that is strong but can also self-destruct when needed is incredibly difficult. But many scientists and companies are trying.

Bioplastics have become a popular alternative, although they currently represent less than 1% of the market. Made from organic sources such as sugar cane, seaweed, even banana scraps and shellfish, many boast of eliminating the need for fossil fuels and easily decomposing after use.

These green claims don’t always stand up to scrutiny, said Sarah Kakadellis, plastic pollution researcher at Imperial College London. If the raw material is not sourced sustainably, bioplastics could end up increasing deforestation to clear land and compete with food production. Plus, they don’t always break down as easily as advertised – sometimes taking years – and others require industrial composting facilities, which can be scarce.

Some companies say they have solved these problems. Dutch biochemistry company Avantium, which has partnered with brands such as Carlsberg, has developed a 100% plant-based plastic made from sugars that can be used for bottles and films. The company claims its plastic is 100% recyclable, has a significantly smaller carbon footprint than fossil plastics, and comes from sustainably grown plants.

If this plastic falls out of the recycling stream, tests have shown that it takes about a year to decompose in an industrial composter. Left in the environment, the plastic begins to degrade after a year, according to the first results of a long-term study with the University of Amsterdam.

Avantium plans to open its first factory in 2023 in the Netherlands and expects its packaging to be in supermarkets in three years.

The coastal fishing community of Jamestown in Accra, Ghana is overwhelmed by plastic and clothing waste. Photograph: Muntaka Chasant / REX / Shutterstock

Other companies are developing plastics that completely avoid the need for crops. In September, UK-based biotech startup Shellworks launched a plastic made from microbes found in many marine and land environments. These feed off carbon sources, creating a fat-like energy storage system. When this fat is extracted, it behaves exactly like plastic, said Amir Afshar, co-founder of Shellworks; the difference is that when it comes back to nature, the same bacteria see it as food and start eating it. “It comes from bacteria and then goes back to bacteria,” Afshar said.

The company has signed deals with beauty companies to work on products such as tubes, bottles and compacts, which often end up in landfills. When people are done with Shellworks products, said co-founder Insiya Jafferjee, they can be treated as food waste and composted, with no special infrastructure needed.

Other scientists are trying to make plastic a tool in the fight against the climate crisis by making plastics from greenhouse gases. “We could see in the future capturing carbon dioxide from the air and then using it… to produce plastic,” Kakadellis said.

Scientists at Rutgers University have developed technology capable of transforming water and CO2 as precursors of various plastics, which they believe could replace PET and polyester fiber, ubiquitous in the fashion industry (around 60% of materials used in clothing are plastic).

The method “essentially replicates the natural process of producing oil and gas over millions of years, but in a fraction of a second,” said Anders Laursen, CEO of RenewCOâ‚‚, the startup that emerged from Rutgers research. The company hopes to harness the CO2 emitted by plastics when they decompose or are incinerated and use them to create new products. RenewCOâ‚‚ is building a pilot plant and plans to reach commercialization in 2025.

Growing consumer reluctance towards plastics has also led some companies to test completely different materials. Mars and Unilever are experimenting with paper, which is widely recycled and less harmful than plastic if it ends up at sea or in a landfill.

This summer, Coca-Cola began testing a paper bottle in Hungary for its AdeZ drink, in partnership with Copenhagen-based startup Paboco, which makes bottles from FSC-certified molded pulp. However, these bottles still have a plastic lid and are lined with recycled PET plastic film to prevent product from leaking or paper fibers from entering. “Our ultimate vision,” said Paboco interim CEO Gittan Schiöld, “is to develop a fully bio-based paper bottle that can also be recyclable in the paper industry”.

The big questions for these innovations, said Sander Defruyt, who heads the new plastics economics initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are: where does the material come from and where does it end? Paper, for example, is not a sustainable packaging material if it contributes to deforestation or if paper bottles and candy wrappers do not enter recycling channels. It will also likely take many years before these materials can expand enough to make a dent in the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced each year.

Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez (right) the co-founders of the Ooho company, who have developed an edible water capsule which is an alternative to plastic water bottles.
Pierre Paslier (left) and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez. Ooho co-founders, who developed an edible water capsule that is an alternative to plastic water bottles. Photography: Antonio Olmos / The Observer

Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at University College London, is concerned about the proliferation of materials developed without giving sufficient thought to how they fit into existing waste management systems. “What we mainly want to do is make very sustainable plastics and we want to keep them in the system – so we want to recycle them,” he said.

Where he thinks biodegradability and compostability makes sense are products like food bin storage bags, tea bags (“why include plastic that will last 100 years in a tea bag? C is crazy! ”) and hygiene products such as diapers.

Before being clean, a baby can use about 6,000 disposable diapers and these are almost impossible to recycle. Australian company gDiapers has created a plastic-free compostable diaper as well as a delivery and collection service. “We brought this thing into the world, we’re going to bring it back,” said Jason Graham-Nye, who co-founded gDiapers with his wife, Kim.

The company is conducting a trial deposit and collection of compostable diapers in West Papua, Indonesia, where diapers make up about 20% of ocean waste – the resulting compost is used on land. He is also working on the launch of his first UK test in London.

Products with a very short shelf life might also be suitable for compostable packaging. London-based Notpla makes plastic substitutes from algae – a fast-growing, carbon-sequestering plant – that decomposes anywhere in a matter of weeks.

“It’s targeted at where we pick something, we consume it, and it’s over in minutes,” said co-founder Pierre Paslier, “and this is really where plastic is the worst. material because it is going to be there forever “.

Notpla’s “Ooho” edible water bubbles have been given to runners in the 2019 London Marathon. It has also partnered with delivery service JustEat to provide compostable condiment sachets that can be put straight into household trash and to developed an algae coating to replace the plastic liner in take-out cardboard boxes.

Materials innovation is part of the puzzle, said Defruyt, but really dealing with plastic waste requires a hierarchy of action: removing as much plastic as possible; then use recycled plastic; finally, where virgin plastics are still needed, use renewable raw materials. “It really has to be in that order,” he said.

Scientists, engineers and businesses may be tempted to look at the plastic and say, ‘let’s swap it for another and that’s now solved,’ Miodownik said, but ‘the truth is you have to redesign the whole thing. system if you want to solve the problem “.

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