Life in (biodegradable) plastic is fantastic

Life in (biodegradable) plastic is fantastic

31december2099 plastic 2Over 31 million tons of plastic waste is produced each year, of which just 8% is recycled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If we look at worldwide figures, numbers are even higher: every year a staggering 280 million tons of plastic is produced globally, yet it’s estimated that only 10% each year is actually recycled. If we just focus on plastic bags, it is estimated that one trillion plastic bags are used by consumers every year worldwide, with 102 billion of those being in the United States. This means that according to recent studies, U.S. retailers spend some $4 billion annually on single-use plastic shopping bags.

This scenario is generating a couple of relevant issues:

  • unless plastic is composted or recycled, it ends up in landfills; we have an environment problem;
  • a lot of plastic packaging is still based on oil / petroleum, whose prices are highly fluctuating; we have a sustainability issue, because oil is not a renewable resource and is being rapidly depleted;

As a consequence there is growing demand for a new generation of bio-plastics for packaging. One of the most important new bio-plastics being targeted is non-petroleum derived PET. Other developments bring to biodegradable plastic made from materials ranging from bacteria to orange peels or in general from plant based resources. They can be made from cane sugar, corn or from plant byproducts like wood bark and corn husks.

31december2099 plastic 3The problem is that many bio-plastics are currently more expensive than standard plastics and they might not be as eco-friendly as they seem. Some new bio-plastics claim to be 100 percent compostable but are not, some will degrade in your home compost bin, while some require industrial composting and some won’t degrade at all if placed in a landfill with other garbage.

Does technology provide an acceptable way out? We believe so, but it’s not all about research and innovation. Let me explain why.

Future generations will have to rely on biomass. A discovery by researchers at North Dakota State University, Fargo, holds scientific promise that could lead to a new type of plastic that can be broken down when exposed to a specific type of light and is reduced back to molecules, which could then be used to create new plastic. The research team focuses on biomass, using oilseed from agricultural crops, cellulose, lignin and sucrose to generate building blocks of molecules that are made into polymers to create plastics. (source http://www.newswise.com/articles/new-plastic-that-disappears-when-you-want-it-to). In other words, the future we envision is about plastics that can be composted easily, potentially water-soluble. We need some more research to get there, because polymers are obviously designed to resist to adverse weather conditions and we need to completely change the rules, keep the features we need and remove those we want to avoid.

If you want to go in a bit more details of the “green” future of plastics I recommend this good post: “A green future for plastic”, source http://www.sidel.com/about-sidel/media/inline-magazine/a-green-future-for-plastic

In the meantime we can try to change some habits. Assuming the simple principle that “there’s no waste in nature and waste is a human invention”, it appears reasonable to go “back to nature”. If the statistics above are correct, there is a good 80-90% of plastic that is currently not being reused. A fantastic list of start-ups trying to reuse plastic in smart ways (including some videos) can be found at this link “Mind over plastic”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-spiegl/mind-over-plastic_b_3513183.html. Some others are tackling the problem of plastic bags from a different angle, somehow more obvious: reusable and washable shopping bags; it may not appear like a big innovation, but it’s a coherent approach, find out more at Ivie, “The past, present and future of shopping bags”, http://www.ivieinc.com/the-past-present-and-future-of-single-use-plastic-bags/

What’s your view on it?

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